In the past few years, I have moved so often that some boxes never get unpacked. The piece of masking tape on top designating destination earns another Sharpie line through it. “K to ND” became “K to Boston,” which in turn regressed to “K to home” and, most recently, “K to NY.”
When I filled my father’s surprisingly hardy minivan this latest time, I had made moving into an art. Parts of relocating never get easier, though. After I kick back my feet, proud to have completed the task and glad for some time to relax, I inevitably realize that I have no idea what to do with myself in a place which is now home but has none of the familiarity of home.
One way I start is to find my new church. There is great comfort in knowing that no matter what part of the country I am in, I can walk through the doors of a Catholic church and immediately be at home. Underneath their different architectural disguises, the churches of my life have served as an omnipresent witness to my darkest hours and purest inspirations.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church was the church where I was baptized, where I once enjoyed sinking my teeth into the wood of the pew in front of me when I was still small enough to believe this might go unnoticed. This Shrub Oak, New York, church was next door to my public high school. On 9/11, I was drawn from the sterile offerings of comfort of the public school system and into the warm arms of the church, where I stared numbly into the void of all of the failings that could never be balanced if I were to die that day. I didn’t go to confession, though. At the time I felt that repenting simply because it might be the end wasn’t much of a way to repent. So, with perfect logic, I went on unrepentant for a while longer.
Notre Dame, with its many chapels and its many temptations, saw quite a bit of my journey. The Lewis Chapel held me as I traded Sunday skirts for Sunday slippers. I prayed fervently that my father’s cancer would go into remission one more time . . . two more times. I skipped too easily out of its halls, though, still unrepentant.
The basilica welcomed me on the days when I could recognize that more than slippers were required to receive the Lord. Singing in full voice, I fell in love with the booming organ of worship and the potential of youth. I made it to daily Mass a few times, half as enthralled with the queer specimen of students in the pews who made it every day as I was with the Mass.
The churches of Rome turned me around. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings awakened me to the excitement and devotion that was meant to be part of being a Christian. I went to daily Mass at Sant’ Andrea della Valle to learn the language. I left in awe of how the creed I mumbled could be so universal, so immovable.
And in a small, dark church on Via Monterone I made the confession that finally made me shake as I should have been shaking all along.
Back at Notre Dame, I came to love the CoMo chapel. The companionship I found within those walls between classes while I pleaded for a light to shine on my vocation, for my broken heart to mend, for understanding to grow out of misery, was unforgettable.
Then I was off to Boston and an apartment on a street that had the misfortune of being named “Fenway” but the great fortune of being only a block from Saint Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine. There I made a vow to attend daily Mass for several months to pray that the source of my broken heart might regain his faith. I don’t know how he fared, but it had the unexpected effect of healing me.
It was also in this church that I stumbled across the heart of the postgraduate Catholic dating scene, otherwise known as the Young Adult Bible Study. Never before have I given out my number on the back of a prayer card. The Venerable Father Bruno Lanteri, however, did not bless that venture. But God’s plan would not always be so opaque. Soon, on a hot Sunday night under Ralph Adams Cram’s neo-Gothic arches, I would kneel beside my best friend, a Protestant, and enter into the first of many prayers that we would someday be free of the fissures of imperfect faith and that God could unite two hearts.
Now, when I walk the streets of New York and stumble upon a church, I cannot help but wonder, “What do you have in store for me?” Maybe it will be on the steps of Blessed Sacrament or Holy Trinity that my loved ones will gather to celebrate the beginning of a new journey. Or perhaps it will be in their pews that I seek comfort and redirection once more.
I do not know the future as I begin in this new place. But I trust that in my Father’s house with many doors in many cities, I will learn the way.
Kateri Brown is a residential architect working in New York City. She will marry her best friend at Saint Patrick’s Stone Church in Yorktown Heights, New York, in December.