I was surprised when my friend suggested that we attend Sunday morning mass. It had been years since we’d discussed religion, and I still thought of him as an uncommitted atheist — open, but on balance pretty sure that matter and energy were all that existed. But people change and he’d moved towards something different in the years since we’d last chatted about religion. He now had a comfortable acceptance that there is a cosmic, transcendent spiritually reality beyond the reach of scientific inquiry, yet felt no need to frame that belief in terms of a religious creed. He wanted to go to mass, and I was delighted to have the company.
The homily was drawn from two readings. In the first, God instructs Moses to strike a rock to open a spring of water for the parched nation of Israel. In the second Jesus ministers to a Samaritan woman at a well. These are compelling stories, yet I have a hard time focusing during homilies. My thoughts wandered to some of the women I’ve held and let go, and who let me go; about stock options negotiations; about my angel of a mother, and the crosses she’s had to carry in her fight for physical health; about my father, and how I am at once moved and conflicted by his unshakeable protestant devotion. I recalled recent and past hang overs, times of exultation, and times of regret. I felt in my heart my many, many failures as a brother, a son, a friend, a lover…
I returned to the moment. The priest was still delivering the homily. Jesus had just offered the woman “living water” and she responded by saying “sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” I realized that I am like this woman. Hopelessly wrapped up in the immediacy of the material world I live in, I often don’t realize the deeper spiritual thirst that rages within. I’m parched internally. I don’t need a glass of water, I need the words of God.
At the beginning of the service I had felt awkward, as if I was introducing my friend, who I deeply respect, to an oddball family member. Church is weird to the uninitiated, and I was embarrassed by what he might think. But in that moment I realized: my friend and I are in the same family, and he has already met this person.
He nudged me in the elbow, a nodded toward the roof of the church. A small tower caps the dome of the cathedral in San Miguel de Allende, and through the open air windows in that tower you can just barely peek out at the sky. Through one of these windows a beam of light was falling right on us. I looked and saw the sun, blazing through that tiny opening. A welcome, a greeting, a blessing. I let the warmth fall on my face as peace and reverence filled my heart.
We began to sing a hymn, and as we did I became aware of a voice next to me, like an angel’s, pure and clear. She was a tiny little Mexican woman with creases on her face. A devout catholic, and likely a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. I tend to think of these little ladies as made of stern stuff, disinclined to suffer the tonterias of wayward young men like myself. Yet her aura was so tender and kind that at the giving of the peace I couldn’t resist telling her “you sing so beautifully, señora, thank you for blessing me today.” She took my hand in both of hers and pulled me down toward her, eyes beaming. “Thank you for being here,” she said, “it’s not often these days that you see a young man in church when he doesn’t have to be.”
She didn’t know what I’d done that weekend, or that week, or that month. I gathered that it didn’t matter. Like God, she already knew everything about me that mattered, and I was welcome by her side in that holy place. The priest moved on to the consecration of the eucharist and my friend nudged me again — “Look who it’s on now…,” he said. The sun had traveled a short arc across the roof of the cathedral, and that ray of light, dust gently dancing luminescent in its path, had settled on the woman’s face as she prayed with closed eyes. She was beautiful — even more beautiful than the words of praise that she sung — absolutely radiating Christ’s peace. For the third time, I was struck with reverent awe.
The priest finished the consecration, and we stepped into the aisle for communion. Parched and hungry, we come to this place. Some of us bowing to social pressure, just looking for acceptance, others looking for connection to their fellow humans, and others searching for something sublime. All of us profoundly in need. I took the eucharist, thankful again for all that God has done for me in 16 years. I reflected once more about what it was like to be bathed in the knowledge that there was this great, great love, big enough to cover all the misery in the whole world, and that I could live in it. This saved my life once, and I was reminded that I want to keep this knowledge, to hold it in my heart. Even if the doctrinal lines, the specific theological and ritual contours of religious belief are less definite now than they’ve ever been before, I am determined to continue to live in God’s love. To the strict believer, the man of doctrinal conviction, this kind of belief seems weak and lazy. Yet I feel closer to something real now than I have for many years.
When I was 15 I started learning a classical guitar piece called La Catedral. I learned it imaging a man alone in the silence of church. Serene, contemplative, and occasionally troubled, the first two movements map an emotional landscape familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves in prayer. In contrast the third movement is earnest, chaotic, and dazzlingly fast. It calls to my mind the street outside the church’s walls, with only the ringing of the tower bells to recall the sacred meditation within. For 16 years this song has been a musical metaphor that helps me to bridge the gap between my inner self and the urgency of a world that demands to be reckoned with.
As we walked out into that vibrant, noisy plaza, exploding with color and life, I heard this song and felt it in my heart. I knew that God had been with us in the Cathedral and that he now walked with us out into the street.