Imagine yourself in this following situation; or better yet, ponder on which side you seem to find yourself.
For his first sermon in a new parish, the young priest went up to the podium and said, “Instead of giving you a very long speech, I would like to try something new: everyone please each take one item home from the church.”
This caused a bit of a confused murmuring from the congregation. Did the priest just tell everyone to simply get up and take something? Anything?
Some of the local businessmen were the first to get up, and carried away the full collection baskets. But everyone else just stood there, bewildered at this strange experiment.
The following week, the priest said the same thing: “Please take one thing home from the church.” Some local jewelers took the chalice and cruets, some collectors took the paintings and statues. A few polite–but still reluctant–churchgoers quietly picked up the flowers by the altar.
And so on it continued, week after week, with the priest asking each of them to take something home. One Sunday some carpenters showed up with tools and efficiently proceeded to divvy up the wooden crosses, pews and chairs. An embarrassed seamstress asked the father for his smock, his shoes and the drapes. And since there was little else left, the stonemasons began to knock chunks off the very walls of the church itself.
It reached the point where they finally met in an empty lot, and the priest was standing there, wearing his old jeans and a t-shirt, greeting everyone. But many of his flock simply shook their heads and questioned this bizarre state of events. What is he doing? Was this a test?
“Father,” they pleaded, “We have taken everything away, and nothing is as it was anymore! You would not recognize this place as the church just a few months ago. Look at yourself–you are no longer wearing your priestly robes. Are we actually at mass right now? Are you still a priest? Are we even a church anymore?”
Still smiling, the priest again gave his request: “Please take something home with you.”
They looked at each other, uncertain of what to do now. There was nothing they could find, but each other.
How do you think the story ended?
I like to think that eventually the church was rebuilt, with the carpenters donating brand-new pews and chairs, the seamstress returning the fabric, now made into wonderful robes, the flowers re-grown from seeds and cuttings of the older flowers, and the very edifice built anew by the stonemasons. The money was put back into the construction project by the businessmen. The only thing not quite returned was the priest’s shoes, which the seamstress gave to her husband so that he would not have to walk to church barefoot.
Did they become a church again? I think they always were, and never stopped being one, only now they realized it more than ever.
Sometimes it is all to easy to lose the distinctions between religion, ritual, tradition, superstition and spirituality. What we take for one may actually be the other. Entangled somewhere with the countless trappings and adornments of our religious practice are the essential truths that we should hold most dear.
Did you assume the tale would end in the line of, “…and they took home each other”? That would have been logical to leave it at that, but not so instructive. The community had to learn that truth does not reside exclusively in a book, a building or person. To believe otherwise would be to imprison it and forbid it to flourish amongst us -and us in it.