Finding Community: Prayer, Love, Work, and the Liturgy

I must be clear that this all happened a week ago, July 30, eighth Sunday after Pentecost on the liturgical calendar–or kalendar, if we’re being precious–Year A, Track 2. Everything would have different had it not been this specific Sunday in this long green season of Ordinary Time.

Just before I left for church, I closed an email as follows: “Where do you worship now? I’m on my way to St. Michael’s as soon as I close. It’s hard to feel part of a community when no one knows my name.” For more than a year, that whimper of despair has become a common theme in my various forms of communication. I have been attending the same parish since February of 2012. I know the date because the church was close to Rex Hospital, in whose waiting rooms and bedside chairs I spent innumerable hours in the succeeding four years. As I left the altar after receiving the Holy Eucharist, I stopped at the healing station and asked for prayer on behalf of my husband, who was recovering from one in a long series of medical treatments. Combined with the magnificence of the architecture, the stained glass, the organ, and the choir–and the spiritually and intellectually riveting sermon–this priestly laying on of hands led me to believe that I was home. Clearly, that was not the belief with which I set out last Sunday morning.

However, as I was driving the 38.4 miles from home to St. Michael’s, which I once thought was my home, I began to pray. I turned down the volume on Weekend Edition Sunday and asked God specifically that I could find the sense of community I have have been seeking throughout the ten long years since I left my first and true family at St. Christopher’s. Wanting so strongly that that prayer be answered in a specific way, I remembered immediately a circumstance of answered prayer–and an explanation. I was still transfigured by the glow of my first service on the Kairos Prison Ministry, and I was telling the assembled listeners about the experience. One asked if I had been afraid of or otherwise predisposed against the incarcerated women with whom I had spent the previous long weekend. I was somewhat taken aback by the question because nothing could have been further from the reality of the experience. “Oh, no!” I exclaimed. “I loved them as soon as the doors locked behind me.” The original questioner wondered how and why it had been possible for me to love those criminals when it’s so hard to love the people with whom we associate daily–including those in our homes and even our beds. “Because we asked,” I replied.

And I often remember that interaction when I wonder at how far my life has strayed from that vision I had of myself loving purely and unconditionally those murderers and thieves and drug dealers. And so I remembered it when I asked that I be allowed to feel community at St. Michael’s last Sunday.

I genuflected, chose my place in the fourth row, and knelt for perfunctory prayer before taking my seat. And then I noticed the young man in front of me–which wasn’t difficult in a gathering of cradle Episcopalians in seersucker suits and bowties on that sweltering July day in the Old South. His hair was unkempt, and he wore a black T-shirt and jeans. Beside him on the pew was a dog-eared copy of Dante’s Inferno. I invented a story for him and embroidered it when I noticed his fumbling for the page as we sang the Gloria. But it was all false, as I quickly learned when he knelt for the Prayers of the People and then greeted me with a hearty handshake and a smiling “Peace of the Lord!” For a few weeks now I have been similarly inventing stories for two other young men. They both have black curly hair and beards and might be of Middle Eastern heritage. They arrive at church together but do not seem to be brothers. They participate in the service at least insofar as they open the prayer book and the hymnal to the proper pages. My story for them is that they’re a gay couple, engineering or computer science students at NC State University. And in front of them was a wiry and feisty woman in a black straw hat, joining her fellow octogenarian ladies in the second row, where they always sit together.

“God of Grace and God of Glory” rang out as the processional hymn, and each row in its  turn bowed as the crucifer passed. Although I had already felt a strange sense of belonging with those other out-of-place kindred spirits in the pew in front of me, that communal bowing provided my first sense of how close I was getting to an answer to my prayer. Taking part in this weekly ritual has regularly given me the same frisson–the same thrilling if momentary knowledge that I am bowing and crossing myself, standing and kneeling, reciting the Nicene Creed and singing the Sanctus in unison with Christians all over the globe.

The Epistle reading was Romans 8:26-39, which begins, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I fumbled in the recesses of my purse for a writing implement and came up with a lime-green marker with which I highlighted that opening sentence and jotted quick notes of the threads that were coming together–Kairos, Inferno, bowing together.

And then came the sermon by Fr. Robert Fruehwirth. Onetime leader of the Order of Julian of Norwich and something of a mystic himself, he began his sermon by retelling a harrowing dream in which he was in a large group of people picnicking in a beautiful outdoor setting, watching, helpless, as a toddler boy tumbled over a steep precipice. Then a girl of five or six followed him off that cliff, after which the toddler rose back over the edge and took back his place among the crowd. The clear message to the dreamer was that he had to follow the girl child into the abyss in order to save her. The message of the sermon focused on the premise that God uses everything in our lives–from deep joys to profound losses and the mundane drudgery that lies between–to help us “be conformed to the image of his  Son, in order that he might be the firstborn in a large family” (Rom. 8:29). And then Fr. Fruehwirth turned his message on its head. He reminded us of the many times that we have sat in the pews and thought to ourselves, “This sermon is speaking specifically to ME.” No! he told us. THIS sermon was written for the person next to us in the pew, a person whose heart is a “sacred mystery” that we cannot know. In this knowledge that God is working in the person next to us, he suggested, is the seed of community, and he asked, “How do we become a community? . . . What does [our] community look like?” He reminded us of the five-year-old girl named Grace who jumped off the cliff, and he concluded, “We can do this together.”

I would suggest that community looks like a boy in jeans, who doesn’t comb his hair but who brings Dante to read before church. It looks like a couple of young men with curly black hair and swarthy complexions. It looks like the balding, soft-spoken, unassuming priest who capped off all that brilliance by quoting from “Little Gidding” (The Four Quartets) to let me know that truly, I am not alone (but maybe the Eliot really was just for me–and maybe the Dante-reader in front of me?). It looks like the priest into whose eyes I looked in thanksgiving as she placed the host into my cupped palm and pronounced, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Even more, I must keep reminding myself that it looks like an overweight, gray-haired woman of 64 who says the prayers by memory, uses the orans posture for the Doxology, and sings during Communion–and whose weekly litany, “Nobody knows my name,” actually spurns the community she seeks.

The liturgy, I have learned (at least for now), is the place for seeking and finding community. The traditional definition of liturgy (Gr. leitourgialaos “people” + ergon “work”) is “the work of the people.” As I have learned in preparation for this post (from here, here, and here), though, that literal translation is not exactly correct. Rather, liturgy was originally more akin to public service–work FOR the people: “public duty, ministration, ministry.” We are participants in that work, which for Christians is the work of love. It may not always require jumping off cliffs. But it does require work, and part of that work is prayer. And it does require love, but part of that love is the knowledge that God will help us if we cannot love on our own. It was Sigmund Freud–not Saint Paul nor Thomas Cranmer nor even Robert Fruehwirth, who said, “Love and work, work and love: That’s all there is.” But Paul and Cranmer and Fr. Gregory have helped me to acknowledge that in liturgy, love and work become one, and there we find community.

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