Tuesday, November 5, 2019

New Home; New Churches

St. Alphonsus, Wallace.
Now that we've settled into small-town life in North Idaho, I've managed to carve some time out, away from the ongoing tasks of unpacking, addressing home repairs, and attending to my work duties, to see what the church landscape looks like around here. Long story short: It looks like the Catholic church is going to be the go-to option, almost by default.

Not surprisingly, the scene here is quite different from that in Seattle. The first and most obvious difference is the comparative lack of options. Wallace has an old Episcopal church that's been turned into a museum, a Methodist church that's probably heading toward the same fate, a Church of God and United Church of Christ that I don't know much about, and a lovely old Catholic church that, happily, was well attended when I visited. By "well attended," I mean probably 40 to 50 people -- which, for a church in a small town in the middle of nowhere, seems pretty good.

The few people I met after Mass in Wallace were kind and friendly, as was the priest, Father Jerome. I feel for him. He has to say Mass at five churches across two counties every weekend. In Harrison and Saint Maries, he leads Masses on Saturday evening, and then he comes back to the Silver Valley on Sundays, where he's the officiant at Kellogg at 9:00, Wallace at 11:00, and Mullan at 1:00.

I've been to a Mass at St. Rita's in Kellogg. It's a nice church. Modern, warm, inviting, and firmly Novus Ordo. I situated myself in front of a peaceful Mary statue, which stood serenely above a stand of flickering votives. That made the Mass quite meditative for me -- even in spite of the acoustic guitar-driven contemporary worship songs that dominated the sung parts of the service. That is not my thing at all -- but in a small town, you can't be choosy. In Wallace, at St. Alphonsus, we sang a cappella, like an old-time country church. I don't know if that's the norm, but it held a certain charm.

Cataldo Mennonite Church.
The lay of the land
In the following weeks, I set out to see what lay further afield from Wallace. Not too far from home, in Cataldo, is a little Mennonite church nestled back in the woods along a dirt road. I've long admired the Anabaptists for their commitment to living out the Sermon on the Mount, and for their dedication to living simple, uncomplicated lives. I'd visited another conservative Mennonite church a year or so ago, south of Olympia, well before we moved, and was struck by how serious and focused the folks there were about their preaching, their worship, their singing, everything. They didn't just go through the motions; they embraced and embodied their faith, from their simple clothing to their unadorned church walls to their extreme kindness in welcoming me, the stranger, into their presence.

The fellow who greeted me at the Cataldo church had relatives at the church in Western Washington. He welcomed me to join them for worship, and I did the best I could to settle and blend in, wearing my plain black slacks and my white collarless shirt. Turns out the rest of the men had collared shirts, and with my ongoing attempt at a beard minus mustache, I probably looked more like a confused combination of Amish and old-time Quaker than a Mennonite. But no one said anything. I listened to the preaching, joined in the best I could on the four-part harmonies of the a cappella hymns, and followed the men to the basement for Bible study while the women remained upstairs. One of the women graciously offered me a Bible so I could follow along with the preaching once the men came back up for the remainder of the service.

Knowing I had work obligations waiting on me, I left rather hurriedly when the service was over, intending to come back for the evening service so I could get to know the folks a little better. But I never made it. It's hard for me to carve out time for worship when I have to work on Sundays, and I'd already been at the church for over two hours.

Plus -- full disclosure -- as much as I admire their simplicity and their unwavering faith life, I just didn't really know if I'd be cut out for Mennonite life. I'd be expected to give up some of the modern amenities I enjoy and in some cases rely on, and I can also only imagine that it be would awkward coming there on a regular basis by myself and not having my wife join me. She might like wearing dresses once in a while and seeks a simpler life overall, but I know for a fact that never in this lifetime would she ever consider joining a conservative Christian church, wear a bonnet with her dress, and sit segregated from the men. My wife and I met when I was away from my faith, and there was never any expectation that she'd join me on my spiritual journey when I returned to the Christian path. It's not her style or her belief, and I'd never force it upon her. So in a church culture where the man is essentially expected to tell his wife what to do, at least in terms of having her follow him in his faith life, I don't think either one of us would fit in too well.

An old Quaker meetinghouse.
The call of the Quakers
Those who follow this blog know of my history with the Quakers. Like the Mennonites, traditional Quakers are all about living out their faith -- letting their lives speak -- and embracing Sermon-on-the-Mount values like the pursuit of peace. Quakers have traditionally been very politically active in the pursuit of peace and equality, where Mennonites tend to live out their faith more in direct service to the poor and needy. Quakers demonstrate and lobby in the name of infusing the world with the love of Christ through legislative action, while Mennonites pursue the same goals through things like volunteer aid work. Two approaches toward the same end.

But their manners of worship are quite different. Mennonites are guided by scripture. They study it, discuss it, preach on it, and let its values infuse and guide their lives and actions. Quakers, meanwhile, traditionally have had no ministers and view the Bible as one moment in an ongoing revelation of the Spirit that continues to the present day. Thus, Quakers sit silently in worship, listening for the Spirit to prompt them to share their preaching with the congregation, with a strong focus on living out their values in the world outside the meetinghouse walls. (Old Quaker joke: "When does the service begin?" asks the visitor confused by the silence. "After the meeting," replies the Quaker.) Some meetings pass in complete silence, while others will find a few members rising to speak briefly, and then sitting back down as the congregation absorbs each message in the returning and enveloping silence.

The belief in ongoing revelation, combined with their political activism, has caused some Quaker meetings to move past their emphasis on Christian scripture and toward a more universalist spirituality. That would be fine in itself, but some meetings have evolved to the point where talk of Christianity is uncommon, and sometimes even looked at with suspicion. In its place has risen a strand of progressive political stridency that often has very little spiritual content at all, with the result that those who rise to speak sound more like they're virtue-signaling about their own political wokeness. The end result is a meeting for worship that sounds more like a low-key political rally, or an NPR program. That's what eventually put an end to my Quaker involvement, even as I loved the manner of worship itself. I go to church for spiritual edification, not to hear a leftist political lecture.

I thought of all this as I tried to locate a Quaker meeting nearby that might still be somewhat Christ-centric. The only things I could find were a "programmed" meeting, with a pastor, meaning there would be no silent worship but rather something resembling a typical Protestant church service; and a liberal unprogrammed (i.e., no pastor) Quaker meeting that may or may not be like what I experienced back around the Seattle area. It's about 70 miles away, and I wrote to the meeting to get more information before driving out there but never got a reply.

So for now, the pursuit of a new Quaker meeting isn't high on the list of priorities. I am an affiliate member of a Conservative Quaker meeting back in Michigan, but it's so far away that I'll probably never be able to attend. The Conservative Quakers are most like the original Quakers, with their commitment to equality and peace, their silent Spirit-led worship, and their continuing focus on Christianity and scripture. But sadly, they're nearly extinct.

A female Episcopal priest.
Episcopal: So close, yet so far
So, looking even farther from home, I identified a few Episcopal churches in the Spokane area that I thought I'd give a try. Episcopalianism was one stop I made on my journey back to Catholicism. I appreciated the familiar liturgical high-Mass form of worship, combined with some less rigid doctrines and beliefs than the Catholics -- in particular, open communion and the admittance of female priests. I much prefer women to men at the altar; I think women are better nurturers of their flocks and do a better job of reflecting the qualities of love, compassion, tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus so fully embodied.

I managed to squeeze in two Episcopal services one Sunday morning. If I was going to drive an hour and a half to church, I figured I'd better make it worth my time. The first service was at a church that prided itself on promoting a Celtic spirituality. I didn't pick up on that, but the service was still nice enough -- though not enough to make me want to make such a long drive every weekend. At the second service, the female priest was gone for the weekend, and an older male priest was filling in for her. His preaching was just fine, but again, it wasn't what I was looking for.

It was then that I decided I wasn't going to drive all over the Spokane area every weekend on a wild goose chase, in search of something that may not even exist. I've never found my perfect church anywhere I've gone, even when I had dozens of options around Seattle -- so why would I find it here?

Strange Catholic bedfellows
So I figured I might as well see what options are out there within the Catholic family of churches. After all my searching for the church I could call home over these many years, I always seem to come back around to the Catholic church, imperfect as I find it. So why not just stick with the tradition I was raised in and call it good?

Now, St. Alphonsus in Wallace was nice enough, and it's a bonus that the church is within walking distance from my house -- but what other choices did I have out there within the Catholic family? Well, as it turns out, there's a surprisingly large number of Catholic options around Spokane and neighboring Coeur d'Alene. Problem is, both cities are hotbeds of extreme traditionalist Catholics -- the more-Catholic-than-the-pope types who hate Pope Francis with a burning passion and place fealty to dogma far ahead of love, mercy, and forgiveness. We're talking about hardcore believers who angrily reject the Novus Ordo Mass -- and, essentially, anything to do with the Second Vatican Council -- in favor of the Traditional Latin Mass, or TLM as it's often called.

A typical rad-trad opinion of Pope Francis.
These are the radical traditionalists, or rad-trads, and their tribalism runs deep. They're at war with the secular world, railing at it with fear and righteous anger from behind their wall of religion. And they're especially fixated on abortion and homosexuality -- though immigrants and Muslims come in for their fair share of hatred, too. They fully embrace capital punishment, and most seem to glorify military violence, all while they claim to be rabidly pro-life. Altar girls and communion in the hand are, to them, innovations of the devil. And don't even think of showing up to Mass in anything less than a suit and tie if you're a man, or a full-length dress and mantilla if you're a woman. Proper form takes precedence over heart.

If at this point you're thinking "modern-day Pharisees," you're on the right track. You can practically hear them saying, like the Pharisee in the midst of the tax collector, "Thank God I am not like that man." Others, less charitably, have characterized them as the Catholic Taliban. Basically, they think they're still fighting the Crusades. At a bare minimum, they want to live in a world where it's perpetually 1950.

Now, I don't mind the Latin Mass. I've been to a few. I don't love them, but they're OK. I found them to be simultaneously very reverent and extraordinarily dull, with no vocal participation whatsoever from the congregation, and the priest reciting most of the Mass in inaudible Latin, with his back to the people, facing the altar. The Seattle area had a couple of Catholic churches that offered the TLM exclusively. Spokane/CDA has at least one such church, in St. Joan of Arc, run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, or FSSP, the same folks who ran the Seattle churches. They're hyper-traditionalist, but at least they're in the good graces of Rome and, as far as I can tell, don't spend all their time criticizing the pope.

Trads on steroids
It would be one thing if the traditionalism stopped there, but in Spokane/CDA, that's just the beginning. When you move deeper into the rad-trad thicket, you encounter the Society of St. Pius X. Marcel Lefebvre, a French bishop, created the SSPX in 1970 in opposition to the reforms of Vatican II, with the intention of preserving the church's doctrines and practices as they existed before the council -- including the Latin Mass. The 1988 creation of the FSSP would seem to have largely negated the need for the SSPX, as the former broke away from the latter with the intention of bringing a vehicle for the TLM into good standing with Rome. But the SSPX remains, and it apparently flourishes in areas like Coeur d'Alene. The SSPX's Immaculate Conception parish in neighboring Post Falls offers up to four Masses a day, and every time I've driven by, there are cars stretching for blocks down the street in either direction. The one time I popped in out of curiosity during a Mass, the sanctuary was packed, with an overflow of faithful standing in the narthex. (And everyone was impeccably dressed, of course.)

Best I can figure, the SSPX holds an appeal for those who want more than just a Latin Mass, since they can get that through the FSSP. Being an SSPX member appears to be a statement that you oppose any post-Vatican II modernization of Catholicism whatsoever, while still remaining more or less on speaking relations with Rome. The Vatican isn't thrilled about the existence of SSPX, and Lefebvre was smacked down for his insubordination by more than one pope. But relations appear to have at least softened in recent years. It's hard to know whether that makes the SSPX faithful happy or angry.

Sede vacante -- the chair of Peter
is (allegedly) empty.
But we have further to go into the rad-trad thicket. Beyond the SSPX are the sedevacantists. These are the hardest of the hardcore rad-trads. Not only do the sedevacantists oppose all Vatican II reforms, but they also maintain that the reforms that came out of the council are illegitimate. Therefore, all popes who have upheld the council's reforms are illegitimate as well, leaving the chair of Peter vacant -- sede vacante is Latin for "the seat being empty" -- since the 1958 death of Pius XII, the last pope who had no connection to the reforms. Not surprisingly, they are not in communion with Rome. So they're basically hyper-traditionalist Protestants -- but don't tell them that. They'll maintain that they, of course, are the true and most faithful Catholics, preserving the deposit of faith from the usurpers of the chair of Peter and their "satanic" church reforms.

Sedevacantist Central in this area is at Mount St. Michael, an isolated compound just outside the city of Spokane. Run by the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, the center includes a Catholic K-12 school, a rectory for priests and brothers, and a motherhouse for nuns, as well as a chapel and a gift shop. I met some of the sisters when I picked up a few posters, books, and statues at the gift shop, and they were delightfully friendly, if strict and disciplined in manner. It's not a place I would go regularly for spiritual edification, though I did subscribe to their Reign of Mary newsletter. My spirituality is deeply Marian, as many readers know, so I felt I might find something edifying in the newsletter's pages. Plus, I'm always interested in trying to learn what makes other people tick -- or, in this case, to learn why the sisters of Mount St. Michael and their allies believe what they believe.

Not an Orthodox church. Eastern Catholic!
Light of the East
After all that, I decided to pay a visit to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Spokane Valley. C&M is a Byzantine Catholic church. If you don't know what that means, imagine an Orthodox church, only one that's in communion with the pope. The "Latin" church, or "Roman Catholic" church, is the church most people associate with Catholicism, but it's not the only Catholic church in existence. There are 23 church families under the Catholic umbrella whose services are Orthodox in style, and any Catholic can attend one of their liturgies and fulfill his or her weekly Mass obligation.

On my journey back to Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, I spent quite a bit of time exploring Orthodoxy. The more I learned about it, the more I realized I resonated with the Eastern church's theological views, with its beautiful veneration of the Theotokos ("God-bearer," i.e., Mary), and with its emphasis on humility -- something I find lacking in much of the Western church. There's also a sense that the East is more comfortable with letting spiritual mysteries be just that, mysteries, while the West tends to want to intellectualize the faith experience and define every aspect of it. That approach sometimes leaves me feeling cold, as it places a distance between the worshiper and a direct experience of the divine.

There's also a sense of greater spiritual rigor in the East. You're expected to do as Jesus said and to actually take up your cross and follow him. You may be forgiven by the grace of God, but that doesn't exempt you from putting in the hard work to live a Christ-like life and refine yourself to become more and more like him. Theosis, the process by which we become divinized by becoming more like God, is something the Orthodox take seriously. It's a never-ending process, one that they believe continues after this life is over.

It's the opposite of the easy-believism that afflicts much of the Western Christian tradition, where all you have to do is accept Jesus, say you're saved, and go on autopilot, with no attempt to better oneself and become a reflection of God's love in the world. The thinking goes that if you're saved anyway, why bother? That view has long stuck in my craw, as it gives too many Christians an excuse to act like judgmental jerks and ends up giving all of Christianity a bad rap.

Of course, Orthodoxy isn't without its own problems. For one thing, it's very ethnocentric. You'll find Greek Orthodox churches, Russian Orthodox churches, and so on. And in my experience, many of the churches can be suspicious of you at best, and unwelcoming at worst, if you aren't a member of the target ethnicity. Some of them also express something of a bias against the West, and others are stridently anti-Catholic. All of these things can make it very hard for an outsider to break through and become an accepted part of the family.

Rebaptism is also a thing among many Orthodox. Some churches will accept Catholics without repabtism, but others will insist on a new baptism. Doing so, of course, flies in the face of the creed that Catholics and Orthodox both recite every week -- the one in which we say that we both acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. When I brought up this point to an Orthodox priest who said I would have to be rebaptized, he told me that "one baptism" meant "one Orthodox baptism." Sorry, but that's not going to fly.

So I figured the next best thing to being Orthodox was to be Eastern Catholic. Same Orthodox liturgy, same Orthodox theology, but all within a Catholic context. I joined an Eastern Catholic church when we lived in the Seattle area, and I may well become a member of Saints Cyril and Methodius out here. The only challenge is the distance. If I have a lot of work to do on the weekend, I have to weigh that against a minimum commitment of five hours of my day -- an hour and a half there, an hour and a half back, an hour and a half for the service, and some time afterward to say hello and get to know people.

A little closer to home...
The next best thing will be to find a nice, reverent Novus Ordo church. For All Saints' Day, I visited St. Thomas the Apostle in Coeur d'Alene, about 45 minutes from home. It was the closest church to me that had a service; the Catholic churches here in the Valley appear not to open for non-Sunday obligation days. The priest at St. Thomas, newly ordained this year, gave an excellent homily and radiated a very friendly and welcoming air -- and the church itself was beautiful. Above the altar was a detailed crucifixion scene, with Mary looking plaintively up at her son, the apostle John looking on in grieved disbelief, and Mary Magdalene clutching the foot of the cross. It conveyed so much deep emotion, and it's not like anything I've seen in any other Catholic church. All of the statuary, in fact, was quite beautiful and induced deep spiritual reflection for me. I sat next to a statue of the Pieta and contemplated Mary as she held her son's lifeless body in her arms, reflecting the great sorrow of a parent who lost her child, but also maintaining an air of dignity, as if to say her loss was not enough to break her -- that her faith was stronger than the vindictive anger and violence of men.

The striking view behind the altar at St. Thomas.
Most recently, I took the time to visit two more Catholic churches out in Spokane. One was the cathedral of the diocese, Our Lady of Lourdes. The other was St. Aloysius, the Jesuit parish on the campus of Gonzaga University, itself a Catholic college.

I didn't care much for the cathedral. It was so perfect and polished and immaculate that it felt sterile, more like a museum than a place of worship. It just felt cold -- not welcoming or inviting at all. It was also a bit disorienting that the statue of Mary was not in its usual place on the left-facing side of the altar, but on the right. In her place, over on the left, was a statue of the Sacred Heart, with Jesus' hands stretched out toward the congregation. Unusual placement, to say the least.

It probably didn't help my frame of mind that a word from the pastor in the weekly bulletin spoke disparagingly of the homeless in the area who would use the church's bathrooms and sometimes disrupt the services. The note seemed to take pride in the fact that the church's decision to hire security for weekend Masses helped tamp down the problem, as if the needy were some pest that needed to be exterminated. As St. John Chrysostom is alleged to have said, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice." Amen.

In contrast, the bulletin at the Jesuit parish, St. Aloysius, included information on an upcoming discussion of homelessness in the area and how to lovingly address it -- a seemingly proactive and compassionate move -- along with a note about the experiences of a group of parishioners who traveled to the southern U.S. border and heard the harrowing stories of the refugees there. Now these are Sermon on the Mount Christians, Matthew 25 Christians. Do unto others. Whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you do unto me. That's more like it.

Being Jesuits, of course, they appear to decline to give God a pronoun, so that the homily ended up being one of those clumsy affairs where the word "God" is repeated in place of "he" or "him." "God wants to share God's love with you," and that kind of thing. I realize that God is spirit and that everything we say about him is analogical, but Christian tradition has always envisioned God as Father. Jesus did as well. That's good enough for me. This could be a topic for a blog post all by itself, but suffice it to say I've always found it peculiar that progressive Christians do this with God. And I have a deep devotion to the Sacred Feminine, so it's not that I insist on seeing God as a man. It's just that I find ways within the existing paradigm to embrace the Sacred Feminine without dispensing with the God-as-Father analogy that's been a central part of Judeo-Christian history for millennia.

But hey, nobody's perfect. Not even the Jesuits. (And not even me.)

Settling for imperfect beauty
I don't think there are too many other places left to explore. There are some other Catholic churches out in western Montana, but it would take about as long to get to any of them as it does for me to drive to Spokane. So for now, those churches will go unexplored. I'm working on setting up my own private chapel, so I can practice my own way on my own time and just have somewhere peaceful to go during the week -- but after many years of struggling to find a spiritual home, I'm pretty sure I'll make my permanent home with the Catholic church I grew up in, with all its imperfections and shortcomings.

When you struggle with "good enough," maybe moving to an area with limited options isn't such a bad thing, since it forces you to make a choice. In a sense, the choice has been made for me. Now it's just a matter of which Catholic church I want to settle down in for the long haul. Time will tell.

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