Why I Didn’t Go to Church This Morning
Every Saturday night I go to bed early, almost wriggling at the happy thought of waking up Sunday morning, showering a little longer than usual, dressing with a little more ceremony… ready, more than ready, eager for Sunday-morning fellowship, for brief but powerful embraces and heartfelt handshakes, for the well-loved litany, both ancient and evergreen… for the palpably mystical cadence of Scott’s sermon, so delicious to hear that one risks being enchanted by the voice and missing the message… for the brazen presence of Jesus that is somehow gentler than in solitude, if that were possible, among fellow worshipers and even those who have just come for the music… and, of course, for the music. This is my Saturday-evening ritual, and I feel then that I could simply will myself to church on Sunday morning on the strength of that anticipation, arriving without traversing the space between home and sanctuary, taking a literal quantum leap….
This is why Sundays become the saddest hours of my week, why my Sunday-morning ceremony is to bury the bright expectations so recently alive, so suddenly aborted. As free and light as I feel upon falling asleep is as heavy and inert as I feel upon waking, as if I have no agency, as if I am a stone expected to leap from its ages-old tomb beneath a streambed and propel itself to the moon.
Because I am so certain on Saturday night that this Sunday will be different, will signal my reemergence into the world of churchgoers, will witness the arrival that conquers inertia for all time, I am first surprised and then grieved on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning… as if my miscarried purpose were unprecedented, as if all this had never happened before. I wonder what went wrong. I am angry at, disgusted with, exasperated by my inaction. Entropy, I think, is the devil, the real one—horns, tail, pitchfork, and all—and I ponder with genuine bewilderment my body’s failure to obey my will.
For a while, I rationalize. I recall that I am “coming down with something” or “recovering from something.” I remind myself that I can’t afford the Uber expenditure and that I have shown myself too untrustworthy to ask a friend for a ride. I resolve to live more healthfully, to get more exercise, to sleep more soundly, and to manage my money more sensibly… all so I can do the one thing that, above every other, is to me desirable, enjoyable, necessary, and—in theory, at least— attainable: to show up at my beloved church on Sunday morning.
The penalty for failure is harsh. I am contrite and the Divine is all-forgiving, but out of the corner of my eye I see God smirking. The Holy Spirit is a faint breeze outside my window. Jesus is patient, but I fancy that he taps his toes. It would be easier to bear if, having failed once again, I could redeem the time with prayer, meditation, or Good Works. I should call my brother, write letters to my inmate correspondents, Skype with my out-of-town friends and grandchildren, ride my bicycle and smile at pedestrians, go to a nearby AA meeting, cook dinner for the friend who brought me food and medicine when I was sick. But I have worn myself out with shame, and torpor has set in. Of all the days of the week, Sunday is the one most likely to be spent playing marathon games of Words with Friends on Facebook, reading a John Grisham novel, or binge-watching The West Wing. I have spent entire Sundays without speaking to another soul, brushing my teeth, or walking to a destination more distant than the bathroom.
Originally there were semi-legitimate reasons for not going to church, but the reasons no longer apply, and all that’s left is remembered distaste and knee-jerk discomfort. When I was a little girl I hated asparagus, and for decades I avoided asparagus as if it were radioactive sludge. In my late twenties, at a banquet, I accidentally got a bit of asparagus on my fork, tasted it, and instantly regretted all those years during which I had deprived myself of asparagus ecstasy. Such is my regret at allowing unpleasant associations to interrupt the joy of churchgoing.
For most of my life I have loved church and churches, but even if I didn’t particularly want to go it would be a Good Thing to do, a smart thing, a generous thing. When I’m not beating myself up, I enjoy my own company, and my pursuits are both solitary and sedentary. In my experience, independence too quickly becomes isolation and profound, toxic loneliness. At seventy years old, I occasionally wonder how much time I have to form good habits, healthful ways of being in the world, mutually beneficial relationships… to become a member of the Good Guys’ Club, that cheerful, active, productive, unofficial association of people who genuinely want to infuse the world with a little more beauty, more compassion, and—on a really good day—more fun. I want to work toward something noble or at least useful; I desire loftier goals than Not Being Depressed. The ambitions and expectations with which I began my adult life no longer call to me. A few have been achieved, but I think that I will never live on a farm, keep honeybees and chickens, or explore the Mississippi River on a houseboat. (I do, however, hold out for a year or two of travel in a mini-motorhome similar to the Chinook in which my boys and I spent many carefree hours.)
As to Not Being Depressed, one would think that I, having emerged from a place so blighted that I can conjure neither images nor words to describe it, would be in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. I know that, from that dark prison, I bargained with God, promising that if I were delivered I would be endlessly grateful and unvaryingly kind… that if I could once again stand in the sunlight and place my feet on solid ground, I would ask for nothing more. But we are made for bliss; God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with “comfortably numb.” If there’s a good thing to be said about Sunday guilt, it’s that distress motivates change.
I regard the world and its pain, I consider the relative difficulty of putting on shoes that match and traveling less than twenty blocks in an automobile once a week, and I realize that if I made going to church next Sunday morning the only item on my checklist I could do it. It’s doable, and I can do it. A few phone calls, a conversation, an arrangement… this is not a mission for the NATO Allied Command. Things requiring much greater effort are being done as I write, will be done tomorrow, and I will do some of them. One evening this week I will babysit three-year-old triplets, a task I challenge the NATO Allied Commander to achieve with the skill and energy that I bring to it. When the time comes, I certainly won’t wage an internal debate on whether to show up for the triplets. Such is the strength of simple commitment.
So I think that I will stop wondering why I didn’t go to church this morning—a mental exercise that predictably invites argument—and I will make a simple commitment. I will make that commitment to myself, I will make it to someone else, and I will meet it. I will go to church next Sunday. I will expect that, with my having stayed away, there will be a bit more strangeness in the experience than when I was a reliable churchgoer in a past life and going to church was like reuniting with a large and delightfully eccentric family. I believe I can handle it. Above the strangeness will be the open door; beside it will be the welcome mat. That’s why I choose to go. All are welcome there. And next Sunday I will go to church.