Sometimes when it seems like all the world is gathering, I know it's best to fade away.
On Sundays I have a routine. I wake early, think about what to read or write, make and eat banana pancakes with chocolate chips because I can't read or write on an empty stomach, and then read or write what I had thought about before breakfast. On a good day I lose myself in whatever I'm reading or writing, and then meet a friend at the espresso bar around the corner from my apartment.
We walk to church.
Depending on your experience or perception of religious institutions, you may think of church as being a humorless, sedate place. Not mine. My church is for the extroverted. In fact, it's more like a rock concert than a nunnery, with the crowds of televangelical TV, minus the cheap suits.
As you walk up the stairs that lead into the school auditorium where church service takes place, you'll begin to hear the buzz. Someone will greet you at the door, and you might make half-hearted eye contact or ignore him completely. The moment you're inside, everything around you begins to pulse, and you're like a camera lens in the dark, whirring back and forth, searching helplessly for a focal point. People are darting in and out, greeting each other, smiling, laughing, trying to be affable and pleasant, finding eye contact, scanning the crowd for someone they know. The whole place devolves into a fuzzy, Impressionist painting, and I, for one, feel like I am on drugs.
I sit down to catch my breath, duck below the throng of bobbing heads. This scene is a chaotic musical number that seems to be in want of choreography, an acid-laced phantasmagoria of sprouting colors and spewing sounds. At least that's how I feel: overwhelmed, thrilled, anticipating exhaustion. This is the experience of sensory overload, where every stimulus seems to be layered with synesthetic elements: I can see the sounds coming out of mouths; every moving person is emanating musical vibrations; every wave of noise is dripping with color, as Pollock-like pigments thrown and smeared across a canvas. Now you might understand why an art museum, for me, is as, if not more stimulating, than an amusement park.
You know, both fear and excitement are processed by the sympathetic nervous system.
When the service begins, the crowd quiets. The lights dim, and the band begins to play, rousing the congregation with their indie-folk, poppy renditions of worship songs. I stay quiet, even as everyone around me begins to sing.
Here's how I return to center: by pausing, by listening, by letting the words fall into me, resting in me. Like eating a rich, decadent meal, when you let food linger in your mouth longer than you normally would so that you can actually taste the textures and flavors. Or like sucking on a piece of hard candy rather than chomping on it, which you do when your mouth is restless. No, this isn't the crunch of instant gratification; it's cradling the song in your entire body, letting it wash down you like a hot shower after a long day, when you're standing under the shower head, immobile, eyes closed. It's not letting the words merely pass through you, which can happen when you sing and then you're no longer singing these words of praise but rather just listening to yourself and the person next to you, and then trying to harmonize, and then listening for the bass line, and the drum line, and the guitar strum.
I'm trying to let these God-given words soften me, dampen me, stroke me. And this requires stillness. Which is difficult. A moment ago, my mind was frantically trying to find a parking spot on a busy city street. A moment ago, I was the drunken, catatonic fool, weaving through the crowd on all fours, looking for a lost key.
But now I retreat. Among the crowds, among the sounds, I retreat. I retreat not into myself, but into God's presence, which is neither a soundproof, padded solitary confinement cell nor a raucous bar scene. Those two places seem diametrically opposed, yet somehow, the feelings of loneliness, insecurity, and neuroses are the same in both. Everything is measured in relation to yourself, and it feels wrong, like geocentrism, but instinctively, that's how we cope.
That's not what it's like to be in God's presence, which so many people describe as ineffable, and yes, it's grand and it's mysterious and it's infinite, but it's also a sensation that courses through your entire body, like experiencing a beautiful dust storm in the desert for the first time, where your stillness agrees to play spectator to the almighty that passes, where a solar eclipse halts a moment in time, just by its strangeness and singularity. Where you're not even aware of your solitude or the fears of your body or the paranoia creep of your mind. It is basking in a space where you are overwhelmed by the weight of gratitude, and you're humbly reaching out for the wisdom of love. For the first time, being overwhelmed is not exhausting. Despite the noise and the people, I can imagine peacefully; I have found the arcadia of my mind. Here I meet God.
I have everything I need in this very moment. I am not in want.
We're constantly passing through things, trying to get to the destinations of this world as quickly as we can, wanting results, wanting big love, settling for skinny love, skimming the glassy surface of our shiny, glistening spheres, and then we're running in this direction and falling in the other.
By the end of service, I feel inebriated and elated, which are literally mutually exclusive for me because alcohol gives me hives and a headache, but this is neither the reckless delirium of inebriation nor the false pretense of momentary elation. I do not feel farther from this world, like I have escaped, but I feel more settled in it, more at peace with every dimension of my life.
When I leave the church building, I am moving in my own time and space, unaware. Nothing is too messy or ugly or scary. For today, I just want to be invisible. I slip out of sight, fade into the background, and make my way through the city, sweetly silent, joyful and full.