in which I become a Unitarian: part two

(for Part One of this continuing saga, please go here.)

On a Sunday morning, The Boyfriend and I took the metro to Vendome, to attend Montreal’s only Unitarian church. We underestimated the travel time, which is unlike us, and arrived in time for the service by the skin of our teeth. We were greeted outside the church by a friendly usher (just like WalMart! I thought), and at the door of the chapel itself by an elderly woman brandishing songbooks with programs tucked inside. “Are you new?” she asked.

“Yes,” we replied. “We’re visitors.”

“Visitors!” she cried. “And where are you visiting from?”

“Um…Outremont?”

She looked puzzled by this, and then laughed. “I see. Welcome.” She directed us to a table covered with sticky labels and Crayola markers. “Please make yourselves some nametags.” Looking around, we noticed that everyone was wearing cords around their necks with nametags attached.

As we scribbled our names on sticky labels, The Boyfriend whispered, “I was thinking we could just hide in the back of the room and watch the service happen, but I’m getting the feeling there’s not a lot of anonymity here.”

Now, The Boyfriend and I are, superficially, quite different. On the outside, he strikes people as gregarious and extroverted. He’s extremely funny, extremely concerned about others, and, although he is prone to explosions of caustic rage when strangers on the street walk into him or talk on their cell phones while driving or otherwise behave like idiots, he’s generally really, really nice to people. I, on the other hand, tend to be withdrawn and uncomfortable, unless I’m around people I know well (and sometimes even then) or in a clearly defined role where I’m in charge of the situation (in front of a classroom, for example. And sometimes even then.)

Fundamentally, though, when it comes to social interaction, we’re not really that different. We are, at the core, terrified of strangers, terrified of small talk, and terrified of unfamiliar situations where we can’t mentally prepare ourselves for everything that will happen. It takes us days to work ourselves up to going to a party, even though we often have a good time once we’re there. And here we were, taking it upon ourselves to go to a church (an activity neither of us feels we have a handle on) that we’d never been to before (danger! danger!) where, we discovered, perfect strangers were going to TALK to us (let the hyperventilation begin).

And it was all my idea, which meant that I felt I had a certain amount of agency in the situation, whereas he was jumping feet-first into this waking nightmare to support me in my creative and spiritual endeavours. This is because he is The World’s Best Boyfriend.

So we made our nametags and slipped into the chapel. The Boyfriend’s first comment was, “Either there’s no kneeling here, or the kneeling is really hardcore.” There were no pews, only straight-backed chairs, placed in rows so snug that it was difficult to squeeze past people’s knees, much less kneel. The room was big and airy, with a high ceiling and some stained glass in the windows; at the front was a small stage with a podium, a piano, and an altar decorated with candles. We took seats off to the side and near the back, right on the aisle so that we could feel less trapped.

The bilingual service began with announcements, including a welcome to visitors and newcomers. “Please join us after the service for coffee and conversation in the room next door,” said the welcomer. “If you are new, please use a green mug so we will know to come and welcome you. And everybody, please wear your nametags.”

My first, visceral response to this announcement was a spasm of panic. Really? A coffee party? But as the announcements finished and one of the congregation’s children came forward to light the chalice to begin the service, I thought: Well, what are you here for?

I was there to research ways that a community can help support, nurture and guide us through terrible difficulty. I was doing this research, in part, because I was writing a novel about a young boy who passes through terrible emotion struggles and difficult circumstances because he finds sanctuary in his church.

But I was also looking for something like this for myself. I felt this level of community was missing in my life. And how, really, was I to begin building such a community if I wasn’t willing to have coffee with these people?

One look at The Boyfriend’s face, though, and I knew it wouldn’t be happening this Sunday. I couldn’t do it to him. He wasn’t looking for what I was looking for – he has strong, deep roots in several places that I don’t, and doesn’t feel the same profound loneliness I do. If I asked him to stay, he’d stay, but it would be agony. I knew then that I was going to have to come back the following week on my own.

We stayed through the service. We sang songs from the songbook – songs that seemed to use the word “freedom” a lot. We listened to a sermon about the French/English divide in Montreal – a strange topic, I thought, coming from the apparently American minister, a topic that felt oddly outdated.

(The minister explained that she had just, at the urging of the congregation, finished reading Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, a novel about the historical clash between Anglophone and Francophone society in Quebec. Many Canadians read this book when they’re very young, and although it’s a seminal Canadian novel, it also leads to a lot of very simplistic discussions of Franco/Anglo cultural and class conflict.)

There was a fire drill after the sermon, and as we stood in the cold parking lot, no doubt looking lost, one of the older parishioners greeted us, asked where we were from, and asked what we thought of the service and the sermon. She explained that she was one of the group of Francophones who had asked the minister to speak on this topic, that the discussion of bilingual issues within the church was ongoing and sometimes contentious.

Ah, I thought. Right. “Community” includes this, also.

When we were allowed back inside, many people seemed to be going straight to the coatroom, so we did the same. “You don’t want to stay for coffee?” The Boyfriend asked. When I said no, the relief on his face was palpable. “Are you sure?”

The service was concluding inside. We waited by the chapel door for the singing of the final hymn, for the recession of the minister, and expressed our thanks to her before we slipped out the door.

Outside, as we walked, I asked The Boyfriend, “So what did you think about all that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s for me. They seem like good people trying to do good things, but I kept looking around, wondering, ‘Why are all these people here in this room together? What, exactly, is this meeting about?’ I couldn’t figure it out. I can’t get a handle on what Unitarianism is.”

I nodded. “I think the idea of community is somewhere at the bottom of it all. Coming together to support one another’s spiritual growth.”

“Sure. And that’s an awesome thing to do. But it doesn’t really speak to me. How about you?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know yet. I think I need to explore it a bit more.”

He bit his lip. “Does this mean we’re coming back next week?”

I giggled and kissed his cheek. “No, baby. It means I’ll be coming back next week. You have more than fulfilled your Perfect Boyfriend requirements for now.”

(Next post: I return alone to the Unitarian church, and the importance of all this for my life as an educator is finally revealed.)

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10 responses

  1. Hi Siobhan,
    I just came upon your blog by accident, looking through most recently posted entries under religion. I do go to church every week, and have for nearly all my life, but over those 47 years (exactly 47, today is my birthday) I’ve changed churches a lot of times and changed how I think about God a lot.

    I’m fascinated by other people’s stories about how they came to believe (or not believe) what they do, and their church experiences. I’m looking forward to reading your next post.

    My uncle was Unitarian Universalist, which is part of why your post interested me. I’ve known one other person who attended a UU church, that I can think of, but I’ve never been to one myself (except with my uncle when I was a girl, and I can’t remember anything except the coloring/activity book I got to bring home, which I still have because I liked it).

    I always found the music one of the best parts of church also. Mostly the singing, but also listening to the pipe organ – sometimes I’d go in the sanctuary when the organist was practicing (my father was very involved at church so I was in the building a lot) and just listen. I love being alone, away from crowds, and the only downside of just sitting there listening was that they didn’t heat the building during the week and in the winter it was freezing! (Well, not literally – the pipes weren’t going to burst, but the choir had to wear winter coats to rehearse in there in the winter.)

    I go to a big church now where there’s hardly ever any silence (and no organ – it’s mostly guitar and drums), and I miss that. I’m not good at getting to know people either and I can’t stand the noise of big crowds. But we have small groups that meet and talk and eat and pray and study the Bible and talk about it, and I’d be a lot lonelier without gruops like that.

  2. Pauline: thank you so much for your extended and thoughtful comment. I too am fascinated by people’s stories about their relationship to religion, so I was very interested to read yours. It sounds like you and I have gone through some of the same struggles with it.

    And happy birthday! May the 47th year be the best year so far.

  3. this is so compelling, i laughed and was close to tears reading it. someday, if you are interested, i can tell you about my experience of church and religion, growing up, nominally, catholic.

  4. It’s so interesting to get your ‘outsider’ perspective. It’s funny to think I probably know many of the people who were present. I began going when Tessa (now 15) was 4. Tessa got to play in the nursery while I attended the service. As a single mother, I really appreciated having someone take care of her while I sat and enjoyed being among adults. Sandra is a wonderful musician and there are some other really great people there. But I understand your initial feelings of anxiety. Can’t wait for your next installment.

  5. Elaine: thanks for that. Melanie: yes, I could see around me that everyone was appreciative of one another and of the opportunity to be there with each other. Most of my feelings on this first visit were very self-involved, but I did get a sense of the value people placed on their weekly time together…

  6. I think the best part of these posts is that I am getting to know you, [censored by blog author].
    Without actually spending time with you, but getting to know you nonetheless.

    Write on!

  7. Thanks AD! I’m enjoying that as well, through this blog and yours.

    I will ask you and other commenters to refrain from using my real name/initials, though; the anonymity of this blog is tenuous, but I’d like to maintain it at least superficially!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    SC

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