Wendell Berry observed that the eyes were once considered the window to the soul. Now, making eye contact with a stranger on an American city sidewalk can be construed as a form of aggression.
What does this say about our souls?
The problem here, I suspect, is not urbanization, but privatization. The privatization I’m talking about isn’t about the ownership of banks or health care or security forces. The problem may be the privatization of our spiritual lives.
The house where my aunt and uncle lived when I was a child was on an ordinary street, lined with ordinary ranch houses. They were built during an era in which our dwellings were evolving into garages with attached houses and neighborhood sidewalks were going away.
Front porches were also disappearing or being reduced to stoops just large enough for a couple of visitors to stand within, awaiting their welcome into the house. But one neighbor pushed back against the architecture of the day, not by remodeling his house, but by sitting on a lawn chair in his garage with the door raised.
It was a defiant act, really, to read his paper and drink a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon there. It at least defied what his home and his neighborhood were trying to have him do. Everything was arranged with its back to the street, the life of the household directed to the backyard, space that was privacy-fenced and accessible only to the invited.
But since front porch culture and sidewalks were gone, the garage sitter also seemed a little pathetic. Out of place. He couldn’t conjure up the lost street life front porches were once constructed to witness, so his guerrilla porch sits struck me as sad and ineffective acts, like the heaving gills of a landed fish.
The image of the modern spiritual pilgrim is often that of the solo explorer, going it alone deep into the mystery of life. But aren’t there too many of us who have struck out on our own, only to find ourselves alone on an aluminum chair in the garage, looking for the life on a sidewalk that isn’t there?
Privatizing the spiritual life comes at a cost. Because if the eyes really are the window to the soul, I can’t gain access to my own soul without you. I can’t see my own eyeballs.
So maybe one faithful concept of church is making an honest-to-God front porch for the soul. A place where we plop ourselves down precisely because there’s no telling whom we might encounter there. Or because we do know whom we’re going to encounter there: a smattering of those wonderful, annoying, hypocritical, brilliant, loving, petty creatures we call humans.
Christian tradition and holy scripture suggest in countless ways that the soul is better accessed in all those exchanges between selves rather than within a self in isolation. Maybe going to church is simply deciding to sit for a spell once a week and see which of God’s beloved children passes by.
Churchgoing, like front porch sitting, is an old and increasingly forgotten practice that some of us have found essential to our lives. And so we start going, or we keep going, or we return after too much time away from church, because, as Kathleen Norris puts it, “when the battles rage, people [she’s speaking of churchgoing folk here] hold on. They find a sufficient unity, and a rubbed raw but sufficient love, and even the presence of God.”