Once upon a time, I attended church regularly and took my children to Sunday School every week. I even worked on a church staff and wrote curriculum for the national church. But at some point, the church up and left me behind. The church on a national level became a political activist organization, focused on justice issues that largely didn’t affect me (I supported them nonetheless) and which I realistically couldn’t do much about (though I did my bit).
Meanwhile, when we asked for help from our local parish as our teenage children found themselves embroiled in numerous calamities, no one showed up. Meanwhile, I went through the agonizing processes of losing parents, spent Sunday afternoons mixing and mingling with residents of the nursing home’s dementia ward, dealt with teen suicide and drug use, runaways, overwhelming high school academic pressures, and a toddler who had severe separation anxiety and screamed every time I left the room.
The few times I’ve returned to church – trying to make a fresh start – I find only parishioners much older than myself, carrying on as they have for decades, encased in their own community that slides towards irrelevancy and ever-dwindling numbers. The church is dying, I realize. Things have changed. The internet and a plethora of other things to do on a Sunday morning put a strangle hold on the church’s ability to function as it had in decades past. That Sunday morning I remember in 1966, when so many people tried to get into the church parking lot that ushers had to go outside to direct traffic, lingers as a distant childhood memory that will not resurrect in my lifetime.
Am I still a Christian? Absolutely yes. Do I still practice my faith? Every day, wherever I happen to be. But it’s a lonely road.
For middle-aged GenXers, the journey of faith is one taken without institutional support, going it alone. I have spiritual friends my age or a bit older, but they’re all on Facebook and don’t live anywhere near me. I rarely see them in person. But it’s better than nothing, I suppose. My “worship time” is alone, in the comfy chair of my home office, reading ancient spiritual texts and spending time in silence.
And that’s okay, I’ve decided. Recently, I read a new translation of The Way of a Pilgrim, an old Orthodox spiritual text about a middle-aged Russian man who strikes out by himself, seeking spiritual healing and truth. Even though I had read this book years ago, I now unexpectedly connected with it more than I had before.
I realized that like this pilgrim of old, my spiritual journey has become much like his – taken alone, without institutional support, and mostly in the small “hut” of my home office or while out encountering whomever I may meet on my journey. Sometimes I come across a book or person or event or story that inspires me, helps me understand the ways of the world, or helps me gain new wisdom. Then I continue on my way in silence until something else happens. I’m blessed by the kindness of strangers frequently, and I try to pay it forward.
There’s nothing new under the sun, including spiritual formation, I suppose. As Christianity continues to evolve in this twenty-first century, I can take comfort in the ways of the old, the ways of the people we now call saints. Before the institutional church became dominant, before the Sunday Schools and the adult forums and the small group Bible studies, individual pilgrims made their spiritual journeys out on the open road, out in the wilderness, practicing their faith one day at a time, rolling with whatever punches they encountered, and growing in spiritual understanding slowly, quietly, in the process.
Life – as well as faith – takes place outside the church building.
Recommend Reading: The Way of a Pilgrim, new translation by Nina Toumanova. (Note: A 2019 edition is due out any day. This link is for a 2012 edition). This new translation of the spiritual classic really makes the character of the wandering pilgrim come alive. A middle-aged Russian man, the ultimate spiritual “seeker,” makes a long journey on foot to Siberia to find religious truth. The settings and characters come to life in this translation. Highly recommended for those serious about spirituality.
Cynthia Coe is the author of Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us, a book on spirituality in the natural world right where you live. Available now in Kindle for $3.99 and in paperback for $11.99. Nature-based devotionals included in the back, perfect for Lenten devotionals.