I am currently participating in an Adult R.E. (Religious Education) class at my Unitarian Universalist church. The minister is leading a course titled “Owning Your Religious Past” that is designed to address where we have come from in our spiritual journey. She described it this way:
“Few UU’s are born into the faith, and when we find our way here, it can be with significant baggage from past church experiences. This class will help us sort through what was, what is, and what can be in our experience of religious community, its tools of self-exploration and sharing, finally enabling us to realize a faith that is powerful, nurturing, and relational.”
Last Sunday, the 2nd in the 5 week curriculum, we spent some time with our eyes closed, remembering a church from our past that had a big influence on us, either positively or negatively, mentally walking through the entire building, recalling sights, sounds, and smells. We then spent a few minutes drawing a floor plan of it and sharing with the other members of the class what we remembered.
My memory was of the Catholic church of my childhood. I remembered walking up the large flight of marble steps, through the heavy wooden doors, and into the sanctuary with my family. We were usually late, rushing in as the first hymn, or even the first reading, was already underway. We sat in the same general area each week – near the back, on the left side of the center aisle. I still do that at my new church – although now I move to the right, near the side aisle, and am a bit closer to the front.
I think we are all creatures of habit and tend to gravitate to our “comfort zone”. I remember often asking my dad why we had to sit so far back. Looking back, it was probably because we were late, and he didn’t want to make a bigger scene than necessary. He was never one to draw attention to himself. But his usual answer at the time was to suggest that I look at all the candles on the altar and then tell me that if the place caught on fire, he wanted to be as close to the door as possible!
One of the sights I remember from many Sundays sitting in the pews was the Bible verse painted around the clerestory, just below the upper level windows. In letters edged with gold, it read
TU ES PETRUS, ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM
For those as lacking in biblical knowledge as I am, that verse is from Matthew 16:18. As you can see, it was in Latin, which I never took, and it wasn’t until I was in French class in high school that I deciphered what it meant. In French, the name Peter translates as Pierre, while the word for rock is pierre. Yes, the same word. Sometime after I learned that, I was sitting in church one Sunday, looking at the words high above my head (probably trying to keep from falling asleep during the sermon), and realized that Petrus/Petram looked a lot like Peter. Aedificabo looked like “edifice”, which had to do with buildings, and all of a sudden I put it together. I was sitting in St. Peter’s Church! And there was a Bible verse I vaguely remembered hearing at some point in my Catholic school education about “You are Peter, and on this Rock, I build my church.”
It all began to make sense. At least, the choice of Bible verses made sense. (I mean, it was St. Peter’s Church!) I never did make sense of the dogma that was preached. Which is why I no longer consider myself a Catholic.
I have been thinking about my childhood church a lot lately. Taking part in this exploration of our religious past is bringing up lots of memories, but I also have realized this week that St. Peter’s is still a part of my present. 7 weeks from today*, I will be back in St. Peter’s Church. This time, though, I will be sitting in the front row, listening to my brother eulogize my father, and missing my rock. I just hope the church doesn’t catch fire!
*For those who don’t know, we have had to wait for my father’s funeral until we were given a burial date by Arlington National Cemetery.