I’ve come to think of it as my “inner church.”
It’s the place I go within to pray, meditate on God’s presence, listen to my soul or gain some insight into the spiritual journey I’ve been traveling over the past 68 years.
My inner church isn’t bound to one place: in fact, it moves with me. I’ll traverse a block in Oak Park, Berwyn or Forest Park, or amble along the lake, reciting a prayer acknowledging God as Father and Mother, and nodding to souls in the Kingdom, who are at hand. Doing so enlivens my sense of a spiritual energy emanating from the homes, parks, stores, or, in the case of the lake, rising from her waves.
St. Mary of Celle, on 15th and Wesley, in Berwyn, was the outer church in which I was raised. There’s a lot of her spirit in my inner church today. At St. Mary’s I learned the basic prayers that structured how I talk to God, Jesus and Mary. I also learned a kind of prayerfulness from the priests, nuns and teachers that provided a model for my own meditations.
For many years in my adult life, I went regularly to my inner church, but participated irregularly in nearby outer churches. They seemed to be falling behind progressive changes in the world: the women’s movement and its critique of patriarchy, for example, or the push to allow gay people to marry.
My inner church was more open than the outer Church to such cultural changes in the world. The Jesus to whom I prayed was a liberator, protective of an expanding scope of human rights in the modern world. My inner sanctuary embraced the Holy Spirit as a feminine and masculine force. And my inner church incorporated the wisdom of other faiths, seeing how different people at different times in varied places encountered God through their divergent traditions and struggles. In this sense, my inner church became an evolving, ecumenical sanctuary, honoring other systems of belief, looking increasingly less like the outer church that had originally nurtured my faith.
But despite their differences, my inner Church and my outer Church kept up a dialogue. And now, while they remain distinctive, they seem to have formed new common ground.
The dialogue that never ended, even while I was “unchurched” in the outer world, was fed by the outer church’s deep influence on me, even when I didn’t recognize it as such. For example, my Catholic faith instilled in me a hope about where God was leading me, my family, and our world. Its universal prayer, the Our Father, with its expectant words, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” implanted in me a belief in a better future, which heightened my expectations about being able to do something good in the world.
I realized over time that I had internalized more lessons, stories and beliefs from the outer church than I had appreciated. The inner church had been formed by it, and even sustained by it, even as I had been apart from it.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve come back gradually, through Ascension here in Oak Park, singing in the choir, participating in Mass, and more recently through other groups and ministry. My inner church is not in agreement with the outer church on certain important matters but knows that it would not be what it is without it. The outer church’s wisdom about God, its capacity for community building, and reverence for the family make it unique in the world. My inner church has come home to the outer church because it was formed in part by it.
Both of my outer churches, St. Mary’s and Ascension, are now facing change through the Renew My Church campaign. St. Mary’s will be combined with St. Frances of Rome. Ascension will form a new parish with St. Edmund. All local Catholic churches, as well as many Protestant institutions, are contending with the strategic challenges posed by the drop-off in participation.
I wonder how many people are lonely in their inner churches, temples or sanctuaries, apart from the connections to community that the outer institutions of faith provide. There is value in the solitary path, but I found that mine drew considerable meaning from the communal experience, even when I had been away from it.
In turn, having been on that personal journey gives me more to offer the outer church in its time of need.
Our inner churches and outer churches need renewal, together.
Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn and is a longtime Oak Park resident.