Breathing Room: In Search of Sanctuary

It’s a Friday evening, the end of a long week and an endless day. It’s hot. I’m weary. I can’t think of a single thing I feel like eating, much less cooking. I phone in a pizza order from the car, drive aimlessly for a few minutes, killing time until I can pick up this not-really-what-I-want dinner and go home.

I pass a church, slow down, turn in the driveway. Perfect. A cool, empty place where I can sit quietly for a while, collect my thoughts. Light a candle for a friend who is near death. Breathe.

I enter and dip my finger in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. And then I see that I am not alone. In the front row, a man and a woman are talking in conversational tones, as though they were in a bar or a coffee shop. They slouch comfortably, their arms extended over the back of the pew. It is impossible not to hear them.

I approach the candle stand, trying to shut out their voices. As I fumble for matches, I hear the loud squawk of a video game. I cross the aisle and look into the small side chapel. A young couple kneels before the altar, murmuring the rosary. Around them, three small children tumble like puppies. One of them waves a beeping, flashing phone. The others try to wrest it from him, pushing and pulling and launching themselves from the kneelers.

So much for my quiet refuge.

I light a candle and slip into a back pew, as far from the noise as possible. I try to still my mind, but a clamor of judgmental thoughts drowns out even the chatting couple and the toddler play group up front. Why are they here, impeding my spiritual moment?

I recall a conversation I had once with a woman who had taken her children to church on Christmas Eve for their annual dose of religion. The sermon was awful, she told me. I was furious. Here I make this big effort to get everyone dressed up and in the pew, and for what? I looked at her across the lunch table and told her, rather smugly, that God is subtler than that. There’s no guarantee of bells and whistles and angel choirs, or even inspired preaching.

I remind myself of this, wonder if there is something I am supposed to learn here. I used to imagine the kingdom of heaven as a walled city on a hill, like the illustrations that appear in medieval Books of Hours. Pennants flying from the ramparts. Ermine-clad nobles making their way to a high gate. A king, watching from a tower. It seemed a place apart, distant and desirable, a place which, once achieved, would transform people into the best versions of themselves.

But there is another line that runs through my head, the one about the kingdom being in our midst, here and now. I came in search of private peace, cool comfort. I came in search of what I wanted, and it didn’t seem like a lot to ask. Instead, I find noise and distraction. Life on life’s terms. Humanity, writ large.

I collect my pizza and drive home. It’s cooler now, the sharp-edged summer light softening. I think about the people in the church, wonder about the paths that led them there. The young couple praying so intently, their whispered repetition a kind of mantra that hums beneath the insistent, pulsing energy of their children. The duo in the front row, relaxed, at home. The kingdom in our midst. Mysterious. Unpredictable. And on this July evening, alive with grace.