Looking for ol' time religion

A couple of weeks ago we heard that Jon, really an acquaintance more than a close friend, whom we had met at the Unitarian group in town, had died. His death by itself was not that newsworthy; given the geriatric demographics of San Miguel’s expat community, we constantly hear of folks who’ve died or are battling a dire affliction. On bad days, the place reminds me of Land of the Living Dead or the Nearly Dead. Not funny.   

What caught our attention, though, was Jon’s age: 77. Jon wasn’t that old, really. Just four years older than Stew, five more than I. We likely will live longer, or perhaps not. We hope our departure is nothing as dramatic as Thelma and Louise’s, but the precipice at the end of the road in definitely in sight.

Thelma and Louise went
 thataway (approx.)

Understandably, discussion about the uncertainties, and even terrors, of aging and age-related infirmities is not something that expats generally want to share over comida.  It’s like the crazy uncle locked up in the attic, who keeps banging on the rafters, but who everyone tries to ignore.

It’s depressing, alright. 

We, and particularly Stew, have prepared wills, named executors and beneficiaries and in general, we think, have covered all the legal and financial bases. 

But aside from that, what do we do with the rest of our lives, whether it extends 10, 15 years or more? It feels as if despite all our compulsive planning, there is yet something we haven’t dealt with.

So for the past six months, Stew has been talking about a search for an intangible called “spirituality.”

That’s a surprising development on his part because he was baptized and confirmed at a denomination called Salem Evangelical United Brethren Church of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Not exactly in the major leagues of Christianity, which is reflected in Stew’s only glancing acquaintance with the Bible story and its main characters. It’s not for a lack of brains, I assure you. Maybe he slept through Sunday school. 

I, on the other hand, went through the entire drill of a Catholic education, from kindergarten through college. If Stew’s knowledge of organized religion is mostly a tabula rasa, my spiritual tabula is covered with crushing Catholic dogma, guilt and condemnations which, as a gay man, eventually drove me away from the Church.

Stew and I have talked about what spirituality means to us in the context of mutual experiences we felt were uplifting and comforting, even if we’re not sure why. 

Grote Kerk, Haarlem

One of those was attendance, several years ago, at a late afternoon evensong service at the Grote Kerk, a 16th Century Reformed Protestant Church in the main square of Haarlem, north of Amsterdam.  The formerly Catholic building was huge but sparsely decorated, almost barren, except for a single crucifix at the end of the nave. There was none of the bloody, cringe-inducing statuary and grotesquerie you find in Roman Catholic churches in Mexico.

The service was led by a beautiful young woman, with hair almost down to her tailbone, who wore an appropriately simple green vestment, and a choir of men, women and children. She’d recite a piece of Scripture for a few minutes, and the choir would follow with another few minutes of singing. Back and forth, for about 45 minutes, maybe an hour.

Then it was over, except for the warm greetings and handshakes by many of the Dutch congregants as they passed by us, to which we could only respond with uncomprehending nods and smiles. We don’t speak Dutch and the only part of the service we had understood was the occasional “Gott” and “Amen.”

Still, as we walked back to the station to take the train back to Amsterdam, we talked about how we felt profoundly moved by what we had experienced. We wondered, and still wonder: What was that about? What made the experience so memorably “spiritual”? What does that mean? Is that something that can be replicated in our after-church lives?

The church visit was totally unplanned. We’d just finished dinner across the street, and spontaneously, almost impulsively, went into the church as if someone had pointed us to the door. Cynics and skeptics might say it was a purely serendipitous experience, no more significant that going into a souvenir store.

Yet I’ve wondered too if that may not have been one of those events in life called “a moment of grace,” like a warm, unexpected breeze that sweeps you, envelops you, and demands your attention. 

Another moment of grace, though this one was planned, was our visit to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, an ascetic, and a rather peculiar fellow, who lived in the 13th century and whose life and example led to the formation of the Franciscans, the largest Catholic religious order in the world.

We had driven up from Florence, where we’d spent three or four chaotic days wading through mobs of tourists. It seemed as if half the population of China had arrived at the same time we did, everyone armed with a smartphone and a selfie stick.

St. Francis of Assisi, a colorful guy. 

Assisi had its own crowd of tourists, but the beauty of this city, perched atop a high hill, aerie-like, helped shut off the noise. We visited the basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, as well as the basilica where they buried St. Claire, one of his early followers who formed her own religious order. “Rancho Santa Clara” is named after St. Claire, and it’s also the name of my home town in Cuba.

The churches in Assisi were far from spare or minimalist. St. Francis’s church was filled with frescoes by Giotto and others, mosaics, stained glass windows in a maximalist Catholic style. It was an eyeful. I don’t know how anyone can pay attention to a service there, surrounded by such an art collection. Maybe it helps.

Yet, both Stew and I sat in one of the pews and just gawked, open-mouthed at the interior of the place. Stew agrees that Assisi also had a certain “aura,” that warm breeze that affected both us in Haarlem, even if we still didn’t know why.

We wish we could have spent more time in Assisi, but our rushed, if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Pisa schedule didn’t allow it.

I‘m not sure what to get out of those two completely different places that somehow had such an impact on us. There seems to have been an element of “faith”, of accepting something that confronts you out of left field, no questions asked, when you least expect it. We didn’t plan to go to evensong in Haarlem and expected only a couple of days and a few photo opportunities in Assisi.

Both places turned out to be far more than that, and are etched in our heads in ways that Florence or the Belgian town of Bruges are not, beautiful as they were.

They also involved a community experience, particularly in Haarlem where we were greeted so warmly and unexpectedly. These were not lone, meditative sojourns in a cave.

Stew and I have begun going to church during the past few months, a non-denominational, low-dogma Christian church we had attended before. On Wednesday, we’ll attend a Bible study, a first for both of us.

For my part, my Kindle reader has turned into a helter-skelter collection of religious or spiritual readings (Anne Lamott, Meditations about St. Francis and such). How all those pieces might, or might not, gel into a simple, daily spiritual practice is impossible to tell. But our beginning to explore the possibilities could be a kernel of faith trying to germinate.

I am not sure what to make of God, and yes, that’s a problem. I don’t find myself “talking” or getting emails from Him, Her, or It. Scripture to me is historical rendering of a people, and their experiences, which may be generally instructive to us today, centuries later, not code of regulations. In the morning, when I look out our bedroom window, God occasionally shows up as narrow layer of fog cropping the mountaintops. Then the sun comes out, and, puff, there it goes. 

Jesus? A hell of a guy, no doubt, a historical figure who preached an important message, but whose life and teachings are shrouded in imaginative, propagandistic anecdotes written by His disciples, years after the fact.

Heaven? No such thing as far as I know. The reward for a life well lived will come here on earth, I believe, though I must admit that sitting on a cloud, surrounded by angels plucking harps while offering you chocolate-covered marshmallows, doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend eternity.

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