Journey to church like a trip into mountains

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 28, 2003

Have you reflected lately on the idea of journey as anticipation?

You and the family leave your house carrying a picnic basket, beverage cooler and fishing tackle. You put them into the car, get behind the wheel and head to the mountains. As you draw closer to your destination, the excitement mounts. You recognize familiar images: a mountain peak, a stand of poplars, a meadow, a bridge over a creek. A sign points to a parking area. You are there, and the kids are just about jumping out of their skin with delight. You gather all the goodies from the car and follow the pine-scented trail along a babbling brook to that special place at the edge of a mountain lake – a quiet place you visit often as part of your family's embrace of life.

Journeys have a lot to do with building up anticipation. The sights, sounds and smells are intimate parts of what lies ahead.

So it ought to be with going to church, too, according to coffee companion Michael Simpson. Michael, mountain climber and retired engineer, is chair of the building committee for St. Mary's Catholic Church, Cochrane.

He and his committee see journey as an integral part of the overall worship experience – and here they are referring to the very practical journey, from the door of one's home to the door of the church.

Journey lies at the heart of their philosophy for planning a much-needed new church structure. Their journey metaphor, it seems to me, may be meaningful to other Cochrane-area congregations, as well.

Now, like Cochrane as a whole, all the churches in our community have experienced phenomenal growth in the past few years. Some have already enlarged their church buildings, while others are still in the planning phase.

St. Mary's has reached the critical juncture between planning and building. The congregation of 1,100 families has outgrown its current facilities on the hillside north of downtown, built in 1981 to accommodate 200 families. It has acquired land south of the Bow River at the Bow Valley High School turnoff from Hwy. 22 and is poised to start construction on a new facility to be completed by Easter, 2005.

This week, the building committee will report to the congregation on their four-year planning process.

Part of their presentation will focus on this philosophy of journey – "a 'pilgrim journey' from the commitment to leave home to sitting in an assembly of like-minded people," as the committee's interim report describes it. It is about "pilgrims journeying together from the valley to the mountaintop."

Houses of God are like mountain retreats. "The mountaintop is a place of solitude and quiet, free from distractions," the report states.

"Our concept is to lead people through a transition from the outside world, wounded by sin, to a special space for spiritual renewal. From the secular to the sacred."

Cochrane is "blessed with a magnificent vista," the report notes; "the big sky, the mountains, the river in the valley – all hold strong symbolic imagery of God's presence among his people."

For the St. Mary's building committee, even the church parking lot deserves attention as "transitional space." As the report states:

"When we move from home to [formal worship] we need a transitional space from ordinary experience to a ritual way of being, a space in which to slow down, to quiet, to enter into a more contemplative way of being. Hopefully the sight, sounds, smells we experience in this space awaken and heighten our sense of 'God's presence with us'."

From the various church parking lots throughout the valley, of course, we each pass through doors into specific faith experiences that may differ markedly from one tradition to the next – not only in design, but also in symbols and practices.

The journeys themselves, however, have a great deal in common, regardless of religious affiliation. Those who make such journeys a habit understand the meaning of Psalm 84: "Happy are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion." They treasure the Godward journey.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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