Over the years, it has become popular to say that the church is “not just bricks and mortar.” It has also become popular to say things like, “I don’t go to church, but I have my own spiritual life.” These two bromides hit home while I was in Europe this summer. Due to my travel requirements, I was unable to attend any kind of Sunday morning worship for the first two of my three Sundays away. Finally, on July 28, we attended mass at the grandiose church of St. Sulpice in Paris (made even more famous by a scene in The Da Vinci Code). Much of the organ music was beautiful and inspiring, but otherwise there was little care for tourists or “outsiders” seeking to strengthen their faith: despite the fact that the cantor was pleading with people to sit closer together toward the front of the church (as a family, he said), there were no other signs of welcome, such as the availability of printed music for non-parishioners to follow. This caused me to think a bit about bricks and mortar both as an outgrowth of faith and as vessel for faith. I thought about the great priest Jean-Jacques Olier who transformed people’s faith in the middle of the 17th century. He started as an Oratorian, then founded a church (with a stone-and-mortar building) where he could distill and express what he considered to be the most important aspects of his faith. And he founded the Sulpician seminaries which were responsible for educating some of the finest clergy known to the Catholic church. He nurtured the faith of his flock, and there are records of his thoughtful and caring written correspondence with various local orders of nuns who sought his guidance. After thinking about Olier, I thought about the many brilliant organists of the church (Nivers, Clerambault, Widor, Dupré, Roth) whose music inspired churchgoers over the centuries. So, since the middle of the 17th century, countless people have grown in their faith by means of walking into St. Sulpice each Sunday morning searching for inspiration, refreshment, and renewal. It is my sincere hope that the clergy, administrators, and musicians who are in charge of service leaflets will someday come to a better understanding of their calling by providing some music for visitors. It was a moving visit despite the liturgical challenges.
Upon my return River Road, I encountered a long-time church member at around 9:30 on Sunday morning as we both prepared for worship. She asked politely about my trip, and I couldn’t help but report that as inspiring as the trip was, I really felt uncomfortable missing church on those two Sunday mornings that we were travelling. Now, I cannot evaluate how spiritual a person I am. I certainly don’t wear it on my sleeve. Only God really knows, and perhaps rates or ranks, what our deep-down spirituality is. But, this church member and I agreed that no matter how low or high we each rated on the spirituality index, we just “liked” coming to church to worship on a Sunday morning. We like it anywhere, but especially at River Road. Every Sunday, I walk out of the worship service a different person from the way I walked in. I am changed by the hymns, the anthems, the lessons, the prayers, and the sermon. I am grateful for the opportunity to let the words and music of other people change my life. I admit that I need the bricks-and-mortar structure for which the builders of our church made great sacrifices, and I deny that I can find a deep spiritual life all by myself in some place that is away from corporate worship.
So, here is my suggestion. Come to this inspiring building each Sunday morning and help to fulfill the dream of our founders and our builders. Do your part to complete and mission of faith that this church represents. I will not discourage you from “smelling the flowers” in your own private spiritual time away from church, but I will always encourage you to “meet together” each week (and more often) as one great body of faith. See you in church!