It was over Thanksgiving and now this visit home at Christmas that I begin to realize how much I dislike the parish and church I attended while growing up. I'm not sure precisely when it was constructed - maybe 1970 - but it's one of those bland modern buildings that feels soulless and cold. Having visited and experienced these 50+ Manhattan churches (old and modern alike) with their beautiful architecture and wonderful sculptures and divine stained glass images and artwork, my old church on these visits home leaves me with such an emptiness inside after attending Mass here. Of course, I attend with my family and this is always a welcome change to my journeys alone in the city; and the priests at my old church often have good things to say; but as I look around in the middle of the service and am greeted with blank beige brick walls, ugly red carpeting, stucco-esque ceilings and two statues buried back in the recesses of the church, I feel deflated and soon enough drab and bland and blank all over.
Is it some kind of vibrancy I've found in these city churches that attracts me so, compared to the bleakness of these other holy houses buried in the suburbs of the rest of the country; or is there something exceptionally bad about the church I grew up with? Or is psychology somehow more involved and I just relate the first 20 years of my life, Catholicism shoved down my throat, with this building, and thus harbor no good will towards it. Soon after I left home, and escaped the bonds of my church's monotony, did I happen to wander into exceptional churches, or were they just "not" my old church?
The little Catholic hogan on the Navajo reservation, with it's scent of burning sage and wood, and the Jesuit priest from Chicago - that was a very special church. But then again, there was St. Joseph's in the middle of the western suburbs of Chicago that I loved - that place was certainly suburbia church bliss at it's finest. The church I found in Africa, where I tried to attend once a month, a lone white man among a family of Indian Catholics - that was certainly a great experience. Finding myself away from home and family I always feel more intensely bonded with the Catholic services that I attend and am sometimes inundated with the desire to return home and experience these feelings with my family at our parish church - but always returning there for holidays or special occasions or months-at-a-time long sabbaticals from my life I can never appreciate any of the good things my church offers, only it's uninspiredness - it's blah factor.
The emptiness of the church decor is sometimes reflected in it's parishioners. And there's such a whiteness about them too. I hate to be an asshole here, but as a friend and I were reflecting on it the other night, the church doesn't offer a single Spanish Mass - and I'm from a city that's more than 30% Hispanic! It's a mystery to me about my church, but I can only think this mystery exists in so many other towns around the country.
My best friend in NYC, who comes from my same hometown, calls the place Krypton, and vows never to return here, minus the occasional funeral he must attend. I, myself, have always tried to think about the best parts this place offers, yet this time around I'm finding it a harder and harder feat to accomplish.
My hometown leaves me feeling this emptiness and I desire to return to the city and my life there to see where it leads me. Surely, the best part of my old town and the only reason I return is my family's presence - I grieve when I am away from them and I am saddened I cannot take them with me.
The Sunday after Christmas we attended a different church in town than we usually do - this one resembling a more traditional, classic church decor - and one I have become familiar with in NYC. I felt more at home here than I ever did in my old church and the priest was quick and brilliant. As it was the Feast of the Holy Family, he drew everyone's attention to a stain glass at the back of the church - Jesus in the temple with Mary and Joseph looking on. He made a point about families and values - meal times together, respect for one another, togetherness, etc. And I stared at it and loved it and got what he was talking about.
As I leave my family in a few days and go back to my life I carry them and all they mean to me with me. I will remember what this priest said, using the Holy Family as my model for what I want to have one day in the future and what I want to become.