When I was in Austria many years ago, I was fascinated with the little roadside shrines that dotted every small town. They are all different; some dedicated to the memory of a loved one, others to a patron saint, others to commemorate a tragic event. Wherever you went, there were these little reminders of faith along the way.
At this point in my life, I aware of being on a spiritual journey. We use that term frequently in my tradition, but it usually means that we are on a trip toward something. Unlike walking the Camino de Santiago or preparing for ordination, the end of this journey is not a destination. But it is not an aimless wander (as lovely as those can be!), just a movement from 30 years of parish ministry to whatever is next for me.
My first thought, when I left my last call, was to jump into another parish. My entire Christian life has been in the heart of congregations to which I belonged, as a lay member or clergy. And I will likely do that, but not just yet. Until I learn what I need to learn, I am a “freelance Christian”, putting together a spiritual life from the bits and pieces of church experience, education and wider culture to see what fits.
Some of this is practical; I do work some Sunday mornings, so I can’t be in worship every week in any one place. But it is also part of my looking forward into the future of the church I love so much. Having been constantly front and center, I don’t think I could see what was really going on the church I served.
So this Lent, my spiritual practice has been to watch and notice.
The first thing I noticed was my relief. I was way more tired than I realized, and needed a few days when all I did was rest. The second thing I noticed was joy. Freed from the preoccupation of “running” a parish, I was surprised by all the little alleluias in my life.
The third thing I noticed was that I missed “the stuff” of Christianity as much as its practice. Although I have a million criticisms of church buildings, I find myself yearning for them. I miss the smell of candles and the way the light is refracted through the windows. I was a little surprised that this “low church Protestant” was so attached to holy places, having taught all my life that the presence of God makes anyplace holy. And that’s true, but I still find myself longing for a location that puts me in touch with the Divine.
I guess what I am seeking is a shrine. Historically, Christianity has had holy places where you could offer a silent prayer, light a candle or listen to water falling without having to interact with a large group of strangers. These holy places were available not just for an hour on Sunday morning, but all through the week, to just stop in. The places were familiar, even when you didn’t know another soul by name. Shrines are not only attached to Roman Catholic and Orthodox parishes. One Protestant church I served had a bench in a
garden outside the church. One had a peace pole and a walkway. Another had a cemetery. Without having to commit to a full Sunday morning, you could stop by for ten minutes and feed your soul. Those Austrian roadside shrines reminded me that God was all around, that someone else had found God in this place, so perhaps I could too.
And so, this week, I am looking for shrines.
Later today, I found these.