Like many churches, ours is a hive of activity on Sundays. She and her steeple absorb all the people and when worship is done she channels us into innumerable activities and eventually sends us back out into the world. But sometimes people get lost in the leaving.
Last Sunday, after church, I thought everyone in my family had been accounted for. My son was in the parish hall playing with friends, my husband was in the church rehearsing with the choir director and I was heading out the Robinson Street exit, cradling yet another Sunday school craft: a paper-plate angel covered in gold glitter glue, a Christmas tree topper to replace my Bombay Company Victorian angel. (So long, elegant lady-make way for the Chinet Disco Dancing Queen.)
Angel and I had just walked out the blue doors when I saw my son playing on the church steps. He was not where I’d left him, nor where I’d told his dad to pick him up:
“I thought you were in the hall?”
“I’m out here now.”
“I told your dad to pick you up in the hall when he was finished rehearsal.”
“But I’m playing out here now.”
“OK. Stay where you are. Don’t go anywhere!”
I went back inside to find my husband and revise the exit strategy, but Mark was no longer where he had been either, so I doubled back through the labyrinth from whence I’d come, fielding a chorus of “I thought you’d left!” from all the friends to whom I’d just said goodbye.
The church has four exterior exits but the building is impossible to leave. She seems to want to hold us all inside her upside-down hull indefinitely. When you’re champing at the bit to get something done on Sunday afternoon it can be irritating, but mostly it’s comforting: being cradled in the bosom of all the friendships, relationships and attachments we’ve formed within.
Don’t get me wrong-the good vibrations don’t just come from the people. It’s not a private club and God is not lost here. Actually, I like to think of God floating above us like a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. All of this combines to make church a very reassuring experience for the Hauser family-awash on a great island of faith where we are happy castaways.
One of the better films to come out of Hollywood this year is Pixar’s Inside Out. It is a magical look at the inner workings of the human mind, focusing on the interior life of a young girl named Riley. The girl’s emotions-joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust-are played by quirky but lovable characters. The complexities of personhood are dealt with, too, through the metaphor of “Personality Islands” which float, somewhat precariously, above a dark place known as the “Memory Dump,” where imaginary friends and other precious recollections are unceremoniously deposited.
There is a crisis in the film where Riley’s five islands-“Family Island,” “Goofball Island,” “Friendship Island,” Hockey Island” and “Honesty Island”-crumble and fall away into this scrap-heap, causing an emotional meltdown which leaves her unable to feel anything. Later on, when the film nears its happy ending, as Pixar films tend to do, these islands are ultimately rebuilt and Riley gets a few new ones, too, including some very worldly islands popular among 12 year-old girls: “Fashion Island,” “Tragic Vampire Romance Island” and “Boy Band Island.”
It’s a cool movie, but you might be thinking what I’m thinking: why is there no “Faith Island”? Its absence is all the more pressing and troubling during the scene where Riley runs away from home: her emotion board has darkened, all of her islands are gone and she is in free fall, undone by the world around her, left with absolutely nowhere to lay her burdens down.
What is truly gut-wrenching, of course, is that the state of adolescent emotional isolation so convincingly depicted in the film is anything but fiction. Riley’s confused state of mind is a very real and frightening place where too many kids are stranded nowadays. Hockey and friends and boy bands are fun and all, but they don’t endure. What are kids supposed to cling to when life gets tough, as life tends to do?
Last Sunday, after a few more rounds of our unintentional post-church hide-and-seek, the Hauser family did finally manage to collect itself and pull away, however slowly, from St. Mary Magdalene’s all-powerful tractor beam.
As I watched my son wave goodbye to his friends and beat a path down the stone steps, I wondered what would be the long-term impact of his belonging to this place.
When everything else falls away, will this island of faith endure?