Last Sunday morning, for the first service after Epiphany, I put on a nice dress (fashion note, because one of my New Year’s resolutions is to celebrate the wearing of lovely clothes: I wore a long-sleeved knee-length woolen A-line dress in broad earth-toned horizontal stripes, tights, high brown boots and, to keep things real, a crow’s skull pendant), and walked down to what I have so quickly begun to think of as ‘my’ church. Each Sunday I look forward to walking the six blocks over to attend the service. I would go more often if I could. And so, while sitting in the beautiful sanctuary on yet another chilly, overcast morning, I thought about what keeps drawing me back.
It’s not the sermons which, while interesting and considered in their way, are pretty standard fare for the United Church. It’s not the congregation, or not yet: while I have met a number of parishioners and both ministers, we remain, in essence, strangers to one another. As yet I have no formal belonging to this church. At services I sing beloved hymns and say the Lord’s Prayer and join in the doxology, but speak no words to any person. I am merely a soul among souls, a presence among presences.
As an adolescent I spent a great deal of time—hours nearly every week—in the woods near my parents’ home on the outskirts of a Toronto-area suburb. Almost every day I would walk the lands behind our home, tracing a circuitous but purposeful path along the ridge, across a copse of goldenrod and skirting the edge of a cornfield before dipping down into the old millrace pungent with jewelweed, rising out of it near the adjacent farm’s old bottle dump and crossing the gravel road bordering the conservation lands that were my ultimate destination. Down in the ravine I would walk for more than a mile along the creek, paying attention to the perennial negotiation between the flowing streambed and its slowly shifting banks. High above me, especially in the fall and winter, the wind would roar in the trees, and they would creak slowly back and forth like disciples bearing witness to its power. In these moments my solitude was absolute; my sense of connection to the cosmos nearly complete. I was only breath; only movement; only soft footfalls on silty loam; only a presence among presences, a soul among souls.
The ravine was my church, my place of worship, and no religious service has done more than approximate the sense of immanence I experienced in those days in the woods, or in the awareness of wild creation I sense now in storm-tossed trees or in a waxing moon hanging low over the lake. The Holy Trinity that is Christianity’s core tenet cannot come close to equaling the power of creation present in a stand of trees and in a handful of soil, and in this I likely mark myself irrevocably as an apostate. But I suspect—oh, how I suspect—that theologians have known this for millennia, and that the rules of religious observance owe much of their rigidity to a compulsion to rein in the raw, self-abandoning consciousness of Creation, as if to regulate access to the God who is always already present in every breath of wind.
But still, there are the hymns—such a large part of worship in most Protestant churches—that so often and so evocatively deploy metaphors drawn directly from the natural world. Protestant hymnbooks positively bulge with them. Critics point out, somewhat accurately, that most of these hymns were written in and about pastoral England and are therefore dated, bland and culturally insular. Musicologists sometimes cringe at their prosaic lyrics and repetitive rhymes. And, of course, liberation theologues within the United Church demand, loudly if somewhat absurdly, that the Eurocentrism and coloniality of Christian hymns (and indeed Christian worship more generally) be exposed and decentered.
But the hymns, the hymns. The hymns are the Word embodied; the hymns connect earth-bound souls to the divine; the hymns are the living breath of a living faith. Through hymns congregants sing the same songs as wind and water; through hymns we may channel currents in the air and soil. Singing a hymn is an act nearly as sacred as walking in the woods and echoing in every sinew the creaking voices of the trees.
And so, at services I sit near the back of the sanctuary and stare up at the pillars holding up the broad wood ceiling as simply as trees holding up the sky. I sing the beautiful hymns, and practice my solitary faith, and consider whether belonging to a congregation will add to or constrain it.