A fleeting whisper

The ladies escorted us into the chapel and sandwiched us into a pew of adults, all the better to watch over two little girls by themselves at church. Inside, light flooded from tall, clear windows, bouncing off bright white walls.

Michelle understood how to find the words in the song book. She belted them out. All the adults looked at her like she was one of God’s own angels. Even with her finger pointing at the page, I didn’t know how to sing the words or what they meant. I thought if we went to Sunday school, I might learn. “Sunday school’s for babies,” Michelle said.

At least I understood what seemed like the most popular word: father, father, father. Michelle and I never mentioned the word and here it was on everyone’s lips. My own father had moved to California so I each time it was spoken aloud, it stung like salt in a wound.

Through the window, I could see Michelle’s bike leaning against a tree and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It wasn’t until after the service, when we filed back out into the lobby, that the experience took a turn for the sweeter. The ladies had set out plates of cookies on a long table; I had never seen such a rainbow assortment, including my favorites: the animal crackers dipped in pink or white frosting and coated in sprinkles. Now, here, was a language I understood. I made a little promise to myself to return here when I was older and could understand more.

If my first church experience made God seem like a vast unknown entity lurking at a great distance, I have another memory that suggests such a mystery could be equally vast, but far more personal. This was something that happened on the playground of my school after class ended for the day and most of the kids had gone home. A friend and I were playing on a set of parallel bars. I did one of those maneuvers where you pull yourself up so the bar is resting bellow your belly and then you tilt forward and spin fast. When my feet smacked the dirt and I was dangling right side up again, the world seemed like a new and different place. The school building seemed far away and not altogether real. I was me, but I was also not me. I was an altered me. I could see everything from a great distance but I was not afraid as I believe I would have been if it had been the usual me. I was both smaller and bigger than I understood and these were the facts. This strange perspective passed quickly; everything settled back into its proper proportion. I never forgot that sensation. I’ve reflected on it hundreds of times and have come to think of it as a fleeting whisper of God.

A short audio version of another adventure with Michelle (this one to the local fire station) lives here: http://nwpr.org/post/break-case-emergency-corinna-nicolaou.

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Salvation history

If proof of God exists in my early years, as the tutorial at the Methodist church suggests, I’m hard pressed to find it—although my having been born is something of a miracle. My parents were young and wildly inappropriate for one another. They were college students who met at a party and then…the details get a little murky. One snap shot in my possession may or may not be my parent’s nuptials. I have very little photographic evidence from my childhood and even fewer explanations. Despite my father studying film in college, he did not own a camera, so all that remains is a small and odd assortment of pictures taken by extended family members and friends.

My parents split when I was five and my mom rented a tiny house half a block from a park. For two years, we lived there. I walked myself to and from the nearby elementary school for grades first and second. While my mom worked, I wiled away long afternoons at the park where I met my best friend Michelle, two years my senior and owner of a bicycle with a seat long enough to fit two rear ends.

I had heard of God (the giant peeping Tom), but it was not until Michelle that I gave God more than a passing thought. Michelle and her mom lived in a house even smaller than ours—one bedroom instead of two. Michelle had lots of ideas, one of which included wanting to please God and she explained the best way to do this besides being good was to go to church. The extent of my knowledge in this arena involved that old game of putting my hands together with my index fingers sticking up and reciting the lines, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple.” Then I would “open the doors,” wiggle my fingers and cry, “And here’s all the people!”

Michelle had her eye on a church in our neighborhood. We could get there on her bike, although we would have to walk it across one busy street. I wasn’t eager to go to church, but I adored Michelle’s adventures, and it looked like she had her heart set on this. With permission granted by our moms to venture outside our normal confines, Michelle came to fetch me on her bike early one Sunday morning. I sat, she pedaled, and off we went.

The ladies greeting people at the door didn’t know what to make of us. I probably hadn’t brushed my hair, much less dressed in anything special. “We want to go to church,” Michelle announced. They said we were welcome to attend Sunday school in the back. Michelle pointed to the sanctuary with the pews and the grownups. “In there,” she said with great authority, “is where we want to go.” The ladies clucked at each other and told us to wait. “Let’s go,” I hissed. Michelle told me to shush.

The ladies returned, seeming very pleased. We could attend regular services this week but if we returned the following week, and they hoped we would, we were to attend Sunday school. Michelle nodded slowly: she would accept their deal.

One’s own center

At the Methodist church where I walked the temporary Stations of the Cross, other demonstrations of meaningful items used by Christians throughout the centuries had been set out for display. The first is an Eastern Orthodox icon presented along with station two (in which Jesus is arrested). The small painting of a saint is rendered in rich hues of gold and red; I recognize the style immediately from the icons belonging to my Greek grandmother. To my eyes, it’s almost cartoonish in its simplicity with the big dark eyes and fingers pointing up. These are described in the accompanying text as “windows to glimpse the eternal in the present moment.” I never would have imagined they were meant to have such power. My grandmother kept one on a shelf in her walk-in closet. Was it her private portal to another world?

A few stations down, the minister has laid out a labyrinth, a replica from a medieval Cathedral. It’s painted on canvas and spread on the floor. I’ve seen these before; I’m thinking of one in particular that is embedded in the concrete in front of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Out of curiosity, I walked it one afternoon. I remember the city bustling around me as I tried to stay focused on my footsteps along the thin, twisty path. The text explains something I knew, that labyrinths are used for meditation and reflection, but adds a tidbit I had never considered: they encourage a “journey to one’s own center.”

Next, I encounter a couple of varieties of prayer beads. The text explains that these are “Anglican,” although other traditions use similar beads. A specific prayer is said while holding each bead and a person is meant to go around the strand several times. It reads, “Allow repetition to become a sort of lullaby of love and praise that enables your mind and heart to become quiet.”

I sense a common purpose among these items: to help a person step away from the ordinary way of looking at and experiencing life. The regular world fades; something everlasting emerges.

At station 11, when Jesus is crucified but not yet dead, I find the most peculiar demonstration. The minister has placed three chairs around the station, inviting to take a respite. A short tutorial explaining “How to talk to God” hangs on the wall. I take a seat because I’ve been curious about this exact thing. How does one talk to God? Is it just a matter of the little voice in my head having a conversation? (I think of my favorite Judy Blume title: “Are you there God, it’s me Margaret”). The instructions don’t advise anything like this; they say, “Listen to God’s presence in the events of our lives.” The text elaborates, but only slightly: “We experience Christ reaching to us through our memories. Our own personal story becomes salvation history.” Can this be true? Is God hiding in my memories? If I sift through my past, will I find Christ beckoning from the shadows? If this is what it means to talk to God, I decide sift through my memories in search of divine evidence. How far back would I need to go?

Eating Jesus

At the Lutheran church in my hometown, there’s an atmosphere of inclusiveness I didn’t feel at the monastery I visited. In the chapel at the monastery, the area where the nuns sat and from which they conducted the services was separated from the pews by a wood lattice. It wasn’t a real barrier; I am almost certain I could have ripped the thing from its ceiling hinges if I had been so inclined. Its function was symbolic, a reminder to them and to me that we occupied different worlds. The nuns sing-songed all the prayers, the words to which were provided for guests in a little booklet, but most were Latin so even as I tried to follow along, I was lost. For me, personally, the services were a show, a lovely display that communicated nonverbally to my heart. But I gazed upon them passively.

As a non-Catholic, I was asked not to partake in communion in the monastery chapel. So I watched during mass as each nun extended her tongue to receive a wafer, followed by the nun-in-training and then the two organic farming volunteers, both apparently Catholic. I felt like the kid not invited to the party, just a tiny bit like they were sticking out their tongues at me.

Back at the guest house, the nun-in-training explained that when she takes her wafer she knows that she is eating the actual flesh of Jesus. I giggled. Honestly, I thought she was joking. I guess it goes to show how deep my Noneness runs that I had never heard such a thing before. When I laughed at this most sacred and fundamental heart of mass, the nun-in-training was inordinately kind. She retained her composure and gently maintained that, yes, she knew this miracle to be true—perhaps she saw my ignorance as a test and, if so, she passed with flying colors.

At today’s Lutheran service, the program clearly states that everyone is invited to participate in communion, but I decide to abstain. While Luther refuted many church rituals, the bread and wine into flesh and blood thing was not one of them. His only edit was to insist that the priests weren’t responsible for the miraculous transformation. It happened according to a greater authority.

I can see why the nuns discouraged me from participating. I’m not sure how I feel about eating Jesus.

An ice cream social is waiting in the church lobby at the end of the service. Someone has set out tubs of vanilla and chocolate with little bowls of toppings and squeeze bottles of caramel and fudge. I marvel at how many enticements have been added to the church-going experience and, yet, fewer people seem to be showing up. The chapel was about two-thirds of the way full and out in the lobby more than half the welcome baggies for newcomers remain in neat rows. Five hundred years ago, regular folks weren’t allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Now we can wash Jesus down with a free sundae.

Brother Martin

Martin Luther was one seriously miserable guy. He thought becoming a monk would alleviate his anxiety and depression—at last he would feel as if God were pleased with him—but even in his devout monastic life, he felt rotten.

My children’s book actually does an excellent job of conveying Luther’s torment. For the first half of the book, in every picture, the guy looks absolutely traumatized. He’s on his knees in a thunderstorm, woefully gazing at the heavens. Turn the page and he’s on his knees again, furiously scrubbing the monastery floor. The accompanying text reads: “Brother Martin was surprised and saddened that the harder he tried to keep God’s commandments perfectly, the more he felt like a failure.”

Then, in a quiet moment while reading the Bible, everything changes—such a simple and private act that it doesn’t warrant an illustration in my picture book. Luther suddenly understands that God’s love is free for all who wish to receive it. It dawns on him that nowhere in the Bible does it say donations of money are required, or that priests are necessary go-betweens. (Legend has it that this “Aha!” moment actually occurred while he was on the toilet, which is perhaps the best argument I’ve encountered for reading in the bathroom.)

He experienced elation at this realization. Of this moment, he recalled, “I felt as if I was entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open….”

He wanted everyone to go directly to the source and make this joyful discovery for themselves, so he personally translated the Bible into German and, luckily, the invention of the printing press helped him get the word out. Luther wished to empower people to develop their own relationships with God, and for churchgoers to form what he called a “priesthood of believers.”

Today, at the Lutheran church I’m visiting, this level playing field is apparent in the minister’s central location, his simple white linen robe, and his casual demeanor. He seems more like a master of ceremonies rather than a special conduit of God. No need for him to hear our sins and forgive us on behalf of God; he instructs us to take a moment to confess silently and then leads us in reading a prayer of forgiveness printed in the program. He hands the microphone to a young woman from the congregation who reads a passage from the Old Testament, and then to an older man who reads from the New Testament. He cues us when it’s time to recite prayers and sing hymns.

The kind of religious experience Luther was advocating sounds like it might be easier than what came before, but it wasn’t. A personal relationship means work: you can’t rely on priests to do it for you. You have to root around in your own heart and soul, an intimidating and messy prospect. Abandoning fear as a motivating factor seems almost ludicrous. Ever since Adam and Eve covered up their nakedness, part of the human condition seems to include a sense of doom, like our default setting is unworthiness. Attending church because we’re afraid of the consequences if we don’t is one thing, but it’s quite another to show up to be loved. Now that’s revolutionary.

Das hausfrau

As I pull into the parking lot of the Lutheran church, the first stop on my journey (well, second if you count the monastery), I’m nervous. I have comedian Dana Carvey’s character, “Church Lady,” in my head. Carvey says he based her on the women in the Lutheran church he attended growing up. Prim and judgmental, I can picture her interrogating me. “You’ve decided to attend church after all these years? And you’re how old? Well, isn’t that special?”

For the sake of comparison, I’ve constructed an elaborate daydream of what it must have been like to be a churchgoer back in Luther’s day—before he rebelled against the system and pressed for changes. In this little daydream, I am a regular lady of the town of medieval Wittenberg (where Luther lived), a “hausfrau” going about her daily chores when the church bells toll, indicating to those of us without personal timepieces that services will begin imminently. I corral my wayward pig and tighten the strings on my bodice and begin the ten minute walk to church.

By the time I arrive, it’s packed. In the front, at the altar, the priests and other church officials have begun the ceremonial rituals: the movements and prayers that look familiar to me, as I have witnessed them performed my entire life. Even so, I have no idea what they mean as the words are in Latin, a language only the educated elite study (basically just the “men of the cloth”). So I sit quietly, enjoying the intonation of their voices. Candles flicker and robes swish. I inhale the woody aroma of the incense, and appreciate the smell even as the smoke further obscures my already poor view of the holy stuff happening up front.

Of course, hausfrau me has never actually read the Bible, as it has yet to be translated into common languages from Greek and Latin, but I have been told about God, the ruler of the universe, and it is my understanding that I can do specific things to please Him. For example, I can give money to one of the traveling religious officials collecting donations to take back to headquarters in Rome and, depending on how much I give, the number of days that I have to wait to get into heaven after I die will be reduced. Money well spent, if you ask me, as I will have an official certificate of this purgatory-reducing transaction.

But the most important thing I can do, in my humble hausfrau opinion, is to attend church services and participate in the holiest of the holy: communion. This is when the priests turn bread and wine into the real flesh and blood of Jesus and, by consuming them, a person ingests God—this merging with the divine is where an individual is meant to feel closest to the Supreme Being. Not that I get to eat the bread and wine myself, mind you. The elements are too precious to be handled by regular people. What if the wine spills? That would be Jesus’ blood! The good men in robes must grow close to Him on our behalf.

A tap on the shoulder snaps me from my medieval revelry. “You forgot this,” says a bright-eyed woman. I look at her offering. “Today’s program,” she says. Ah, the Xerox machine: just one of the many ways the church-going experience has become more accessible since Luther’s time.

The journey begins!

It took me a few months to actually read the Worship Directory I had plucked from the paper. For many weeks it sat on my desk, growing crispy from the sun. One morning I realized that the newsprint would soon be too faint to decipher, and only then did I sit with it for over an hour, carefully going over the names of the various denominations. It occurred to me some options were missing—one just down the street from my house wasn’t listed—so I consulted the phonebook to fill in the gaps. The religious landscape was even more confusing than I had imagined.

I tried to decide which option to select. Go to the one closest to my house? The one whose representatives come to my door? Should I attend with my church-going friend I met volunteering at the local animal shelter? How about the biggest, modern one that sits on top of a hill and looks poised to stab passersby with its giant cross? Or should I pick an older, more traditional-looking building with a picturesque steeple? But how would I know which was the absolute best fit unless I had experienced the entire spectrum?

My husband plunked his beloved volume, History of the World, into my lap. “Read,” he said, pointing to the open page. “The Protestant Reformation,” the text was labeled. Over several paragraphs, I learn the condensed version of the story: the devoted monk in medieval Germany whose dissatisfaction with the prevalent Catholic leaders of his day led him to challenge their interpretation of Christianity. His bold gesture of posting an outline of complaints to his local cathedral door is credited with starting a wave of religious rebellion throughout Europe. I suppose I had been taught the broad strokes of these events in high school, but presented in too dry a manner to stick with me.

So, I turned to history for guidance. From our colonial origins, the United States has been largely a Protestant nation. Even today, of the 76 percent of Americans who identify as Christian, over half belong to a Protestant denomination. So what better place to start than with Martin Luther, the “father” of the Protestant Reformation?

I went online to order a book about him. The one I selected was called Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World. I picked it because of the title, it sounded so authoritative. I thought: this is just the thing to start me on the scholarly path of religious knowledge. I eagerly awaited the arrival of my tome.

Two weeks later, I came home from walking the dogs to find a big, square package. Too wide to fit in the mailbox, our mail carrier had propped it against the garage. What’s this? I wondered, ripping into it.

My book! Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World.

The cover, realistically rendered in gloomy colors, showed an unsmiling young monk holding an old scroll against a wood door.

But, wait, my tome was no thicker than a magazine.

Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World is a picture book for children.

At first, I’m annoyed. Now I have to repackage the thing, send it back, hassle with customer service. Then I stop that line of thought. This whole project is about learning to see things differently.

I’ve heard people say that the funny little blips in life, the quirky twists of fate, are the quiet whispers of God. If this is one of those, I thought, God is hilarious. I was being put in my place, but gently. “Not so fast, kid.” I imagined the words blown by the wind. “You have a lot of growing up to do.”

Something clicks, some spark of recognition, and I promise to take note of all the goofy things that happen along this journey—even if they are ridiculous or seem to take me backward instead of forward. I’m likely to learn as much about God from these as I am from sermons or the Bible.

I decide to keep my picture book, and set it where I can see it every day.

I also decide to use the local college library from here on out.