There is something about water that always feels like “home” to me. Growing up in Michigan – the Great Lake State – I spent countless summer days at grandparents’ cottages on inland lakes, but it was the big waters of Lakes Michigan and Huron that best defined where I came from.
Driving north on Highway 53 toward Superior, my heart automatically skips a few beats at the first sight of that “Greatest of the Great” Lake Superior in the distance.
To this day, if someone asks where I’m from, I automatically raise my left hand to point to my childhood hometown in “the mitten.” Although to be honest, home has been a pretty fluid concept much of my life, at least in terms of a physical or geographic location. My experience is tied more to a sense of familiarity and belonging rather than four walls with a permanent location.
There were the handful of homes I lived in between two families growing up. Between high school graduation and marriage, there were addresses in Ireland, Mexico and multiple states and then cities in Michigan. My address of the last seven years – the house my kids call home – is the longest I’ve lived under one roof in the last 25 years.
That said, an experience I had last summer helped me crystal-clearly recognize the one physical place I have consistently and unmistakably felt at home (water and shoreline optional).
It’s a place accessible to all of us in one way or another, and after the ongoing uncertainty and upheaval of these last months, taking a few moments to recall personal parallels might be mutually refreshing.
It was a Sunday morning. I was visiting family members who aren’t Catholic. We’d had a lovely visit but I woke up unsettled and agitated. I decided to go to an early Mass at the closest church, hoping I could get on with the day in a better mood.
I silently nodded as the greeter handed me a songbook and looked for an inconspicuous open spot, distracted and uninspired by the plain backdrop of the modern-style architecture of the worship space.
When the processional hymn started, I only half-heartedly joined in the familiar song.
“Here in this place, new light is streaming. Now is the darkness vanished away. See in this space our fears and our dreamings, brought here to you in the light of this day.”
The words cleared my mind like a ray of sunlight piercing through hazy morning fog.
“Gather us in, the lost and forsaken. Gather us in, the blind and the lame. Call to us now and we shall awaken. We shall arise at the sound of our name.”
My eyes welled up with tears. It took only a few deep breaths to understand what had come over me.
I felt “home” – in mind, body and spirit. I let down my guard knowing I was, even alone and in unfamiliar surroundings, where I belonged and where my arrival had been anxiously awaited.
“We are the young, our lives are a mystery. We are the old who yearn for your face. We have been sung throughout all of history, called to be light to the whole human race.
“Gather us in, the rich and the haughty. Gather us in, the proud and the strong. Give us a heart so meek and so lowly. Give us the courage to enter the song.”
As if a moment suspended in time, yet outside of time, images from dozens, possibly even hundreds of Catholic churches I’d set foot in came to mind: my childhood parish church, churches my family had visited on vacation and the first chapels and churches where I’d attended Mass on my own as a young adult.
I thought of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the chapel at the boarding school where I volunteered and lived in Ireland, and the dirt-floor churches in Mexican villages where I had been on mission trips.
It was a collage of places where I had attended Mass on good days and bad; communions I received in moments of happy clarity and also during times of confusion and pain; adoration chapels where I had fervently prayed and admittedly others where I had fallen asleep or been too distracted to be aware of who I was with.
“Here we will take the wine and the water. Here we will take the bread of new birth. Here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth.
“Give us to drink the wine of compassion. Give us to eat the bread that is you. Nourish us well and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.”
Looking up at the lights to blink away the moisture, I was both overwhelmed with waves of emotion and steadied with the straight horizon of faith-infused insight.
At the heart of each occurrence of walking through the door of a church, the greatest common denominator was the Eucharist. Jesus’ sustaining gift of self coming to greet and meet me.
Whether I was worthy of receiving him or not, fully conscientious or distracted, recollected or frenzied, it was the same Jesus, always and everywhere. Just like setting down the car keys and collapsing on the couch, sharing a smile and maybe a drink with someone who gets you and simply being there for each other.
What had mattered was simply that I had been present in each of those moments. It was less about what I put in or got out of each one, much more the sum total of his grace with my undulating cooperation.
“Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place the new light is shining. Now is the kingdom, now is the day.”
For those of us who have been able to attend Mass these last few months after the drought of the early spring and summer, Mass doesn’t feel the same without music, without the sign of peace and fellowship so often shared.
What is the same is Jesus.
While we have been in lockdown mode these seven months and counting, the very same Jesus has been locked in the tabernacles of our churches. It might be new for us, but that’s where he has always been.
As we have been “safer at home,” aching to see loved ones face-to-face and embrace friends and family, Jesus has been longing to see our faces and offer himself, his own comfort, hope and strength in the gift of a Eucharistic embrace.
The only difference is that he was waiting and longing for that even before the pandemic began.
Where have our hearts been these last months? Where are our lives today? Where will our souls find us next Sunday, and the next? What will the sum total of his grace and our cooperation be?
“Gather us in and hold us forever. Gather us in and make us your own. Gather us in, all peoples together. Fire of love in our flesh and our bones.
“Fire of love in our flesh and our bones.”