Recently more than one person has told me of what invariably happens to them when they go to church. Namely, they cry.
I hope the services aren’t that bad, obviously. But no; something is going on and I have been wondering what it is.
It could be something to do with silence, prayer and release.
Although church services can be wordy, there’s something about the building that inspires silence, especially if, as in our case, the building is old. It’s the stone, the wood, the history, the candles, the vaulted ceiling. God is there, in the bricks and mortar, inviting you to be real.
Or even if it’s not that old, there’s something about the purpose for which the building stands – which most people would probably agree is prayer.
Prayer is about being real and often in our lives we are not encouraged to be real. Because to be real is to be vulnerable. We all have masks and personas and most people put on their best face to go out into the world.
I mean, I never go out the house without looking in a mirror first. It’s kind of second nature, at least to prevent the embarrassment of turning up to something with food stuck on my teeth, or similar. Some mask wearing, or at least mask-checking, is therefore inevitable.
But in church, in prayer, it’s much harder to be a mask wearer, except if you’re the minister, where generally it’s a deal (or a huge deal) more complicated, depending on your view of priesthood.
After all, we address God as the one to whom “all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…” That can, and probably should, if it’s working properly, feel like an un-masking.
So in church we might be laid bare, even if only for a second. The singing undoes some. The welcome can be overwhelming, I hope in a good way. Some interesting feedback from a guy who sometimes comes to our church, having never been a church-goer before, was “I can’t get over how nice everyone is”. That could stir some stuff up.
But perhaps more than anything we cry in church because we’re all a bit flat out in our lives, and we need a release. Being flat out means we can’t attend to our inner lives, so that emotional stuff can build up to such a pitch, plus we’ve been going out and about in public, projecting a persona of “I am coping fine”, whilst all the time dying inside.
And then we get inside a church and it all wells up and it’s like a fountain. I’m talking as a woman here, of course. It could be different for blokes. And apparently this happens to people who “go to church” when there are no other people there, which is a fair number, if anecdotal evidence is correct.
I had a cry the other day. It wasn’t in church – that is more complicated if you are the minister, as I said – so I waited till I got home. But it was amazing to me just how much was in there, swilling about, just waiting to spill out. It was like being carried along on an enormous wave, without a life belt.
Cynthia Bourgeault writes of that potent combination of silence and prayer, saying: ‘We all carry a lot of pain inside us, buried in our emotions and in our bodies’.
Through assenting to the action of God in some way, even by just turning up inside a church, she suggests that ‘the tight regressive bands that the egoic mind keeps wrapped around these shadow places within you begin to loosen up and some of the trapped material can release itself, most often in tears’ (Centering Prayer, 39).
I love that image of a tightly wound band, releasing itself bit by bit. Sometimes of course it can happen rather suddenly, like the time my brother set fire to a golf ball in the garage and it turned out to be made of a hundred million tiny bits of rubber that all unraveled terribly fast whilst spinning round and round, to great effect, till there was nothing left but the charred remains of the skin.
Perhaps not a very helpful image of unravelling.
So I have great sympathy for crying in church. It’s probably doing you a lot of good, although it might feel a bit weird. Go with it, don’t apologise. Let it help you get in touch with what is really important to you, where healing might be available. And you might find it helps someone else to unwind too.
Though hopefully a bit slower than a frazzled golf ball.