Learning the Language

By Mary Strand

I spent the first couple years of my life in a very small, town in the middle-of-no-where Upstate New York. My days were filled by giggling with my older siblings, jumping in piles of Fall leaves, and swinging from the tire swing on the apple tree in the back yard. My life in my tiny town was all I knew.

My small world was suddenly turned upside down when my family moved to Costa Rica just after I turned three years old. I began preschool in a place where I was the only English speaker. I lay with my eyes wide open during naptime listening to the whispers of my classmates in language that I did not know. 

It was not long before I began to pick up the Spanish language. As I was immersed in the culture, my ears constantly being filled with the lush sounds of the language rolling off my neighbors’ tongues, I learned a new way of communicating with others, a new way of expressing myself, and a new world to dream in. I learned a new language.

The first time I attended a mass at St. Mark’s Church, I stood, sat, and knelt with incredulous, wide eyes. My Wesleyan and Mennonite church background had not prepared me, it seemed, for the high Anglo-Catholic style of worship that takes place at St. Mark’s Parish. The procession of robed altar servers and ornately vested priests through the bronze gates at the front of the church and up the tiled steps to the high altar was intimidating, foreign. 

I had never before attended a church in which it was common place to bow at the name of Jesus, genuflect before the altar, or cross myself—let alone the use of incense, bells, and chanting. I had never before come across words like “chasuble,” “thurifer,” “vexillifer,” or “monstrance” – especially not in every day conversation. 

Working at St. Mark’s Church, I have often felt out of place. Though we worship the same God, it has felt new, different—at times, inaccessible. The style of worship at St. Mark’s Church has required that I learn a new way of approaching the altar, a new way of relating to the Eucharist, a new way of approaching God. In a way, living and working here at St. Mark’s has required that I learn a new language for engaging with the triune God. 

Admittedly, much of this was not what I expected to find in my experience here. I did not expect to feel lost as I knelt in the presence of the Almighty God. I did not expect to be working in a place where I was continually confronted with perspectives on faith and service that differed from my own. At times, these differences have seemed to be in conflict. Something deep inside of me has rubbed up against many of the perspectives and practices that I’m surrounded by – there’s friction. 

But I’m learning the language. 

I’m learning how to do the everyday tasks of ministry here at St. Mark’s. I now not only know what vestments are, but also know how to set them out properly before a mass. I know when to bow my head and when to bow “profoundly”. I know when to ring the bells during a mass and the right words to say. 

More importantly, I am in a place where I am continually asked to challenge my own understandings of who God is and what Christian life looks like. As a result, I am learning more about God – experiencing new aspects of Godself. I’m learning a new appreciation for the Eucharist, delving deeper into the theology surrounding it as I am asked to relate to it differently than I had previously. I’m learning that the liturgy used here that has, at times, felt inaccessible, is an incredibly beautiful way to worship and experience God.

I will not claim that all of my work here at St. Mark’s has, as a result of these learnings, always felt valuable and worthwhile. It’s a daily struggle to remember that good is and will continue to come of my work here. But what remains clear is that, as I do my best to serve here in this place, it is my responsibility to engage with those whom I find myself surrounded by—regardless of the differences between us. By listening to their stories and being open to taking on their perspective, my personal ideology is humbled, and the outlook I have of myself, of others, of the world, and of God expands. It has only been by stepping outside of my tiny and rather homogenous world, rupturing personal boundaries, that I’ve been able to even begin thinking about serving the needs of others.

Mary serves as the ministry resident for children and families at Saint Mark’s Church.