Churchgoing: Delightful and Unexpected

Gerard Houckgeest, Old Church Delft (1654)

Spiritual Sunday

Thanks to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion for alerting me to this wonderful passage from John Updike’s “Churchgoing” (which appears in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1962):

There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for us one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen, or not listen, as a poorly paid but resplendently robed man strives to console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts, hopelessly compromised by words, of those intimations of divine joy that are like pain in that, their instant gone, the mind cannot remember or believe them; to witness the windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of inheritance; to pay, for all this, no more than we are moved to give—surely in all democracy there is nothing like it. Indeed, it is the most available democratic experience. We vote less than once a year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one.

I don’t have much to add except to second Updike’s reference to the democratic experience. One thing I appreciate about my churchgoing is that it brings me into contact with people from communities that I otherwise would not interact with—with farmers, watermen, military contractors, airplane pilots, Navy officers, bankers, realtors, homeless men. Our nation’s civic life has degenerated to such an extent that (at least in southern Maryland) we no longer gather in town forums unless there is an issue we are angry about, and the interchanges at those occasions are often divisive. But in church we gather weekly to give ourselves over to a higher power.

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  • Robin Bates

    I received a wonderful response to this post from John Morrow, a retired Episcopalian rector who is becoming a good friend. He is also one who used to babysit me when he was a student at Sewanee, the University of the South, where my father taught and where he was an undergraduate. He gave me permission to share it:

    I am very interested in your blog about “going to church.” I want to share a brief note about a situation I encountered at my last parish. When the new Book of Common Prayer came out in the late seventies there was an uproar both in my parish and nationally about the “Passing of the Peace.” Some looked upon it as an opportunity to greet people around them, others saw it as an intrusion into their “quiet and peaceful” communication with God. One day I stood and during the announcements I reminded people, ”Do you know that the person behind you many have just buried his wife, the person next to you might be battling breast cancer, the person in front of you may have but a short time to live? Wouldn’t it be terrible for those people to leave this building and feel that no one gives a damn about their situation?” It was amazing how parishioners’ attitudes changed for they could see it, not as an intrusion or a superficial time for chatting, but as an opportunity to recognize the presence of others who may have real need for human contact. What you said in your blog is so important for while we go to worship, we go as a body of people who not only need their Creator but desperately need each other. The most common complaint I use to hear from people who stopped going to church was that “when I wasn’t there no one seemed to miss me.”

    Thanks for your blog…..thanks for sharing and thanks for bringing up such important subjects and topics. Warm regards, John

  • Robin Bates

    My conversation with John Morrow continues. I wrote him the following e-mail in response to the comment above:

    Did I tell you that I loved this note, John. It’s also a good response to my students when they talk about how they are spiritual but not religious and don’t see any reason for going to church. I think, of course, that if they have bad feelings about organized religion, that’s something that churches need to address. But it’s also true that we need to learn how to work through spiritual issues in a community and that some of that will involve irritants and that thinking that one can escape all that by escaping into a private spirituality does a disservice to spirituality (and too often this stated desire to follow one’s own spiritual path, I’ve noticed, gives way to inertia–sleeping late, cruising the internet, watching television, etc.–going to church every Sunday for me, I’ve noticed, is a communal prod to get my spiritual house in order. I especially love the confession, which gets me to survey the week and notice where I’ve played things small–I’m always sorry when our rector leaves it out, which he too often does, and for reasons that I’ve never been able to figure out.) Anyway, I appended this to the end of last Sunday’s post. And am off now to write tomorrow’s.

    We escaped 100+ temperatures by being in Maine this past week. Being in 70
    and 80 degree temperatures and, even more importantly, being with the boys
    and their wives/girlfriends, was heavenly. And now it’s time to be back and
    to start gearing up for classes.

    Take care, Robin

    John replied with the following e-mail message:

    Welcome home, Robin. We too escaped the dreadful heat though today is quite pleasant even though it is cloudy.

    My college roommate, who is a retired surgeon, along with his wife were once very active church people. They now spend much time in their very personal quest for spirituality. Unfortunately, they too are turned off to the church for they believe that there is too much superficiality and hypocrisy. They are coming the end of the month for a few days, and I have to guard against long discussions which lead to nothing but a lack of sleep. I truly believe that no one was ever argued into the Kingdom of God. You were so right when you talked about the real purpose of participation in corporate worship. The Liturgy can lift us above ourselves to see what is majestic and eternal. It can remind us weekly that we are not alone in our quest but we are part of an incredible community, both here and out of our sight, who share our joys and sorrows, our victories and our pains. I am comforted enormously by this image of a glorious band of fellow seekers. You and I are never completely alone! Everything, the Hymns, the prayers, Communion, all remind us weekly of that fact.

    I once heard of a woman, who returning from the hospital after a third attempt at suicide, stopped and entered an Episcopal Church. The congregation was in the midst of reciting the General Confession. She knelt down as everyone was kneeling, listened to the words and said to herself, “I am home!”

    Peace and joy, Robin. John

  • Julia

    I wonder if on-line blog sharing like this could supplement the formal once a week service? The EFM group I am part of finds our mid-week meeting to be very rich, but not everyone can carve out time. Perhaps a community of reflection would ‘knit up our unraveled communities?’ Would also allow our communities to become boarderless.


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