Sunlit Sanctuaries

When I was in junior high I used to lay in bed Sunday mornings and feign sleep. I would listen to the footsteps above me and when they eventually stopped I would think to myself, “Yes, they fell for it. They must have left without me. I don’t have to go to church.” A few seconds later I would hear someone walking down the stairs and much to my dismay, I would be dragged along to our little Lutheran church. At least there were donuts after the service. And these were fullsize donuts, a whole assortment of maple-glazed, sprinkled, plain, custard-filled donuts, not a pile of donutballs like at our first church.

Once I finished confirmation, my attendance at church quickly diminished. I picked up a Sunday morning volunteer shift at the local hospital and traded in Fellowship Hall donuts for hospital cafeteria fries. Despite going on to choose a Lutheran college, I attended only one chapel service throughout my four years at school. I only went because the professor with whom I was doing research was speaking about our topic of forgiveness. I dabbled in the Secular Society Club and my Religion minor was completed with more courses on Islam and Buddhism than on Christianity.

Jumping ahead a few years, I make the move to France, I get married in a secular ceremony beneath the gnarled branches of the apple trees in our orchard, and the next year I become a mother. And then I start thinking about those Sunday mornings of my childhood.

I remember how the sunlight streamed in through the skylights in the atrium of my church. I think about the goofy songs we sang at Vacation Bible School. And then I start thinking about my pastor’s sermons. Even if I reluctantly joined my family most Sundays, I did usually listen attentively to our pastor’s sermon each week. He had a way of capturing your attention and moving you with stories about his life, his family, and the people he had met. He would tie in a few refernces to the bible and by the end I felt enlightened, even if I was too young to know what that word meant or that it could be used to describe how I felt.

In the weeks and months that followed the birth of our son, I would often experience moments of loneliness. Despite having a tiny being always at my side, I felt a hole. Being far from my home and my family and friends certainly exacerbated this feeling but I could not help but feel as though there were more to it. I wanted church basement ladies to come and check on me. I wanted a freezer-ful of hotdish. I wanted someone to sit and rock my son for a half hour while I took a shower. Maybe these are selfish reasons but they are what reignited my desire for some kind of church family. I wanted that safety net of love and peace and kinship.

When I was going through confirmation classes each of us had a member of the church who acted as our mentor. This was to be an adult, other than our parents, to whom we could go to with the big questions. Someone to count on. I remember my mentor, who also happened to be my old basketball coach, and what she had written in the card she gave me on the day of my communion. She had slipped her business card in and written a note on the back. Call me whenever, and wherever you need me. No questions asked.

Looking back , I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of what it feels like to have someone in your life give you such a lifeline. I never did have to call her. My lifestyle in high school was not exactly full of risk. I was almost never put into a situation where I needed to call someone who would not ask questions and would not judge. By the time some of these types of things did start happening to me we had grown distant and other people had stepped into that role for me. I was incredibly fortunate.

But as a new mother, I wanted, I needed, someone to fill that role for me. And since the first person who ever did was someone I knew at church, I began to seek that once more. Unfortunately, the main religion here is catholicism and mass is held in cold, damp, somber stone churches. I did not feel comfortable or attracted by the idea of attending mass, it felt too far from what I knew as a child. And quite frankly, the actual religious aspect of returning to church was not as appealing to me as simply finding the right space and the right communtiy.

Then, last Easter, I woke up from a dream that left me feeling full to the brim with warmth. But also confused. In the dream I was standing in the atrium of the church where I was confirmed. I was holding our son in my arms and my childhood pastor was walking towards me. He smiled and said hello, both of us happy to see one another after so long. Then I asked him for a hug and when he obliged I began to cry. Later in the dream I spoke to him in his office and asked him if he could baptize our son despite the last minute notice. Then I woke up. It was surreal to be honest. And on Easter Sunday no less! The next night I had a similar dream. When I woke up that morning I asked my dad to send me a bible. The one I had in college for my required religion classes had been sold back to the bookshop.

About a year ago I dscovered that there is a small parish of protestants in our area. For over a year they did not even have a pastor. But it was not until today that I finally worked up the courage to go and check it out. I woke up yesterday morning and just felt that it was time I return. Or at least that I go and see how a protestant service here would compare to what I knew from back home. When I checked the congregation’s website yesterday I discovered that they now have a pastor. He splits his time between three churches so I decided to email and find out if he would be near us today. Turns out he was.

This church is small. It is in an old port town. On the other side of the small parking lot is a bridge. Beyond the bridge is a port full of sailboats. And beyond that is the Atlantic. It would be easy to miss, there is no big sign out front listing the hours or sharing a short word for passersby. There is a small gate with trees arching up above the entryway. This opens up into a simple yard. To the left is the worship space. A stone building from the 19th century, chosen by protestant Gallic missionaries in the 19th century. But inside there is light. The stone walls have been covered and painted yellow. Tall windows that line either side of the sanctuary let in plenty of natural light. A simple stained glass window behind the pulpit give the space that typical sacred feeling. There are two aisles of wooden benches and an armoire at the back that holds songbooks. We are the first ones to arrive and the pastor greets us with a smile.

I think in all there were maybe 15 of us there to worship this morning, including our little family of three. Our son began to fuss early on and I was worried that he would bother the others so early on I snuck out with him and went into the adjoining room. My husband stayed behind in the sanctuary to listen to the rest of the service. He was eager to experience his first protestant service after a childhood of Catholic mass. I caught snipets of the sermon and the music coming through the door I had left ajar for that purpose. When the service finally ended the pastor sought me out and reassured me, saying that I don’t need to leave, even if everyone in the sanctuary can here Lewis talking about wolves and skunks and tractors. I thanked him and he pulled out his binder, removing the text from his sermon and offering it to me in case I wished to read it after missing it during the service. I thanked him again and we said our goodbyes.

I will be honest. I still feel a little uncomfortable with the actual religious aspects of it all. The word ‘Amen’ feels clumsy when I say it and I think I have forgotten some of the Lord’s Prayer. But I felt the warmth. And the reassurance. The other members offered genuine smiles and welcomed us to the group. And even though there were no donuts after the service I think I would like to go back next week and see if I don’t feel a little more at ease each time.



4 thoughts on “Sunlit Sanctuaries

    1. Oh I am sure there are some wonderful Catholic masses! The 400 year old churches here are certainly magnificent and it is incredible to stand in such an old sacred building, but I just hadn’t ever felt quite as at home in them as I would like to haha.


  1. Oh, Ashley, you brought tears to my eyes. You know your great grandma prayed for all her great grands every day. The Lord will fill your heart and it is a relationship to God through His Son that your heart seeks after. My prayers are with you. . . I think of you often. Love, Auntie Carolyn


  2. Hi Ashley, I just read your post re: your thoughts about belonging to a faith community. I wish you were here so we could talk. I would tell you how much I can relate to your thoughts, your memories of the importance your church played in your life growing up. Like you, I don’t relate very well to the actual dogmas, beliefs of the church….but I have been richly rewarded over the years by choosing a church to be a part of. I hope your small congregation works out for you and Lewis and Fanch…if not, then some other. There is nothing like having an anchor of a loving community of souls to be a part of. And as for the Amens and creeds and all that…I never believed any of it, but so what….the people of the church believe it and it didn’t hurt me to “play along”…..out of respect for their traditions. What matters from the church is the love and support and hotdishes and all of’s a community. If it doesn’t work for you, then don’t! but if it does, just be gentle with the parts that don’t speak to you and take the really significant parts to your heart. When you come back to the states and decorah this december, I hope we can connect….we’ll be in wisconsin til the 15th or 16th of december, then in decorah til at least early january. please give a call or even come out if you like….it’d be so fun to see you again and meet your lovely family. lots of love to you all….Jennifer


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