One of my favorite things to do, when I see a church, is to go in, sit in a pew, close my eyes and see what impressions well up.
Recently I did this in the sanctuary of the Church of Saints Peter & Paul Parish in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco.
North Beach is an upscale, clean, well-kept neighborhood and a tourist favorite. Across the street, you’ll find Washington Park, a grassy square with mature trees and a sidewalk running the perimeter. In California, leaves don’t necessarily drop off until mid to late November. Autumn’s for the last three years had been warm and dry.
Elderly Asians were out doing Tai Chi along the Stockton Street side of the park. Several old women seemed to be wind-milling their arms around and around from their shoulders. At least they were out there moving. A meandering walk runs through the park, and homeless looking types were in earnest discussions on benches. A public restroom building is under construction on the corner of Columbus Avenue, and Filbert Street. The completion of this project will be a relief to the businesses in the area, giving tourists another place to go.
At the top of each daylight hour, the sound of bells from The Church of Saints Peter & Paul float over the square and up the streets to the top of Telegraph Hill. Most neighborhoods in San Francisco have a Catholic Church. Each Sunday, the bells ring, calling parishioners to worship or reminding people that it is Sunday. Settled by Italians, North Beach still has a strong Catholic presence with three parishes, a Knights of Columbus store front on Grant Street and a Knights of Columbus club entrance on the side of another church building. North Beach has many similarities to other neighborhoods in the city but cleaner, shinier and with nicer weather.
This day was the first time it had rained in Northern California in three weeks. California hasn’t seen much rain in three years. It wasn’t cold, maybe 65 degrees. People walked around with their umbrellas, hats or bareheaded as though nothing was different.
The church, completed in 1924, is a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture and its twin steeples, along with Coit Tower, are North Beach icons. The massive marble altar was made in Italy, shipped to San Francisco and reassembled into its present location. The Catholic Youth Organization of the 1930’s produced three professional baseball players, including Joe DiMaggio. When you walk by today, you’ll still hear the shouts of children playing in the recreation court.
A guide book writer reported that the interior is overdone and not to his taste. I think he missed the point. I spent a long weekend at sewing retreat at a Catholic center this fall; all the statues and stained glass are just the Catholic way. There must be a Catholic statue industry with skilled artisans somewhere; Italy, maybe? The detailed dress and symbolism in life size or larger statues are extraordinary and arresting. While I appreciate the effort it took to create and pay for those magnificent works of art, once inside I could hardly wait to sit in a pew and hear what the Holy Spirit had to say.
I sat down; relaxed, bowed my head, clasped my hands, took a couple of breaths and felt for what was available.
What I got was lightness and an upwelling of joy. The Holy Spirit told me to live my life with joy in the present moment, right here and now. It also said, “Whoopee, it’s raining!” There is a lot of laughter and happiness about the rain on many different levels. I saw a vision of me running out into the middle of Washington Square and screaming “it’s raining, it’s raining” while twirling around with my arms outstretched, head thrown back, letting the rain wash my face.
The way I discern the voice of God from the voice of not-god is simple. The voice of not-god is insistent, agitated, impatient and unkind. The voice of God goes along with feelings of expansive, inner peace. It’s kind, soft spoken and non-judgmental. What it says has a ring of truth, even if I don’t want to hear that information. I know it’s the voice of God when I feel better after hearing it.
There was a feeling of peaceful golden joyfulness within me. We both knew I wasn’t going to go screaming about the rain in Washington Park, but the vision was fun anyway. This feeling was authentic. It reminded me of God’s love, power, and that life is meant to be enjoyed. The Holy Spirit said to me “This is how I want all my children to live.” I take this message with me into life and hope you can take comfort from it, also.