Just Right: The Search for a Spiritual Community
I am a wanderer. Not the kind who has walls full of artifacts from foreign countries or hours of enchanting stories about trips to exotic locales. Instead, I possess an impressive and varied collection of church bulletins.
After growing up as a Methodist, I became an Episcopalian around my 30th birthday, some 20 years ago. Long attracted to the ritual and liturgy, I was thrilled to make my official entrance into the denomination. I was living near Washington, D.C. at the time, and was blessed to be a member of the most delightful church community I’ve known as an adult. It was small enough for me to be embraced, yet big enough for the congregation to enjoy a wide variety of members and to effect meaningful outreach.
There was a concerted effort to welcome the stranger. I know, because they welcomed me. My soul was nourished and my intellect was respected. The preacher preached; he did not espouse his political views from the pulpit. There was a choir, Sunday school, and coffee hour. There were no video screens and no rock bands. Call me retro, but I’ve been trying to replicate that experience ever since.
Along the way, I’ve flirted with other denominations in my search for a church home. In 2003, I received a writing fellowship at the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana. My time there turned out to be one of the pivotal events of my life. At first, I was uncomfortable with all that quiet, but I then experienced “the heart of Quaker worship,” as described by writer Brent Bill (holyordinary.blogspot.com):
“The distinctive of the Quaker message of worship is that we are not inviting you to come hear a specialist speak about God, another person read a book about God, others sing some songs about God, but rather to come and experience God. We come to meet God.”
I love the sound of that. And I have known God in the silence often enough to wonder if I am a Quaker at heart, although according to the Belief-O-Matic quiz on beliefnet.com, I’m 100 percent Reform Judaism. I have also experienced the Divine in song and oratory, and I have come to rely on such weekly offerings as essential components of my religious development.
Nearing age 50, I find myself suffering not a crisis of faith, but a crisis of faith community. I know what I believe. I just don’t know where I belong.
In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor recounts the time she sought the counsel of an Episcopal priest after having been affiliated with several different churches: “Dearie,” he said, “you are an ecclesiastical harlot.” No one’s called me a harlot yet, but a friend has labeled me “church shopper.” So be it. I consult more than one automobile dealer when I need a new car, and I research brands when my mattress starts to sink in the middle. Why wouldn’t I put forth similar due diligence when it comes to something as vital as my religion?
It’s not my finest trait, though, this seeming inability to stay put, and it surfaces in other areas of my life as well. More than once—in matters spiritual and otherwise—I have felt like Sue Bender, author of Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish: “Never having enough time, I wanted it all, a glutton for new experience. Excited, attracted, distracted, tempted in all directions, I thought I was lucky to have so many choices and I naively believed I could live them all.” Amen, sister.
If I could, I’d hang out with the Quakers, the Methodists, the Episcopalians and the Disciples of Christ. I suspect that’s just for starters, for I haven’t yet sampled the Lutherans or the Cumberland Presbyterians.
“You should go to church to be with God, period,” says an acquaintance when I tell him how desperate I am for a spiritual community in which I can know and be known. It’s not that simple for me, I want to say. But I don’t, because his pious surety is a turnoff.
So, like a middle-aged, spirit-filled Goldilocks, I continue to search for the “just right” church. Eventually, I know I will need to commit to a body of believers, even when I disagree with the leadership or feel ignored by my fellow pilgrims or find myself daydreaming about a Buddhist retreat in Tibet. Until then I will knock, trusting that one day the door will open.