I went to church this weekend. Just not the normal kind.
When I was a sight-seeing child in Europe, churches were the salvation of my tired little legs. After dutifully examining the statue/triptych/stained glass of art historical significance, and before moving on to the next entry in the Blue Guide, I was permitted a few moments to sit in the cool interior and stare admiringly at the vaulted arches. I doubt I got architectural insight—and I definitely didn’t get religion—but I got rest and peace, and that was plenty.
I’ve loved churches ever since; I even yearn for them. The little white ones you pass on Vermont roads in the fall, the stately stone ones on rolling Virginia hills, the jewel-like chapels in Venice. And I have learned that the design of the apse or nave or cloister does matter, whether I care about it or not. Buildings affect how people feel. They can make people feel things.
A well-wrought church gives congregants both the sense of being at home and the sense of reaching toward heaven. Comfort and inspiration. Routine and transcendence.
Where does an atheist go for that?
I have been to a few get-togethers with atheists here in the Capital District. We meet at a bar or a coffee-shop or a restaurant; we fumble with ordering food or hanging up coats or finding the bathroom; we pull up a chair; we chat. It’s pleasant. And it’s really, really easy to stay home instead.
But there is a place that I go, at least two times a week, sometimes five. Its potholed parking lot makes me shake my head, but it also makes me smile, because it tells me I’ve come home. Its hard wooden benches are comforting, though not comfortable; its scuffed halls are filled with familiar kids and grownups, some of whom have known my children since before my children could read. I could leave my kids for hours without informing anyone and without worrying a bit. We pay to belong; we grumble about the policies; we feel ourselves fortunate to be there—so fortunate that we even try to get our friends to join. And we’re all there because we believe in something. Not God, in this case, but music.
Admittedly, although The Music Studio, housed in an old city school, feels solid and permanent, it is not a pretty place. The lighting is resolutely fluorescent; the wall-to-wall carpeting is institutional. It feels like home, not heaven. Routine, not transcendence.
But if you belong to The Music Studio, you get the heaven part too. Several times a year, we all dress up and enter a pretty little recital hall at the university, with balconies, red velvet drapes, plush chairs, and a Steinway grand instead of an altar. In front of the piano—just as at an altar—stands a big bouquet of flowers.
In that recital hall, my daughter first learned to be well and truly bored; a long Mass could not have done the job better. She doodles; she yawns; in her program, with my pencil, she assigns each performer a letter grade for fashion; she turns to me often to mouth the words, “This is so looonggg.” And yet, last year, when she had her first recital there—in an A+ outfit, naturally—she could not have been prouder or more solemn or more relieved afterward than if she had celebrated First Communion.
In that hall, my sons learned to act respectful and attentive and fidget discreetly (and make paper airplanes from their programs). At the end of every recital, no matter how well they played, they emerge into the large foyer for trays of sweets and plastic cups of lemonade, just like after services at church. And just as we would in a church social hall, we linger longer than necessary over store-bought rainbow cookies, basking in the fellowship, hoping for a blessing from one of the teacher-deacons or maybe even a word of particular praise from the priest herself, the founder of the school.
And as long my kid isn’t the one playing, I can relax in one of those plush chairs in “my” balcony, staring up at the chandelier, transported by the strange and undeniable power of music. How can something be so useless and yet so essential? How can a teenager, playing something written by another teenager 200 years ago, fill me with faith and hope? These are things I could feel and think about all the time—in my car, in my kitchen—but I don’t. I think about them here, in this beautiful room. Built by human beings—filled with human beings—reaching beyond their daily lives to touch something both universal and immortal.
That’s church enough for me.