Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church. (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago)
The question seems to come from every corner, haunting my steps, biting my heels; following me as I drift off to sleep and greeting me when I awake. Slipping out of my glass at the pub as I wax philosophical or from the mouths of confused and concerned family around the dinner table. Rolling with the tides of anger and pain from friends — former pastors, all — who have likewise been dismissed by their spiritual communities.
The question, of course, is why. Why, given all that has happened and all I have learned do I keep going to church? Why am I still a practicing Christian? Why, wonder of all, do I still want to be a pastor?
I mean, half the time I’m not even sure if there is a God and most of the time I’m pretty sure the Bible is mostly made-up: truthy stories written decades or centuries after the stories they describe, edited by a community for its own purposes in its own time.
And yet, I still want to do this. With that.
There are, in fact, several reasons for my continued acceptance of the Christian story and pursuit of leadership in that community, but it seems apt with the liturgical season of Lent on the horizon to start (in typical melancholy fashion) with the need to weep.
Author and speaker Ian Morgan Cron describes melancholy as “the happiness of being sad,” and, while some personalities may revel in that bright sadness,1 everyone at some point, if they have not utterly shut themselves off from the world, experiences the poignant joy that comes from beautiful grief. This is neither masochism or schadenfreude; I am not advocating taking pleasure in pain (ours or someone else’s). Rather, I believe there are times when the weight of the world — all its collected joys and griefs — falls upon your heart at once, causing conflicted tears to fill your eyes, and that this is a necessary part of the human experience and we ought to put ourselves in the path of its potential.
What I’m talking about is heart-wrenching beauty.
The aesthetic arrest of a hillside resplendent in autumn red and orange accompanied by the damp sweetness of decaying leaves, reminder of life’s short-lived effulgence.
I’m talking about the unbidden catch of breath and sting of tears always accompanying my reading of Theoden’s last charge and death at the hands of the ring-wraith in The Return of the King. Or the sweet heartbreak of listening to Damien Rice or Julien Baker on a rainy day.
Or anytime Tom Hanks dies on screen.
Or the liturgy. The soaring, plaintive sounds of the Kyrie piercing my heart. The absolution reminding us that all has always-already been forgiven. The invitation to commune together: for those who come here often, and for those who have not been here in a long time. . . .
The readings: Moses, eyes weak from age, cracked hands leaning on a stone for support as he stares toward the horizon, gazing upon the Promised Land he would never set foot on. John the Baptist, weird as a three dollar bill, a grasshopper leg stuck in his teeth, crying out from the wilderness of that same Land. St. Paul claiming with a true-believer’s conviction that he would rather be cut off from the Source of All than see his friends and family dwelling in that Land be cut off from The Christ.
Which brings us back to the quote above. Lara, the beautiful and used; Lara, the forgotten and lonely; pacing the steps of her church in search of the weight of life — something to connect her with the bright sadness of a reality to which she had become numb. An “inner music” whose tones could re-attach (re-ligament, re-member) her to the depths of life.
Yet, as so many of us find, Lara, “Could not always compose such a music for herself.” Oh, she tried: filling the deafening silence with so many things and people, but always found them somewhat out of tune. So she went back to the storymaker of her community: the church.
For all its complicity with the proud and the powerful, for all its failures to live up to its calling to serve as harbor and voice for the least of these, it was the primary Story Maker of her life. Her entire frame of existence occured within the bounds of Scripture as it had been presented to her: who God is, who she was, and what any of this is about anyway. Her very vocabulary, the words that formed on her lips whether she was praying, buying food at the market, or making love, were shaped by the words and turns of phrase of Scripture.
Whether she liked it or not, whether she saw much use for the pomp and circumstance and the theology behind the words itself, something still drew her back. Something that gathered up the disparate threads of her life and united them in one story. Something that brought her to tears.
Many days I’m not sure what I believe. Most days I feel it might all be pointless anyway and that the church is more dead than alive, useless except as a vehicle for moral and social programs. But like Lara, I keep going; for reasons I don’t fully understand yet intuitively know, I keep showing up to church.
Of course, the moments where that weight is felt and I find myself weeping over the inner music are few and far between. And of course, the response may change according to the strength of that beauty or horror, and it may change in form, leaving me smiling idiot-like in the pew, trembling at the altar rail, or weeping on the kneeler, but it is the potential for those moments to occur that keeps me showing up. The potential for discovering the “unbearable preciousness” of life.
The potential for revelation. Revelation of life and why I keep waking up to try it again. Revelation of community and why I even bother with other people. Revelation of myself and how somehow, despite all my failures and pride and the pain I’ve felt and caused, I might hear the tune of some far-off, forgotten song buried within my chest, calling me out into this terrifyingly beautiful world to weep and to love.
1. Alexander Schmemann’s term to describe the Lenten season. Cf. Great Lent, Schmemann, Alexander.↩