In July, as I was taking my first walk through the Nave of the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, there was a middle-aged man sitting quietly in one corner. As I passed near him headed for one of the doors in the Narthex he blurted out: “Thanks for letting me just sit in this holy place.” “Glad you’re here,” I responded back; “stay awhile.”
In “The Deacon,” a short story written in 1970, John Updike writes of a minister who found his moments of transcendent holiness when his church was empty. The sermon, liturgy, or organ music of the full church made its impact. But when he was alone with the building, watching the flickering votive candles, listening to the creaks in the walls, sitting alone in silence, then something more touched him.
Few liturgists, theologians, or anthropologists, call attention to this holiness, the mystery of sacred spaces. Updike reminds us that when we enter the world of the local congregation, we approach a place of mystery, where much more is going on than we ever perceive. We sell this part of our life short.
I’ve asked newcomers to churches a thousand times: “What brought you to our parish?” I’ve listened to many stories about why people began attending church and how they were satisfied (or not) spiritually. And I’ve noticed over the years that toward the end of many narratives, the depictions trail off, the language becomes less precise, and it’s common to hear, “I don’t know, but I need to be in this place, this holy, beautiful, and mysterious space.”
So, as we begin a fall schedule of worship (this Sunday, the 19th, we expand back to three services — 8:00, 9:00, and 11:00 a.m.), program, and outreach we ask again: What are we handing on from one generation to the next? Well, people need more than holy space. We need community, a sense of purpose, the biblical story, a life of prayer, the substance of the sacraments, the compelling nature of discipleship, of putting our faith to work in the world. All good features of the church’s life. But we also need holy mystery, where we don’t have to contain all of the answers and where much more is going on than we usually perceive.