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About a month ago, I set out from my house on a late Friday afternoon looking for a new place to pray. Holding keys to a church building is a privilege on occasions such as this, but I was most interested in a sacred space I had never seen before. I love our church and we are blessed with the location, but it won’t be confused for the most beautiful worship space in Knoxville. On this particular Friday, I needed prayer outside of me because I couldn’t locate the prayer forming within me.
As my garage door opened, my first thought was to see if All Saints Catholic Church was open, a mere 4 miles from my house. I had intended to see their church for some time, and this was the day I’d turn my intentions into actions. I turned west toward Cedar Bluff, forgetting myself for a moment as muscle memory guided the steering wheel into the turn lane headed toward Apostles. I flinched for a second, wondering if I should just abandon novelty and go back to a familiar prayer room at our church. “No, flash your right blinker,” my inner voice whispered. Awkwardly re-entering the Friday afternoon congestion on Middlebrook Pike, I made my way to a church I’ve seen before.
When I pulled into the parking area of All Saints Catholic Church, I almost turned around immediately, seeing an empty parking lot as a sign that the offices and buildings were locked up by 5 p.m. It was 5:15 and all signs suggested I missed my chance for prayer in a beautiful nave. I still got out of my car, not necessarily because I’m an optimist, but because I’m Appalachian stubborn. I wasn’t leaving until I yanked all locked doors to the nave. To my astonishing surprise, the first door–the front door–to the All Saints was barely ajar, light emitting from the worship space. “I love Catholics,” I whispered to myself. “They know a church should be a house of prayer any time of day.”
Entering the spacious narthex, I walked through the glass doors of the All Saints nave. The gentle sounds of living water stilled my mind as I made the sign of the cross at the baptismal font inside the nave’s entrance. The vast expanse of this sacred space brought a dilemma–where do I sit? Without energy to make any decision, I settled on the back row and allowed the Holy Spirit and this holy place to center my soul.
After twenty minutes of prayer and Scripture reading, my spirit entered gentler rhythms and my soul was finding rest. Then I heard a few other pilgrims enter the nave. I was guessing a few weary believers were coming to pray the rosary before the weekend. I didn’t mind the company, but wondered why they came into the church in pairs, only married couples it seemed, whispering in casual conversation. This Anglican priest did what an Anglican priest does in awkward situations such as this: keep your head down and pray.
Five more minutes passed and more married couples were finding their seats around the nave. Everyone was leaning over pews asking, “when was your anniversary?” Anniversaries and marriage memories were the topics of conversation, not prayers with the rosary. A few minutes before 6 p.m., there were a few dozen married couples chatting together and me, sitting by my prayerful lonesome on the back pew. They don’t know I’m happily married to Emily. They have no notion I’m a priest seeking prayer. They were listening for the voice of their own priest.
Just then, the Irish inflection of All Saints’ parish priest, Fr. Michael Woods, resounds over the sound system. He was heard before seen, beginning his opening greetings in the narthex before entering the nave. Within a few sentences, it’s apparent why the men and women are eased by the sound of their shepherd’s voice. The joy of the Lord covers every word of Fr. Woods greeting and I realized I was not only sitting in a sacred space, but the All Saints family room. Everyone’s face brightened at the sound of their father’s voice.
On this World Marriage Day, February 10, Fr. Wood circulated through the pews of married couples who gathered to renew their vows in holy matrimony. Since All Saints isn’t a small parish, only married couples with an anniversary year ending in ‘5’ or ‘0’ were invited to renew their vows and celebrate their union again. “How did you meet?” “How did you know you wanted to be married?” For a dozen couples or so, the good father drew out stories, filling the space with brief testimonies of the Lord’s faithfulness in marriage.
During Fr. Woods’ meditation on the sacrament of marriage, I knew I was in a holy church. I knew I entered a holy place an hour beforehand, but the space became truly mystical when the human icons of Christ and his Church filled the pews. With the mediation ended, Fr. Woods asked the brides and grooms to face one another, repeating the same words they had spoken years ago, in whatever year is divisible by five. Ironically, I’ll celebrate my fifth anniversary with Emily this July. Had my Emily been with me, I would have spontaneously turned to her and said my vows all over again. Without her though, I was intruding upon this holy ground.
As I left that sacred room, I knew prayer had been formed more deeply within me. Story by story, phrase by phrase, my soul was being lifted to love more faithfully. The prayers I came to pray weren’t as good as the prayers I heard prayed around me. The most moving prayers within me are the ones that surprise me; the prayers that come outside of me and are deposited within my own spirit, giving me words I didn’t know I needed to speak. Surprised by the joy of vows renewed in sincere devotion, I was renewed to love more deeply in relationship, especially with my first love, the Lord Jesus.
With the faint echo of those unison vows following my steps as I exited the narthex, I smiled at the continuation of faithful love in Christ’s Church. Walking the corridor back to my car, I glimpsed a beautiful sight: several tables set in festive decor in the All Saints’ dining hall. Following the renewal of vows service, these couples were going to celebrate their married life around the table.
This is how church ought to be. On February 10, Cedar Bluff of Knoxville bore a resemblance to Cana of Galilee.
Love is work, but it is not all work. It is celebration, a celebration that never fails to surprise me. Kind of like coming to a wedding feast at Cana of Galilee and finding the Lord of Creation celebrating with you. Who would have guessed Jesus would come to that feast and make it last longer than planned? Who would have guessed the Lord would surprise me with love when I was only looking for a few minutes of quiet? I shouldn’t be surprised, but his surprise never seems to end. In every place and season, his banner over me is love.