What happened when I stopped going to church

Turn the other way. Photo by James Ogley, Flickr.

This past summer, I didn't go to church for eight weeks. (Don't tell my goddaughter.) I had my reasons: my summer travel led to an irregular schedule, or I was often visiting people who don't attend church, or I didn't want to put on "real" clothes.

At first, in accordance with my Catholic upbringing, I felt guilt. I knew I could have made more of an effort -- timed flights differently, gotten up earlier, looked up Mass times at local parishes wherever I was.

But sometimes, I just didn't want to. It was rather pleasant, actually, not to be on a set schedule. Plus, I'd just spent a great deal of money to visit my loved ones wherever they were; I wanted to maximize my time with them.

Thus I justified my choices. Then I got complacent, especially about putting on pants. So I forgave myself the absences, and said to God, "I'll be back in the fall."

Now it's October, and indeed, I am back. But a funny thing happened on the way to the chapel: I gained perspective on why I ever wanted or followed a spiritual routine in the first place. Here's what I learned.

Stay and think awhile. Photo by Visual Storyteller, Flickr.

Create regular space for contemplation.

For years I've felt like an anomaly among my broader peer group for attending services at all, much less regularly. When I ask folks about it, they answer with some variation of, "Well, church/Mass/services/organized religion doesn't do it for me, so I don't go."

What I realized over the summer is that church-going does do it for me. The desire doesn't stem as much from rule-following or a sense of obligation as it does from a need for scheduled contemplative time. I lead a busy and distracted life. My praying is sporadic. But Mass -- and the routine of attending it -- carves out time for me to talk to God.

The Catholic Mass structure in particular speaks to my personal history, style of learning, and love of storytelling. Its more rote aspects free me to dwell on bigger theological or spiritual themes, such as my place in the world and what God is guiding me toward. As with a sonnet, the rigid format promotes creativity within. For me, it works.

Now, the operative part there is that it works for me. Any number of other spiritual practices could achieve the same effect in others, be it regular meditation, daily prayer, or a couple hours spent alone in nature. The point is to be consistent and mindful about it, as this Huffington Post article The Habits of Supremely Happy People points out (emphasis mine):
As Ellen L. Idler, Ph.D., writes in "The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices,":
The experience of sacred time provides a time apart from the “profane time” that we live most of our lives in. A daily period of meditation, a weekly practice of lighting Sabbath candles, or attending worship services, or an annual retreat in an isolated, quiet place of solitude all of these are examples of setting time apart from the rush of our everyday lives. Periods of rest and respite from work and the demands of daily life serve to reduce stress, a fundamental cause of chronic diseases that is still the primary causes of death in Western society. Transcendent spiritual and religious experiences have a positive, healing, restorative effect, especially if they are “built in,” so to speak, to one’s daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual cycles of living.

Truants, together. Photo by pily pily, Flickr.

Ask for what you need, and be open to the results.

I'll be honest: Sometimes my lack of attendance this summer was sheer laziness. I was in no mood to make the extra effort.

Now I'll be honest-er: Sometimes I really did want to go, but I was afraid to offend or inconvenience the people I was traveling with -- or worse, I didn't want them to think I was a weird goody-two-shoes.

In this case, I not only undercut my own needs, but I also forestalled potential conversations and revelations. Had I demonstrated what I wanted at that moment, I would have given my traveling partners an opportunity to respond. Perhaps they would have poked fun of me. Perhaps they would have joined. Or perhaps they would simply ask why I go, and we would talk from there about faith in our lives.

No matter the response, I would have learned something new about myself and about them. Instead, I let fear and embarrassment stand in my way. Now I know for next time to stand by what’s important to me and see what emerges.

The easy path? Photo by Billtacular, Flickr.

Beware the easy path.

It’s ok not to go occasionally. Clearly, no bolt from the heavens has burnt me to a crisp for saying that, because I’m writing a blog post about it. But not going quickly turned into the easier path. And when I did recommit to attending, I felt weak, flabby, and out of practice. Plus, it was all the harder to get back into the habit.

This summer was the spiritual equivalent of going to the gym once a week for 30 minutes to sit in the sauna yet claiming that I'd exercised. Lesson: The absence of resistance rarely results in meaningful growth. It’s worth challenging myself to see what new levels I can attain.

I've been back at church for a month or so now, and it feels good. I have songs to sing, sermons to mull over, a community to participate in. Most important, I have at least one hour every week where my mind is focused on something bigger than myself. I'm not thinking about emails or writing goals or homework or work projects or dinner. I'm just thinking about God, the state of the world, and my immortal soul.

You know. Light stuff.

Prayer #263: Spiritual Truancy

Free will means I don't have to ask permission. Free will means I don’t have to provide reasons. So I won't. I'll come and go as I please. I'm a grown-ass adult. I dictate my time. My terms.

But of all the terms and time to dictate, why not spend a slice -- a sliver, really – on a relationship that is at once the easiest and hardest to maintain? Easy because my partner is already gaga for me (I’m told); hard because I cannot grasp the enormity of that unseen claim.

No pain, no gain, they say. But the longer it takes to see gains, the more pronounced pain can feel.

Still, I will try. Still, I will reach.