It’s been a few years since I was in a church. For any reason. Weddings, funerals. That’s about all, and even those can be avoided with a little finesse. If you show up for a reception or a wake, but skip the service itself, very few people even seem to notice. Those that do assume you are Jewish or have another reason just as compelling, and are polite enough not to say anything about it.
It’s not as simple when it’s family. People who know perfectly well that you were raised Roman Catholic. That you were an altar boy. Then a lectern. That you used to teach religion to children with autism. That you began your performing career in your church’s clown ministry group. For family, you can’t claim conscientious objector. You have to attend the service. Or at least you have to make the effort.
When my sister got married, it was on a Friday, and I had a matinee of Romeo and Juliet. I raced home after the performance to shave and shower, then hopped into my tuxedo and hurried out the door, hoping to make it to Long Island in time to deliver one of the readings. Three hours of insane rush hour traffic later, I was pulled over by a cop for driving on the shoulder. Before he could say a word, I held up the invitation, which had the time and date clearly printed in a swirly formal font.
“What would you do if your sister was getting married right now and you were stuck in this traffic?”
He laughed and let me off, but I still missed the ceremony.
When a distant relative died recently, after having lived a long and productive life, his immediate family decided against a wake, opting instead for a simple church service. So, setting aside my customary aversion to all things religious, I found myself sitting in a wooden pew, wondering if I could remember all the cues.
What I experienced was unexpected. As the ceremony proceeded, I couldn’t help but notice how similar it was to a theatrical production. A musical. There were props. Costumes. A script. A central character. A soliloquy. Even audience interaction.
As a child, I had always loved the candles, and the incense, and the different seasonal set dressings. Now, as an actor, I can appreciate the importance of those things on another level entirely. I could also appreciate the monologue from the priest. Instead of a preachy homily, at least in this one instance, we were treated to a personalized collection of anecdotes from the man’s own experience. Perhaps colored a bit here and there with elements from his imagination? Much like the twenty minutes that everyone looks forward to when Garrison Keillor takes the stage.
To my great relief, there were no childish Hallmark card references to floating around on clouds, playing harps. No platitudes about being called home to be with some heavenly father figure. No morbid talk about Jesus dying for our sins, thereby saving us from whatever it is we were supposedly condemned to face by a vengeful, wrathful God. Instead, there was simply a monologue about life and death. Shades of Hamlet.
As I looked about the audience, I did not see ignorant people clinging to conservative propaganda. People willing to be manipulated by disingenuous religious (or ambitious political) leaders. People who will deny rights to the different or the disenfranchised, based on limited interpretations of antique texts. People whose morality in words does not match their lack of compassion in deeds.
Instead, I just saw people. Coming together to be reminded that there is more to life than their busy daily routines. People who might not have travelled to remote parts of the world to study with a shaman, nor climbed a mountain to meditate with a guru, nor read volumes of theology or theosophy, but who still want to feel connected. To the spirit world. To their ancestors. To one another.
I was surprised to feel detached from the bitterness all ex-catholics are required to carry. Maybe that just wears off in time?
It was the final number which impressed me most. As the audience was clearing the house, a lady with an operatic voice began to sing a song which I remember from my childhood.
“Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me”
Nobody was paying much attention to the singer, nor the song. They were busy collecting their belongings and making their way to the exits.
“Let me walk with my brother, in perfect harmony”
I stayed in my seat. My habit has always been to watch the final credits roll. I check out the lighting grid. I notice the guy running the sound board. I watch the crew clear the stage of props. I know all the parts that go into a successful production, and understand how important each element is. Not to mention there was still a performer up on the stage, singing her heart out. Someone should be there to hear her.
“Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now”
Then I began to pay attention to the lyric. So much of what I believe politically is based on my conviction that if only we cared more for our planet and for each other, there would be peace instead of war. That the imbalance of wealth and power which creates so much disharmony in our world could not be sustained if every person truly had the best wishes for one another. Here, though, in the eleven o’clock number, the message was more immediate. Peace starts right here. Right now.
“With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow
To take each moment and live each moment with peace eternally”
If I feel compassion for people who hold different beliefs than mine, then I am creating peace. If nowhere else, peace can exist inside myself.
“Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
After the final note, I started to applaud. The only other people in the theatre were a couple who appeared to be deep in prayer. The lady looked over at me and smiled. Applause was not the proper response, her smile said, but really, who could argue?