At Christmastime, I often think about a period in my 20s when I attended a Catholic cathedral near my home. I loved the cathedral, with its stained glass windows, candles and fresh flowers. I was moved by the small dramas in the pews and the main event at the altar. Communion, which I watched from the safety of my pew, often brought tears.
I cherished that service in the way only an outsider could. I was not a member of the Catholic Church. I had no history with the community and felt no obligations. Church strictures did not apply to me. I enjoyed the service as pure archetype: souls seeking union with each other and their God.
My outsider status in church, any church, was a legacy from my mother. Although nominally Christian, she had a deep mistrust of organized religion. Instead of the Bible, my mother raised my sister and me on stories from Greek mythology. These were the perfect foil for my imagination, rich with symbolism and adventure. I had an easy relationship with the Olympians; no one expected me to believe in them.
The Christian God was harder for me. This became a crisis when I was 14 and attending a Christian youth group popular at my high school. The leaders gently urged us to surrender our lives to Christ. I found the message threatening. Surrendering sounded a little like dying. Was I giving up my freedom to think for myself? And I wasn’t convinced that God was real. I hoped he was, but felt the likelihood was low.
One night, I impulsively decided to ask the source. Like a child in a story, I put my hands together and prayed. “Dear God,” I said, “if you exist, please give me a sign.”
The response I received was the shock of my adolescent life. I’d expected nothing to happen. But as soon as I’d said the words, an invisible force took over my hands. Without my conscious consent, my fingers began bending and intertwining. My index fingers straightened to form a steeple. Within a few seconds, my hands had formed the shape of a church.
I was stunned. I had stumbled into something for which I was unprepared. I’d opened the door and God had walked in, just as the youth leaders suggested. What, I wondered, were my new obligations? Did God expect me to commit to Christianity and turn my life over to him?
Instantly, I knew I did not want to do that. Sadly and fearfully, I felt myself refuse. My refusal disturbed me, even more than the answered prayer. Except for my sister, I told no one about the experience. I wanted to forget it. I stopped attending the youth group. I began a life on the run as a spiritual fugitive.
Throughout my teens and into my adulthood, I played cat and mouse with Christianity. I was drawn to churches and other places of worship. I visited them whenever I traveled, and I found the services moving. Yet, I had nightmares about darkened churches. I felt a strong aversion to anyone who proselytized. I resisted all pressure to see God in a specific way or to adopt a particular set of beliefs.
The Catholic cathedral I attended in my 20s was an unexpected Switzerland. While I enjoyed the services, Catholicism was not a threat. I knew I could not convert; Catholicism was too much at odds with my upbringing. I could keep my ambivalence and stay in the shadows.
I fully expected to live my entire life feeling like God’s black sheep. But eventually I was saved by another gift from my mother. This was my tendency, which grew as I matured, to interpret narrative in terms of symbolism and archetype.
One day, I realized that I had something in common with many of my therapy clients — I was still interpreting childhood events with the mind of a child. When I thought about my prayer experiment, I was once again a frightened 14-year-old, interpreting the experience in concrete terms. That part of me still believed I had offended God by never really joining a church and by failing to embrace Christian doctrine.
When I turned my adult mind to the event, I realized how childish my reaction had been. I had reduced a genuinely mysterious event to a single, cartoonish interpretation. Moreover, I had missed the emergence of a symbol with great personal meaning for me. Churches, for me, are multilayered and magical places, regardless of belief systems. I’m moved by the human effort, imperfect as it is, to connect to concepts of the divine. And I resonate to the places and rituals that serve this effort.
This Christmas, my family and I will not attend a church service. We haven’t for years. But we will relish the connection with each other and our best selves. We will walk together in the hills, taking in the winter beauty. And I will allow myself the joy of knowing that when we seek what is holy and fine, we are always at church.