I have always loved the Catholic Church, not the religion, the philosophy, or the services, but the shelter of the sanctuary.
My level of sensitivity is extra-ordinary. A loud voice or shrill laugh can be physically painful, groups of people are over-stimulating. I can’t lay my head on a hotel pillow without knowing the character of the person who was there before me.
While other kids clamored from their desks for recess, I couldn’t wait to slip across the street into the quiet shelter of the Catholic Church, the only building that kept its doors unlocked, and welcomed all people at all hours.
Once inside I was transported into gentle stillness, a world I longed to live in and never leave. Light filtered through colored glass, frankincense and holy water filled my lungs, and banks of candles flickered in neat little rows near statues of Mary. The only sound was the occasional creak of golden oak yielding under the weight of a bent knee.
There were never loud voices in the church or groups pushing, shoving or competing. The people who came and went were few, and always internal and reverent. The Catholic Church was my oasis and sanity. It was a place I could breathe and rest until the school bell rang and I was summoned back inside to endure.
Last weekend I went to a baby shower. When it was time to return home, something in me recoiled. I pointed the car in the opposite direction and kept on driving until I reached Mt Angel Abbey, which sits high on a mountain with a panoramic view of pastures and forest.
Being away from civilization, computers and conversation was just the medicine I needed. I had not realized my exhaustion until I sat near the bell tower and looked out into the serene fields of the Williamette valley. The quiet was tangible; I could reach out and touch it. A few Benedictine monks walked by in silence like black shadows, humble and privately engaged, while the sun rested on my shoulder like a friend’s hand reminding me to unwind and let go.
That was all I needed. I picked up my cell phone and called my husband. I won’t be home tonight, I told him. I’m at the Abbey and it’s too lovely to leave.
Father Vincent was in the garden among a symphony of goldfinch. He was filling the birdbath as they darted over stalks of yellow and white iris, and on to the budding branches of mimosa trees. Father Vincent has been at the abbey for forty-seven years. He tells me he’ll arrange a room, so I go back to my car for my checkbook and hair brush, the only luggage I have. When I return he is gone. The woman at the gift shop hands me my room key. I ask how much I owe and she says she doesn’t know. It’s Saturday. Someone should be around on Monday. Call when you get home and find out. You can mail us a check then. I’ve gone to the Abbey for the past twenty years. It’s the way they do business.
The room is simple, a bed with white sheets and spread, cream colored walls and windows that look into a sky dotted with tiny cotton clouds. There is a desk and gold lamp. I look out and watch a red-necked hummingbird feed on small blue flowers nested in rambling ground cover.
I unpack by placing my hair brush on the bathroom shelf and walk to the church for vespers. The monks chant five times a day. When I sit down, the sound of it travels through the pores of my skin and settles at my core.
I stand looking up at the domed ceilings, the pink front wall of the sanctuary and the aqua and purple colors that grace the side walls above arched chanting stalls. The room is full of white linen and candles above a foundation of marble and oak. The organ is one of the finest in the world.
Being there is filling me up, it’s filling an empty space I didn’t know I had. How strange to be so at home in a place I have no business being in at all.