I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Liz Hill’s reflection, “Who Needs A Church?”
For many years, I was an active member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a denomination known for its non-creedal spirituality and its long history of social justice work. Whenever I talked to friends or co-workers about my church, there was curiosity. What did we believe? What kinds of people attend? How do you join?
More than once, the conversation ended with the other person concluding, “If I needed a church, I’d go to yours.”
I’d smile and assure them they’d be welcome if they chose to come, but I never expected to see them. They were good, honest people who led good, honest, very busy lives. They simply did not “need” a church, and that was fine with me.
I liked my church, but I didn’t think I actually “needed” it either. In fact, there were times when I felt tired and burned out from all my church activities. As a pastor’s wife, we’d sometimes arrive before 9 and leave around 3, and that was just on Sunday. Weekdays were a constant stream of phone calls and emails, potlucks and committee meetings, and they were not always pleasant. A friend once correctly defined life in community as “a constant act of forgiveness,” and she was right. It’s a challenge to navigate the strife and conflicts of normal congregational life.
A few years ago when our circumstances changed and we relocated to a new town, I relished the idea of taking a break from church. Although the Monk Manifesto asks us to “commit to cultivating community,” finding “kindred spirits and soul friends” to share the journey, nowhere does it suggest a formal gathering at a specific day or time. For a while I reveled in my independence. I took long walks in the woods on Sunday mornings, or lingered with the newspaper and a cup of tea. I was church-free. It felt a lot like summer in elementary school, that barefoot-in-the-grass freedom from bells and books, the gift of open space of time to fill as I pleased.
But something tugged at me. Gently at first, but persistent. One Sunday I visited a Buddhist Sangha, and though I had plenty of silence at home, my throat tightened with emotion as I sat silently with other seekers. Visiting a local Christian congregation, tears sprang when the organ rattled the rafters and the choir swelled in harmony. I kept visiting, careful to slip out quietly after the service, as if fearful that words exchanged with anyone would activate a giant Hoover, mercilessly sucking me in.
Finally, one Sunday morning it dawned on me: I need a church.
I need a place to focus my faith. I need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, week after week, with people who state – no, who sing– their commitment to love and justice. Who promise to work for it in spite of –no, because of— their human imperfections and petty disagreements. Their presence reminds me that I am not a lonely island of anger or fear; I am a link in a chain, part of an atoll of deep love and connection.
It’s not about the building, the roof, the steeple, the pews or the cushions. The gathered body is the rock upon which all of it is built, and it is that rock which helps me find my center and become my best self.
I have great love and respect for monks who pray alone in their cells. Their work is important. But for me to be a monk in the world, companions are required.
Liz Hill is a writer and spiritual director who has led workshops in creative process, discovering authentic voice, and un-journaling. She is co-author (with Ruthie Rosauer) of Singing Meditation: Together in Song and Silence, and co-founder of a literary arts non-profit in Youngstown, Ohio. She lives in western North Carolina. See LizHill.net