Weighed down by life, a woman finds respite in her church.
It’s early August and the thermometer has hit 100 degrees. I feel wound tight as a drum—tense with fatigue, with the heat. It’s been a difficult day; what is usually smooth going feels bumpy and rough. The troubles that are always here—an ongoing problem with a coworker, a worry about my son, the terminal illness of my mother-in-law—seem so much harder to bear today.
On my way to get groceries after work, I drive by church and see that one side of the double wooden doors is open. It looks shadowy and quiet inside. It looks restful, inviting. I decide to stop.
Stepping from the air-conditioned car, I find the heat feels so stifling and heavy it hurts to breathe. I think of words from St. Augustine: “Is not the life of man upon earth a trial, a continuous trial? All my hope lies only in your great mercy.”
Inside church, I take a generous helping of holy water. I bless myself: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Water slips down my nose, splashes on my shirt. It feels cool and reviving, like a gift from heaven, a touch of God’s instant mercy.
Two women are kneeling before the altar. Their murmured prayers float toward me like a song of devotion, welcoming me into church. I pause in the vestibule, listening to them, respectful of their presence, their prayers. The women embrace and then leave church through the front side door. I pray for them—that whatever they are praying for, they will be comforted, they will know they are not alone.
I walk toward the altar, as the women before me had just done and as countless others have done. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes: “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (4:16). How blessed we are with this confidence we have in our God?
How blessed we are to be this “us” that is not alone here?
Sometimes, during difficult times in my life, I’ve felt that the people who gather here—those of us who are drawn together in our mutual need to be close to God—have held me up, held on to me. I’ve felt connected, heart to heart, prayer to prayer.
Here in God’s house, from the small space of our individual lives, we come together in faith. As the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe says, “We tiptoe into a larger space, God’s vastness, whose compassion is beyond our imagination.”
Soaking in God’s Presence
I kneel in a front pew. The breeze, passing through the open windows and front side doors, gently lifts the altar cloth. The way it is moving, it seems as pretty and alive as summer flowers. The palm trees outside are crackling and swishing. On each side of the altar, votive candles flicker beneath the statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and our Blessed Mother.
The sanctuary lamp gives off a comforting red glow. It is quiet and still—yet it seems so alive. I think of all the sacred ceremonies that have gone on here: weekday morning Masses, Sunday Masses, weddings.
Just this morning a funeral was celebrated for a 91-year-old man. I think of all the people marching up to Communion, the confessions, the professions of faith, the knees knelt on, the hands folded, the heads bent, the tears cried, the smiles and hugs offered.
It seems to me that all that has been here is here still. It can’t be seen, but as St. Paul says: what can be “seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). It all stays; nothing is lost. I think of my brother’s funeral, years ago now; my husband’s and my wedding 40 years ago; our son’s Baptism, first Communion, and Confirmation—and all of the other sacred events in the 75-year history of this church. The joy, the grief, the love, and the community that was created then continue.
Such weight, such holy heaviness—layer upon layer of holy happenings.
A Spirit Reenergized
I feel my tension easing, releasing into the weight of every single thing that has happened here, into the love and hope of every prayer, and into the holy sacraments through which Jesus brings us close to “the Father of compassion” (2 Cor 1:3).
Resting here, I feel blessed with God’s gentle presence. I feel how, in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “We are wound with mercy round and round, as if with air.” As I leave church on this August day, I pause to make the sign of the cross with holy water. It’s still hot outside, but I feel more capable of coping with the heat, and with everything else that’s difficult as well.
I thank God for bringing me here, for knowing my need and showing me the open door of the church. I pray that with this mercy I have received, I will also be merciful to others in all of the situations and problems that I face.
Our need to be both receivers and givers of mercy is the purpose of Christ’s presence among us. “He, Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy,” says Pope John Paul II. “The truth, revealed in Christ, about God the ‘Father of mercies,’ enables us to ‘see’ Him as particularly close to man, especially when man is suffering.”
This is why, with a lively sense of faith, we are turning “almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God . . . being moved to do this by Christ Himself, who through his spirit works within human hearts.”
I will stop by church another day, I know. And God will be here waiting and will gather me in—as he gathers in each and every one of us—hot, tired, worried, fit, unfit, and in between.