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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finding God in the Small and Unimportant

In a small, mostly forgotten church in downtown Chicago visitors can have an extraordinary experience of God.

But I didn't know that when I first started going. I found it absolutely unimpressive in almost every way. But I wasn't seeing it, not truly, and I was looking for God as people always have been: in the grand, the important, and the powerful. This is what happened:

I live in Wheaton but work downtown just a few blocks from a Catholic church. They offer a daily mass and last year I decided to try to attend a couple times a week on my lunch break if I could.

This church, Assumption Catholic Church for those interested, is somewhat small and really unimpressive from the outside. It's in desperate need of repair too with noisy heaters that kick on during mass and what I think must be Chicago's worst insulation as you often feel the need to keep coat, scarf, and gloves on for the duration of your visit.

Upon first entering the church, you'll find it fairly gaudy. There are a lot of different stylistic elements at play, most of them dissonant and obviously accumulated over time and therefore mismatched. It's as if over the years this church kept acquiring knick-knacks from other places, throwing them all in the sanctuary, and thinking that a "more is better" approach was the supreme philosophy of decoration. There are the dozen statues lining both sides of the church, most of different sizes so that each saint is disproportionately large or small, which of course irritates me to no end. I love order! I love uniformity! And the statues were the first thing that put me off when I walked in the door.

The bathroom is practically in the sanctuary; the candles are too numerous (yet underutilized); the congregation numbers around a dozen; the lector wears a black leather vest, leather pants, and bolo tie combination - every single day; and the priest is old to the point of hardly being able to stand. I'm not making any of this up. On top of all that not everyone who attends regularly has wonderful hygiene and so the smells are another experience altogether.

So just exactly how do you meet God here? The same way you meet God anywhere else: through the people, through prayer, through art, through your own experiences, through the Eucharist. It took me about a month to start appreciating this place. I started to savor the intimacy and isolation the small congregation afforded and the warmth of my wool scarf defending my neck against the cold. The statues...I didn't notice as much. And I gained a great admiration for the lector who came daily to do the readings and especially for the priest who walked, bowed, leaned, or stood as needed - all of which you could plainly see caused him physical pain. He was performing his duties and his calling and still does. And as far as I know, he's never shown any signs of complaint or failed to do what any other priest would.

I think it was Therese of Lisieux who intentionally sat next to the other nuns who were the cruelest to her. No one was anything but nice to me here but the idea of that sort of 'quiet embrace of the difficult and the unpleasant' was a lot of help for me. I got over my Sam-ness by intentionally sitting near the people who didn't shower and by staring intently at the gaudy baby Jesus with a crown so big that its proportionate weight, it can be assumed, would crush the head of any other infant.

And the art! Despite the cacophony of styles, the art in this church is gorgeous and numerous. Beautiful stained glass windows, portraits of the Apostles, paintings of events throughout Christian history, and a beautiful 10' stone mosaic of the Last Supper behind the altar. I'm sure the priest thinks I'm a little weird myself because during mass I'll just stare directly overhead at the ceiling. Its hand-painted, classically-styled scenes are really captivating - and that's coming from someone who often "doesn't get art".

I got over myself so that I could meet God. (Or rather God got me over myself.) Now I find prayer here is some of the best I have. I clearly see God in the faces of these people I initially judged. And I'm learning to embrace the difficult way, the less important way, the more humble or unpleasant or unattractive way. Because there you'll find surprises and you'll find more of your true self. And there you'll find God.


  1. I liked your "cacophony of styles" line - I just don't hear that word often enough.

    I'm enjoying getting to know your blog! It looks fascinating. (My Dad was raised Catholic, became Protestant, and I was raised in a very Protestant home.)

    1. Yeah I was raised in a strict Protestant home myself and only converted to Catholicism after exploring it in college. It's always interesting to hear conversion stories. Do you know your dad's? Maybe my own story would be a good post sometime. Thanks for commenting!