On Sundays, my mother would dress my siblings and me in freshly pressed clothes and black shiny shoes. She’d line us up for inspection to make sure our nails and hair were properly cleaned and our attitudes properly adjusted.
Finally, one last stern warning to behave respectfully would be issued as we drove to attend 10:00 mass at Little Flower Church.
We’d sit and stand and kneel. We read prayers from worn, tattered books and sang hymns accompanied by the same exhausted organ. We walked solemnly down the endless red-carpeted aisle with our heads bowed and hands folded front in prayer position.
With each forward footfall toward the altar, my anxiety would rise. The thought of stumbling, or worse yet, the Holy Eucharist—the Body of Christ, tumbling off my tongue thus landing sacrilegiously on the dirty, sinful ground was more frightening than the scourged body of Jesus on the cross staring at me from above.
“Body of Christ” the priest declared while holding the Host above me. “Amen,” I replied, head tilted back, tongue out slightly in anticipation of the thin, white wafer to be placed upon it. Once my mind and body registered touchdown, relief washed over me providing the only comfort since I’d walked through the daunting wooden church doors.
I wanted to run back to my pew, my place of safety next to my mother, but once again I bowed my head feigning prayer, hands folded in front, walking slowly and ceremoniously just as we had been taught in the long months of training for our First Communion in first grade.
I vividly recall spying the solemn faces of the parishioners—their heads bowed in silent contrition. I’d pretend to pray, shifting my glances about in hopes of catching a fellow sinner, a non-prayer committing the same transgression. Everyone’s brows so deeply furrowed and eyes so tightly shut, what were they thinking about? So lost in prayer, so devout and fulfilled; some would even cry.
I never felt this connection. I felt isolated, out of place and awkwardly aware I was not part of the congregation. I never felt a “communion” with anything or anyone there.
Being raised Roman Catholic, my knees knew well the ache from the not-so-cushioned kneelers and my back the discomfort of non-conforming wooden pew benches. Just as my siblings had done before me, I left the church when I was 13—old enough to rebel against my mother’s insistence of weekly attendance.
With age came wisdom. I came to realize the only place I felt what I was certain the devoted church parishioners experienced, was when I was surrounded by trees, walking alongside a rippling creek or in the presence and observation of unwitting wildlife. It was there I treaded on hallowed ground, often feeling I was trespassing and witnessing miracles God had saved especially for me.
I finally found my sacred; the place where my soul communes with The Divine.
Things are different now. My mother has passed away and along with her much of my guilt for leaving her alone in church, alone in her beliefs and alone in her pew awaiting benediction.
It’s Sunday morning. As I slip on my jeans, Bon Jovi t-shirt and pink Keds, my hard-earned wisdom mocks me: I bet you wish your mother was here now to dress you and take you to 10:00 mass. I’m reminded of her stern warnings and her sideways glance that could make the devil himself behave in church.
These clothes are my “Sunday best” now. It’s not a far walk and my body is pulled like a magnet by the healing energy it so craves. How I wish my mother were here to accompany me on this weekly sojourn. I like to think she’d embrace my place of benediction. Perhaps she is with me—her presence is strong.
About a mile and a half down the road I see a welcome sight. “Hey, boy,” I exclaim, squatting down to receive the sweet puppy kisses Charlie can barely contain himself to give. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t gotten too far with his training yet and he’s a bit overzealous still,” Millie sighs apologetically, tugging on his leash.
His little four month old body is wriggling and writhing and jumping with such exuberance and joy and he finally settles enough for me to hold his little face in my hands. He lavishes me with smooches. “Oh, don’t apologize, Millie, you know I’m his biggest fan” I mused. “See you later, have a great one!” I chirp as I continue on my way.
It’s a glorious day, sunny, 70-ish, cotton ball clouds scattered across endless blue sky. I see my destination just ahead, but I don’t rush. I’m breathing deeply and centering myself. It takes time to become fully in the present, in the now.
There it is, the beautiful wooden sign welcoming me to my place of worship: APPALACHIAN TRAIL.
As I stroll along the fern-lined path, I feel my spirit begin to sing; it happens every time. My steps and heart are instantly lighter, the daily worries that swirl in my mind are transformed into thoughts of gratitude and peace. There is a sense of profound belonging.
I claim this peace whenever and wherever it presents itself to me—the sweet breath and warm kisses of a puppy, the whiskery nuzzle of a horse’s nose on my neck, the sound of pure contentment as a cat purrs nestled in my lap and in the beauty of a new leaf unfurling on my pink begonia.
I’ve learned it’s everywhere, that peace. It envelops me like an angel’s wings providing comfort in times of sorrow and gentle assurance that I’m never alone. I am summoned often to that which feeds my spirit—the living miracles Mother Nature effortlessly displays. Colors perfectly matched, sounds always harmonious; a magical, living, breathing world reminding me always that each day is a gift to be treasured.
It matters not where you go to find this connection to the Divine. I understand now that the solemn churchgoers I once spied in silent prayer found their connection to the Divine in church every Sunday. It may be a church, synagogue, mosque, gravesite, statue, structure or myriad other places, but you know it when you find it.
It is a place like no other. It’s where your soul is “touched,” sometimes to remind us just how small we are—other times to remind us, although small, we are never insignificant. We are but a tiny part of a huge Universe, all equally important, all equally worthy.
As I sit at the base of a large hemlock tree and settle my back into it, I’m suddenly aware of how comfortable it is, just as it is. This is my pew and everything I spy—my Divine.
Author: Mary Mclaurine
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Nicholas A. Tonelli