I walked into church feeling angry. An upsetting problem presented itself to me right before I got in the car to drive to Sunday Mass. I wanted to tackle the problem. Right. Now.
But now I was in church. It would have to wait.
And waiting was the best thing that could have happened to me. Sometime during that hour, my heartbeat slowed and my mind rested. By the time we were singing, “Hosanna,” an intense wave of peace had washed over me. Centering on prayer had cleansed my angry thoughts and reawakened a positive state of hopefulness. I walked out of church with a clearer vision on tackling the problem before me.
Finding peace in a church isn’t an unusual story. And it’s not the first time that a deep sense of peace engulfed me while in church. The unusual part is that the experience seems to happen only when I’m visiting a larger congregation instead of attending my own smaller, parish community.
This seems counterintuitive, and I’ve been wrestling with the nagging “why?” question.
A 100-household parish can offer an intimate sense of community and support to a member. But a 1,000-household parish can offer something pretty valuable to a visitor—a sense of anonymity.
It might seem like a better deal to grab the sense of community offered to its members from a smaller parish. Community and fellowship are some of the hallmarks of parish membership.
But I think a sense of anonymity gets short-changed. Sometimes, it’s easier to center on prayer without the distractions that can come with too much familiarity.
When I’m a visitor in a large parish, fewer people know me. I can escape into being anonymous. Nobody is mentally taking my attendance because I’m not even expected to be there. I feel invisible, and I like that. It allows me to first—just plain rest. And then rest in God.
It’s not that community and fellowship are bad things. Without relationships in life, we would have nothing. We need each other.
But sometimes it’s hard to find that balance of “together but separate,”—to worship together but separate out our own space of individual prayerfulness.
One of the truest things said about faith is that it’s a journey, with an ebb and flow to it. As a child, my parents brought me to church because they were doing their best to hand on the deposit of faith and the promise of salvation that was given to them. As a parent, I did my best to take my family to church for the same reasons. Now that my children are grown, I’m seeking more out of church-going. I’ve experienced the full and unexpected peace burst, and I want more of it. It just surprises me that it seems easier to find in the anonymous world.
This phase may pass, just as the period of being a child and the period of being a parent with young children has passed. It wouldn’t surprise me if my faith journey evolves and the lure of the benefits of community once again trump the desire for anonymity in my middle-aged faith life. Maybe someday I’ll be better able to master the “together but separate” challenge.
Until then, it’s enough to know that God’s peace is tangible. And it’s powerful. And worthy of seeking.
However we’re able to encounter it, through community or anonymity.