Are you familiar with the term narthex? When I was growing up I went to a church and they called the place outside the place you worshiped the narthex. It was the place where everyone talked before and after church. Out of curiosity, I looked up the word in the dictionary and learned that the word narthex was Latin from Medieval Greek, and meant “porch at the end of the early church which was used by penitents not admitted to the body of the church.” I knew it as the place where all the talking happened.
To me, it looked like the narthex was the place to hang out and catch up on the gossip of the community. It was the place to be. Unlike being in the narthex, going into the sanctuary was hard because you had to be quiet there, you were supposed to sit still, and you were supposed to focus (often on things you really didn’t understand). Sometimes it seems like people would talk in the narthex, interrupt there talking to go into the sanctuary to worship, and then resume their talking in the narthex. Isn’t that how it is in our lives, so often?
Many of us are on a journey of self. That journey takes many forms spiritually, and to each of us, that journey is different, and yet the same. We all need to enter the sanctuary of our hearts – that place of quiet, solitude, seeking, grappling, wrestling, rebelling, learning to know, and knowing. That sanctuary can be anywhere, walking in the woods, driving, in your bedroom, in a formal building, your sacred place, your favorite cozy chair – anywhere, because the sanctuary is in you.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes the hardest place to go is into the sanctuary. It is so much easier to stand in the narthex and pour out your heart, get the advice of this person, because you know she has gone through something similar to you. Then you run to catch another person (in the narthex) to chat, then pour out your heart, and get her input. Need I go on?
Let me tell you about people in the narthex.
- First of all, they are in the narthex, so that should give you a hint.
- Secondly, most people in the narthex like to hear your story because it in a way is gossip, a little juice about you and your adequacies/inadequacies.
- Thirdly, once they hear, the tendency of many is to start the comparison process inside while you are speaking. It may go something like this, [Isn’t that something! Well at least my son didn’t do that. What kind of mother would let her son do that?] Then it might go on to this, [Wait until I tell Myrtle, I have to call her and tell her what is going on.] Then this, [I have to say something supportive. I have to try to help her see it the right way. Won’t it feel good if my advice works. That will make me feel good. At least saying it makes me feel like I am better than her because my son didn’t do that, and I am giving her advice.] Then her words might follow, “I am so sorry. I will pray for you. Maybe you should… Your son, how can he be so ungrateful? You need to…” So much goes on in our heads before words of “care” come forth when we are the listener in the narthex.
Somehow, so often the narthex interaction “feels” better. It feels good to be heard. It feels good to compare. It feels good to get advice. But the truth is we meet our knowing in the sanctuary. We have all truth and knowing and it is there in the sanctuary of our own knowing, our own heart. Go in, enter, be present with yourself; meet God there. Return to simplicity, to rest, to your feelings. Be present with your emotions: grief, sadness, bitterness, jealousy, delights, joys. Sit quietly in the confusion, the uncertainties, the fears. Keep it simple. Cry out. Marvel. Be present. Observe. Going into the sanctuary takes time, purpose, seeking, being present. It is not an intellectual task (I certainly would like to make it that at times). It does take willingness to go and to be present.
Note about the narthex: It is certainly ok to find one another in the narthex, but as we all grow to be more comfortable in the sanctuary, the narthex experience changes, becomes more grand, rich, genuine – because when we can be present with ourselves then we are so much more easily present with others. Just saying…