When I was young, I remember loving the Catholic Church. The stained glass windows, the Greek and Roman architecture. The wooden pews and retractable padded knee rests to kneel at. When we would go we always sat together as a family. I watched as the priests went about in his long white robe and purple sashes over his shoulder ministering to the ritual of the mass: getting ready to perform the giving of the wafers, the Eucharist, saying the ritual prayers and spreading the incense across the altar.
When I see kids today in church, they are not really paying attention to what's going on, their parents bring them toys and other distractions to keep them occupied during the church service. I payed attention, I would ask my father questions, and he would answer in a whisper. I knelt, when it was time to kneel and I stood up when it was time to stand. I liked the church. It was a place I felt was somehow separate from the world. It fed into my strong desire to escape to another place, that took me out of the reality of my life. It was in a town not far from where we lived. It was in a way a place of safety and also a place of mystery, like going back in time to ancient days of knights and kings. I always felt the church as very old and that I was a part of its mystery and fantasy.
I don't remember if my dad or mom talked to anybody before or after mass, except to shake the hand of the priest as we left the church to go home. We got dressed up in nice clothing, my dad, brother and I wore a tie and my mother wore white gloves. No one looked unhappy or sad or different in any way. My brother got involved in the church as well as I, wanting to become a priest. I am under the opinion, because of my experience, that all boys who grew up in the catholic church, in a way, had the same thought of wanting to be a priest. I wanted to be a priest to know the mystery, to conduct the mass, to write the homily. I was attracted to the beautiful decor, the style, the architecture, the statues and the stained glass windows, the stations of the cross, the history and the aroma of the incense the priest would burn in a Thurible, a metal censer suspended from a chain, he would swing while walking around anointing the altar. I did not really know what it all meant. I did not know nor was I taught that the mass from start to finish was intended to glorify God. I did not see that on my own, all I knew of the church and of God was that He was this far away being who lived in heaven and the church is where He showed up on Sundays and Saturday nights. He had a son who died for my sins, however, I didn't know why He did that. I was instructed that God sees everything, that I am never alone, and if I did something bad God would see it and punish me for it, and that bad things happened in threes. If I got caught doing something bad, I was scared God was going to punish me.
As I grew older I thought of the church and all I experienced as a sort of fairy tale. What I now began concentrating on was wanting to be liked, to be accepted by my peers and classmates, have fun and do things that were fun. I didn't care anymore about the mysterious or the fantastical. I lost my childhood allure of the massive white brick building with the tall steeple. I lost my childhood place that removed me from reality helping me to escaped from the real world. I began to search for escape in other ways.
When I got saved I had trouble figuring out how to have a relationship with a God, in the form of Jesus, I cannot see in the physical. In the catholic church I had statues and beautiful paintings and images of saints in stained glass windows to look at and to worship. In my new church there is nothing on the walls and just a plain cross above the altar without even the image of Jesus on it.
One of my earliest questions was, could I love an invisible God, could I have a relationship with a God that is physically invisible or not there but there and alive to me in every other way? Could every other way be enough?
The story is told of the Roman general Pompey believing he would see the statue of the Jewish God when he entered the Holy of Holy he saw only total darkness. He found no statue of the Jewish God, and the sanctuary was empty. As the Jewish historian Josephus tells us, “in the sanctuary stood nothing whatever.” He could not understand how 12,000 Jews just lost their lives defending an empty room.
How much do I love the invisible God? Do I believe He is really there, just like a person standing in front of me is really there. Someone that I can see with my eyes and touch with my hands and feel their breath on my neck when they speak to me.
What causes me to obey God today? What causes me to follow the scripture in James 1:22 that says, “do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.”
The answer to the mystery of the empty room was “Love,” Loving the invisible God by understanding that all the other ways are far more convincing than any physical body can be. I did not have to live up to the first name given to me at birth Thomas. I was renamed Michael when I was two years old which means, “who is like God,” or “gift from God.” And, normally those who deeply love us bestow the best of gifts to us and nobody wants to disappoint someone they deeply love, or more accurately, love deeply.