Eight years away and I have gone back to church. Not just once a week, but twice. My churches are an “ecstatic dance” group and a late-evening Spanish-language mass in Manzanita. What lured me back were the people and the communal sharing of spirit that, in my mind, defines church. My definition of church is formed in defiance of old norms. It fills the vacuum created by my conscious, if temporary, jettisoning of the institution and is as wide and rich as the spectrum of religion and ideology. It is a definition that allows me to share spiritual community, on some level, with almost anyone.
Institutions of all stripes can draw bold lines that exclude people, or elevate to supreme importance doctrines that divide. Yet spirit unifies—in spite of those who wish to meld it to their purposes, to stake a claim to it. The divine spirit in us all is identical and one can no more sculpt and contain it than wind. Spirit unifies, and thus rattles the bigoted religious as well as the bigoted non-religious (whose bigotry is often aimed at the religious). It unseats those who would use it as a tool to dominate. Spirit breathes life into everyone, even those so resistant to spirit, so dedicated to burying it that they seem to be holding their breath.
In truth, I tend to choke on the edges of religious creed. I carry into any religious or spiritual experience more doubt than actual belief. Yet I can simultaneously honor the life-giving religious and spiritual creeds we humans have developed. A creed is nothing more than a system or formulation of core beliefs, and most of us have core beliefs. We may not recite them communally as creeds, and hopefully we do not use our core beliefs as weapons. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that we have them. When the hard angles of creed are used like sharp elbows, to shove people out, to define who is unwanted rather than to iterate vitalizing understandings, then I believe creeds can do more harm than good. Otherwise, they are formulations by groups of like-minded individuals that infuse life with meaning.
The pinnacle of the church experience for me is the connecting of spirit in myself and others. At Santa Catalina, I most experience this in the “passing of peace.” This is a moment in the service, characteristic of liturgical traditions, when people walk around the sanctuary and share “the peace,” shaking the hand of one person after another and saying “la paz.” With each passing of the peace, my spirit goes on a little mating mission, if you can pardon the earthiness of my analogy. The spirit in me looks into the smile of another, touches the radiant fingers of another, and connects with his or her spirit for a potent moment. One hand bony and fragile, another rough, another gentle and passive, almost limp, another childlike, tiny and sweaty and velveteen. Each hand, the portal to a soul.