Some people ask how I ended up visiting 61 places of worship when my original commitment was to visit a different place of worship every week. Simple mathematics would mean that I should have visited 52 places of worship. But there were some weeks where there were more than one worship experiences that I wanted to have – one weekend I spent Friday night at a Kol Nidre Service, Saturday night at a Wiccan festival, and Sunday at a “Kirtan” chanting session at a Protestant Church.
Was I exhausted after that weekend’s “worshipalooza?” Yes.
Was I exhilarated? Yes.
Each worship experience allowed me to interact with new different people, all of whom invited me into their space for a few hours – to share how they worshipped.
As the year came to an end, in November and December, there were weeks where I also had more than 1 worship experience. The Friday of Thanksgiving, I went to a masjid in the morning and a synagogue that evening, and was tickled when both the imam and the rabbi talked about how Muslims and Jews alike came from a tradition of giving thanks.
As the year came to an end, and I confided in a friend that I would miss the ability to visit different places of worship, she asked me, “Well, who says you have to stop?”
Somehow I felt that 52 Weeks meant 52 weeks, and that I should stop. But what I have learned, even as I have narrowed my worship home(s) down to 3 primary churches in Chicago, is that I will always love the experience of making a decision to visit a new place of worship.
Maybe it is a place that was on my list to visit last year that I never got around to it. Maybe I am walking around in a Chicago neighborhood – or driving – and I see a new church, mosque, or temple and make a mental note that I would like to be a visitor there. Or maybe, I get into a rut in my thinking or in my personal worship practice – or face a new problem that needs a new perspective for me to solve it – and I think how refreshing it would be to visit somewhere new.
Last night, I found myself in that situation. I had a great deal on my mind, and made a decision that I really needed to have a contemplative worship experience. I found myself googling a church that had been on my list all of 2010, but that I did not have the chance to visit. I located the address, and confirmed that there was indeed a Wednesday evening service. After wrapping up my work for the day, I hopped on Chicago’s CTA Red line and made my way to the North side of Chicago to attend a contemplative Eucharist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
From the train station, I walked about a mile to the church. When I saw it in front of me, I felt that same familiar feeling of expectation that I feel every time that I approach a new place of worship. There were large, ornate, red doors which led into the sanctuary. I took a picture of the sign for the service, and then crossed the street so that I could take a picture of the entire church.
When I crossed back, and climbed the stairs to the church, I saw that there were a few people standing there. I said hello to them, and noticed that one of the women was wearing what looked like a priestly collar.
“Can I go in the sanctuary?” I asked her, as I was still about 15 minutes early for the service.
“Certainly” she said, and gestured to the door. “Sit anywhere you want. We are a small but mighty group” she said.
I opened the big red doors, and walked into a lobby, where I saw another set of doors. I opened those doors to a chapel, dimly lit by candles only. There was a fountain at the back of the sanctuary, with the now familiar monogram, which I knew from my high school logo, and previous worship experiences represented the first three letters of Jesus’s name in Greek.
There were rows and rows of pews, and the first thing I noticed as I walked in was that a feeling of peace washed over me. It was especially memorable, given the contrast that there was between the silence and peace inside the chapel, and the hustle and bustle of the Chicago streets outside.
I let out a long sigh, thinking: “This is exactly where I am supposed to be tonight.”
I saw a pile of programs at the back of the sanctuary, grabbed one and then walked down to sit in a pew at the front of the church.
I knew that the service was going to be mostly readings and songs and silent meditation – just what my spirit was craving on this last day of August.
I was one of the first to arrive, and after about 4 more people entered, the worship leader entered and opened the service with a prayer and a hymn.
The whole time I sat there, I realized – the peace and joy I receive from the kindness of strangers will always be something that I treasure. Although there is something to be gained from being somewhere “where everyone knows your name,” there is something about me that also finds profound peace in being in a number of people who extend kindness not because they know you, but simply because you exist.
Those four people, along with me, desired quiet meditation on that Wednesday evening – and together we bowed our heads, shared our hearts silently, and encouraged each other without even knowing each other.
I am profoundly thankful for places like this all over the earth that provide me and others with a place to just take a deep breath, be still, and know, and take a break from all of the concerns of life and of the world.
And yes, when I exited the service, my cell phone had several text messages and voicemails on it reminding me that the respite was brief. And, amazingly enough, even more drama and mayhem was waiting for me when I returned home and had the audacity to check my email and my Facebook messages.
But for that hour, in the presence of a place I had never visited before, with people that I had never seen before, I was able to bask in the peace that passeth all understanding.
And that is why this project continues.