While my mom found sanctuary and peace in the little Catholic mission church of my hometown, amid statues, stained-glass, incense, and the quiet darkness surrounding a veiled tabernacle near a tiny flame symbolizing the light of Christ, my dad found energy, life, comfort, and motivation in local pubs. During the forty years that I knew him, he was in the beer business: distributor, warehouse manager, bar manager, or bar owner. His friends there had names like Schmitty Schmitt, Rink Rinkenbaugh, Rusty, Dub, Tilly, and a guy we, kids, called the Piano Man. We didn’t know his name. He rarely spoke, but let his music do the talking.
These characters and other regulars in his smoke-filled, alcohol-reeking, fun-loving, problem-clouded reality reflect those of Billy Joel’s song: a real estate novelist who never had time for a wife, a waitress practicing politics, Davy who’s still in the Navy, John at the bar who yearns to break out and make it big, and the old man next to him who makes love to his tonic and gin while reminiscing about sad and sweet songs of the past. The piano man notes that they’re all sharing a glass they call loneliness ‘cuz it’s better than drinking alone. My dad’s haven was quite a contrast to my mom’s. She never drank alcohol or smoked and, after the chaos of bringing eleven children into the world, caring for us from infancy to childhood to adulthood, she preferred being alone—and loved being alone in God’s soothing presence. I don’t think she was ever lonely.
People are drawn to different sanctuaries of hope at various times along this pilgrim journey: for some it is the solitude of an empty church, for others the social life of public houses amidst singing and laughter, even if below the surface there is sadness and tearful longing. For some it is the beauty of God’s magnificent cathedral of creation in the majesty of nature’s mountains, lakes, meadows, forests, or ocean shores; for others it is the church of the streets where we can transform our faith into action by helping those in need, sometimes dire and desperate need. The piano man, like the lord of the dance, entices us to engage when and how the rhythm sinks into us, reminding us that we’re never alone.
In the presence of no one else or with others, it is worthwhile to assess who we are in relationship to God and in relationship to family, friends, and strangers. It is a good spiritual exercise to recognize what motivates and energizes us as well as what drains or diminishes us. Such reflection will help us understand how we are called by God to benefit our surroundings. My mom and dad provided me and my siblings a balance: I am inspired by sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste, and mystical senses of both the party atmosphere and the empty chapel. I wonder what balance you seek and to what settings you feel drawn at this stage of your journey. As our church opens herself to the voice of the Holy Spirit through synodality, like the piano man, our Blessed Sanctifier puts us in the mood for a melody of grace to pursue a closer walk with the Lord and make the world around us a little better place for those we encounter.