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.
I realized this not long ago: My children’s music school is my church.
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.
Kate, once again, I was about to leave without writing a comment. Whatever will be written won’t be as true and thoughtful as your post. I love this one, it echoes a lot.
You’re welcome, Clay, and thank you for persevering past that word “atheist.” One of the reasons I started to write about this topic was I felt there are so many wonderful things religion offers that I want to be able both to experience and give my kids. I’m trying to work out what they are and whether I can. (It sure would be simpler to believe!)
Sady shared this on Facebook and I enjoyed reading it. I am one who loves church for the worship-related reasons, and finds the church most beautiful when the faithful are there, belting out something glorious. Nonetheless, I found this quite moving, and I appreciate your sharing it. There is great value in finding language with which we can talk to one another, even from vastly different worldview perspectives, and your thoughts about sacredness provide just such language. Thank you!
I’m definitely working on a post about the importance of learning to be “bored”–i.e., entertained by nothing save your own mind. Thanks for the encouragement!
Yes, churches seem built for music, don’t they? The connection between music and religion probably constitutes a whole academic subfield. And I’ll bet there are many who never quit their church because of the music alone–no matter whether they believe what they’re singing (or hearing). I totally understand that.
Alice, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and forwarding on blog. I agree that the atheist voices that we hear tend to be male, erudite, and, to put it nicely, uncompromising. I’m writing a book about raising my kids as atheists–working title: “Sorry, Honey, God’s Just Pretend”–and the idea is not to argue that god doesn’t exist (that’s a given) but to argue that it’s worthwhile to be honest about that with our kids, despite the difficulties. And there are difficulties–not just other kids’ parents, but also the stuff you have to give up. Such as the priest you mention! Moral leadership . . . that will be another post, I’m sure.
Love the religious training for children: It’s so loooong. Another great work of modern art/writing by You!
The atheism bit brought me here. Loved the piece, Kate!
I’ve thought about that, because for me architecture (and the scent of incense) were the things I found myself missing most from my childhood church experiences. Well, that and the priest who talked about different possible translations, the historical perspective of that was very interesting for a secular person even. When my kids were little sometimes on Sundays I would take them to a local woods and walk through quietly and try to spot birds, and tell them some people go to church, I come here. I mean the trees do make that same kind of “you are insignificant” scale perspective. I suppose that’s still my answer for when I need to go slow down and remember how small my problems are in the grand scheme of things.
I forwarded your blog to a group I belong to on facebook, a Secular Moms Group. A lot of the public face of atheism is men, and the only problems I feel like that may contribute to are 1 – it makes women overall seem more…superstitious maybe? and 2 – men are more confrontational in general, both for the good and bad. So I think some of the negative perspective people feel about “the angry atheist” has to do with that confrontational perspective. Most secular moms I know are trying to figure out how to balance being honest with not being prejudged, particularly when their kids friends’ parents are involved (because personally I can feel ok with not socializing with someone who would judge us for this, but I don’t feel like punishing their or my kids for it is a good outcome). That’s why your post about being a …”get-along” kind of girl (somethingsomethingmiddlechildsomething) spoke to me as well.
Kate – Love this! It reminds me especially of my time at the Washington Conservatory of Music, then housed in Westmoreland UCC, but also all the time I spend in churches attending concerts!
Alice, I’m so happy you enjoyed the essay. It’s funny: since people really don’t talk about being atheists much (at least at, you know, a kid’s birthday party), I think we tend to assume we’re more alone that we really are. It’s been great hearing from people I would have just assumed were believers but aren’t. It’s great for my kids, too.
So, do you have a sacred place in your life?
Kate, this little white-haired Alice from
down the street in Broadway. Your sisters linked this post. I went back and read a few others as well. I just wanted to say our family grapples with the same issues as atheists with a huge Catholic family. I love hearing a familiar voice echo my feelings, thoughts and concerns on the matter. This one about missing the architecture of “sacred places” particularly. So thanks, I’ll be lurking!