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Between me and the sea

I work in Boston’s “Innovation District” – an area once known for cheap parking and crime that is now sprouting office buildings like mushrooms on a rotted log after a rainy spell. I was drawn off my (hip, brick-lined) street today by a mobile blood drive across from the Courthouse. For the first day in forever (months at least) it was warm today. The receding glaciers left moraines of gravel across parking lots, revealing spaces long since lost to history along with cigarette butts, lost mittens and Dunkin’ cups. With the gleaming high-rises of the financial district to my left and the persistent pounding of construction cranes to my right, I crossed to the Courthouse.

When I got to the blood-van, however, a sign on the door indicated that they’d taken lunch early and they’d be back later. The breeze felt warm instead of wicked. I took the longer way back. With the shiny new Vertex Pharmaceutical building – newly occupied reaching out across Fan Pier – to my left, I turned my eyes to what looks from behind like one more forgotten brick warehouse, destined to eventually become a hip office space.

It was no warehouse, but instead it was a time capsule.

You can smell the sea from where I stood, corralled and calm as it is in Boston Harbor. The land grows to claim the sea more every day. That Mary once gazed across waves. Now she gazes at a gleaming lobby full of Important People. Behind her are hid the detritus and debris of a liminal space caught between three ages.

I had the strange feeling that I was the only one who could see the traffic cones and signs hidden behind the outstretched hands of the Mother of God.

Now, I’ve seen this chapel before. But I’ve never gone in. A tentative Calvinist, I sauntered up to the front door, hoping I looked like a tourist. A sign said, “Open 8 am to 8 pm during Lent”. Yes. It is Lent. I stepped in. No one waited there. There was no sound, no lock, no bar. A single lone candle flickered in the votives. I thought of the great Catholic cathedrals I had seen during my European travels – whole walls given to the glimmering lights that each represented a prayer. Only a handful of votives even had candles to be lit. An optimistic sign said, “Donation $1″. When I lifted the placard to place my small offering in it, only two quarters told the tale of a desperate prayer. No sons or brothers must be on the sea today. No wives worried their unborn babes will never know a father’s voice. No sisters left behind in this chapel by the sea.

For the safety of those upon the sea

Heretic that I am, it is Lent. I walked up the center aisle of the lonely chapel. The pews were cold and worn, with discarded programs and handouts. The tile peeled away at the corners. Cobwebs hung at the edge of stained-glass windows with pictures of dark apostles striving to calm the waves. One window had been removed to make way for an ancient box air conditioner. This place would be hot in summer. In the front of the church was placed a reading for the day, from Isaiah:

“For, as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and do not return before having watered the earth, fertilising it and making it germinate to provide seed for the sower and food to eat, so it is with the word that goes from my mouth: it will not return to me unfulfilled or before having carried out my good pleasure and having achieved what it was sent to do.”

I stopped to pray in a sunbeam, then left. I noted as I left the rusting bars over the windows of the rectory. Once, this place had been a home to desperate prayers for safety as tall ships raced before winds across the unknowable oceans. Then it had been a bastion of God in a dismal and dingy strip of garbage-filled land – a beacon of light against darkness. Now it was left behind and valued only as a relic of historical interest and sentimental value. Where the door had once borne the name of a man of God who served there, that name is covered with black tape and replaced with a ten digit phone number. How long, oh Lord, before this too becomes a bistro that “seeks to foster collaboration and entrepreneurship for the business leaders of tomorrow”?

Gleaming skyscrapers, union trucks and rusted bars on windows. This is Boston.

I wondered if this church might be a metaphor for The Church. From central importance to struggle to irrelevancy in 100 years. Is that the story of the 21st century Christian? Is our service spent? Does our tile peel? Do spiders add their artistry to our historic stained glass windows? Is our piano out of tune? Do our candles go unlit, our hymns go unsung and our prayers go unattended? Do we matter anymore?

That there is Good Friday. The guttering candles and the fading hope. I do not believe that the people in the tall buildings that hem in the chapel need God any less than the fervently praying betrothed once did as her lover pushed off the dock. Faithful hands laid out the scriptures to be read. Faithful hands opened the door and say the mass. I think we have not yet found our idiom – our way of telling our need to God and hearing a loving response. We do not light candles. But we do hope that the whispers of our heart are heard.

I do not know what the Easter of service to God will look like in our generation. Perhaps this Easter Eve will be grim and long – the active persecution of the apostles replaced with the corrosive disdain that marks so many of our public conversations. Perhaps it will flourish and be full of the creativity and joy and expression that mark our generation. Perhaps it will be profoundly individualistic. Perhaps we will so miss being with each other in our profound individualism that we will collaborate and innovate together in service to God and to man and to creation. It is even possible that the denizens of those high towers will find themselves drawn to a sunlit pew on a Tuesday noon to light a candle and say a prayer.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing

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