Stranger In A Very Strange Land #LentenJourneys

Your St Nick’s webmistress is on a Lenten journey of sorts; I’m on vacation this week, visiting family and friends in Arizona. But I made sure to take time out yesterday to attend a local Episcopal church for the first Sunday in Lent.

Sometimes a spiritual journey begins with a struggle, wrestling with one’s conceptions and ingrained habits. And sometimes it begins with Googlemaps:

Googlemaps route to St Matthew's Episcopal Church in Glendale

Googlemaps route to St Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Glendale

Although on vacation, I felt the need to connect and attend church, especially as it was the first Sunday in Lent. My husband David is an avid cyclist and had borrowed a bike from his brother Mitchell to ride yesterday – we’re in Phoenix visiting my brother- and sister-in-law for a few days before striking out on a short road trip around the state of Arizona. So with David off on a group ride sponsored by Mitch’s favorite bike shop, I had Sunday morning free.

Google, and Googlemaps, are pretty good tools when making a certain kind of spiritual search. You have to ask questions, and you generally get good answers. In my case, I needed to find an Episcopal church, because that is the tradition that speaks most clearly to me (and also it needed to have good music). I needed to find a church that was within a certain radius of our hotel, that started reasonably early, yet had a choral service. I passed on another choice that might have been good, but didn’t start until 11am, and found my way to St Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Chandler, AZ, which was easy to reach, started at 9am, and seemed to have a very active website. From the website, it appeared to be a welcoming and affirming community, which is also important to me.

In a short time, I found myself in a largish sanctuary, built in a Southwestern colonial Mission style, part of a rather large complex that consisted of a school or office wing, the sactuary, a courtyard with a fountain, and a large walled garden. It was very welcoming and VERY busy, with lots of cars in the lot.

As it was the first Sunday of Lent, they began with a sung Great Litany -which I hadn’t heard sung in years. It was very satisfying to chant along with everyone for the responses. I sat just in front of the choir, which took up about 3 rows of chairs at the back, with a piano and electronic organ. The rest of the congregation sat in wooden pews.

The service proceeded; as I recited passages from the Book of Common Prayer, mostly from memory, I reflected on the comforting sense that even as a stranger in a very strange land, I was home. However, once we reached the point of exchanging the Peace, I chuckled at how quickly it was over; the congregation was about 3 or 4 times our usual numbers at St Nick’s, and “peac-eing” took about 20 seconds. People shook hands and greeted people in their immediate vicinity, and sat down. At St Nick’s, the “peace-ing” can go on for 5 minutes or more, as people roam the sanctuary, greeting (and often hugging) everyone else. Still, with such a large group in pews, that kind of fraternization would have taken a long time at St Matthew’s. A couple in the choir did a very nice duet, the rest of the Eucharist was spoken with sung responses, and we were soon dismissed to go in peace.

As I left the sanctuary, I wandered over to look over the wall at their garden:

Memorial garden at St Matthew's Episcopal Church, Chandler AZ

Memorial garden at St Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Chandler AZ

As you can see, the back wall under the arches is a columbarium, with the ashes of deceased former members of the parish, along with nice pathways and a sheltering “ramada.” It’s an example of “xeriscaping” with desert-adapted plants, which may look strange to your eyes, but are extremely common here. There were cacti, yucca plants, and shrubs that might look dry and dead now, but may bloom gloriously if briefly later in the spring.

The entire area offers hospitality, refreshment, and welcome to the wandering stranger, and a home to those who rest there for a short time, or eternity.

As the rest of my personal journey beckons, I’ll be treating my sojourn in the desert of Arizona as a kind of Lenten journey, too. There is a spare kind of beauty in the desert that invites reflection and introspection; this beauty surrounds and sustains your soul even as you recognize that you have to treat the desert with respect (and carry water and sunscreen at all times).

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