by Kara Hansen
I cannot remember the first time my dad took my brother and me to our parish church by ourselves. The visits with just the three of us — four, counting the Blessed Sacrament — were so much a part of my childhood they rank right up there with family vacations, softball games, and summer bike rides in terms of memories.
What I do remember is the way the church looked when we would stop by on a summer evening: dimly lit through green, stained-glass windows, holy and sacred with just one candle glowing near the tabernacle, quiet and hushed with empty pews and kneelers all put away.
We never stayed all that long, but the stops at church were built into the fabric of our everyday life. Sometimes we would stop by after returning from grocery shopping. Other times it was on a return trip home from visiting my grandparents. At times, we would pop in for just a few moments; on other occasions, we were there for the better part of an hour.
As a child, it was a completely different experience going there with just my dad and brother from going to our parish for Mass, where it was crowded, brightly lit, and we were expected to stay relatively still and quiet.
In the evenings, we were free to talk and roam.
When it was just the three of us on a quiet evening, the same building felt worlds apart from the brightness and exuberance of a crowded liturgy.
While my dad knelt in prayer, my brother and I explored the sacristy to see what was kept there. I am not sure what exciting things we expected to find, but it was pretty standard fare — servers’ albs and priestly garments, a full-length mirror, storage.
We got up close and personal with the ambo, where one of us would pretend to proclaim the Gospel to the other.
We checked out what it was like to sit in all areas of the church, since our family — like most — tended to gravitate toward the same vicinity each week at Mass.
On more than one occasion, one or both of us pretended to be a priest, welcoming our non-existent pastoral flock from the presider’s chair with “The Lord be with you” and even processing in from the back of the church a time or two.
We rambled up in the choir loft, admiring the organ and trying to goad one another into summoning the courage to ring the massive church bell. We lit candles and dipped our fingers repeatedly into the holy water.
We peeked into the confessional and discovered it did not look nearly so ominous without a shadowy priest behind the screen, Wizard of Oz-style. And testing the limits of borrowing, I once took a music hymnal from a pew home with me so I could test out some familiar songs during my fledgling piano practice sessions.
I suppose there are some who would say the way we explored the church, as if it were a zoo, was nothing short of sacrilegious. And while in my current role as a mother, I might be tempted to redirect or discipline my kids into having more respect for the sacredness of a church space, I think my dad got it mostly right.
You see, over the years I adopted his habit of stopping at church — sporadically — by myself. First it was on longer bicycle rides across our small town, feeling very grown up as I had someplace I could go, a destination to visit. I prayed briefly for sick grandparents, for friends, and for Ethiopia (a frequent recipient of my prayers in the ’80s, spurred on by the 1984 famine).
The driving freedom that came during my teenage years brought with it opportunities to stop by church randomly and at late hours. Making a brief visit after a sports game or on the way home from a friend’s house became a respite of sorts.
Sitting quietly in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament was the ultimate teenage antidote: In those moments when I felt no one else in the world could possibly understand what I was going through, I was with Someone who did.
It was even a thread of community for me at a time when I wasn’t sure if the Catholic Church was a community I wanted to be a part of. I left notes for the parish secretary asking for my best friend, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer as a teen, to be included in the bulletin’s prayer list.
During summers home from college, I grappled with discernment in the first couple of pews at my childhood church more than once. Leaving in the darkness, I always felt refreshed as I inhaled the first breath of night air, peering up into the sky and stars above.
What I took away from those childhood church visits was the feeling that church was a place of refuge, of peace, home. It was sacred, to be sure, but not to be held with kid gloves only for special occasions, like a set of fine china brought out only a couple times a year.
Instead, it was more like the broken-in house of an old friend — a place to go for support, comfort, and direction.
Unsure if this was a brilliant parenting scheme on my dad’s part that I had participated in without knowing it, I recently asked him if he remembered taking my brother and I with him to church when he prayed.
“Not really,” he said. He knew he had stopped by church to pray often but did not necessarily remember bringing us with him much.
And that was my answer. Dad let us be a part of his prayer life on our own terms, and it unfolded in the simplest of everyday activities, without any bluster or fanfare.
Like most things relating to faith, he led by his actions more than words, and gave us opportunities to meet God, rather than forcing us to do so.
I thought of him the other night when I stopped by our parish’s adoration chapel. My three-year-old was with me, so while I knelt and said a brief prayer, she looked around and absorbed what she saw in the chapel.
I looked up a few seconds later to see she had removed a rosary from one of the kneelers and was now wearing it as a necklace, smiling proudly.
I smiled, too.