A year ago today I went on pilgrimage, through the grace of God and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and my friend Michael. A year ago today I took the first steps of my own Way of the Cross, a journey ad Jesum per Mariam—to Jesus through Mary—that I am still only baby steps along. A year ago today I began to know what suffering, joy, death and resurrection really meant, in my own weak flesh. I am still learning, and I exult.
I’ve always loved the story behind the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. (Frank Weathers has it for you here, if you don’t know it.) When I was 5 or 6, sitting through the Mass I didn’t understand, I would amuse myself with my mother’s rosary. Laying the crucifix in the palm of one hand, I’d pile all the beads on top like stones. Then the fingers of my other hand would be St Helena (whom I have always pictured, for some reason, as looking like Agatha Christie when she went on archaeological digs with Max Mallowan), scrabbling away at the rocks until the True Cross was uncovered. Occasionally I forgot to muffle my—er, St Helena’s—shouts of joy. I was a trial to my mother.
And who doesn’t love singing Lift High the Cross, with its barely concealed air of the militant Church Militant, its “Mount up, Crusaders!” lilt, the guilty triumphalist pleasure of the conquistador for Christ? Honestly, if Catholics knew how to sing the descant at the end like Episcopalians, we’d be an imperial theocracy faster than Michael Voris could spin his pencil.
But a year ago today I discovered that the exaltation of the Cross in our lives is the embrace of loss and pain and surrender, the giving of our lives—my life—into God’s hands. The Cross is lifted high when we allow ourselves to be brought low. Mary knew that. She always points the way.
Our Marian pilgrimage (you can read about it posts mostly from the road, here) began with my friend Michael announcing, as he swung my overpacked suitcase into the back of his van, “Good morning! It’s a great day to die!”
I gave him the whatchutalkinaboutWillis look. He explained, cheerfully, “It’s a beautiful morning. We’ve got our lives in order because we’re going away. We’re going on pilgrimage. We’re starting with Mass at the Cathedral. If we’re going to die today, it couldn’t be better!”
Most of the time I am not sure whether to hug Michael or slap him. I’m sure it’s mutual.
The thing is, it was a great day to begin dying. What no one but my closest friend knew then (and she didn’t know the whole of it) was how overpacked my baggage really was. I left on, completed, and returned from that pilgrimage carrying 100 pounds of excess weight, with sky-high blood pressure, edema that never subsided, and an inability to walk more than a few steps without stopping to catch my breath. My weak right knee bore the brunt, making stairs and inclines and bumpy roads an impossibility. The pain was literally ex-cruciating (from the Cross) and constant, with an underlying sickness to it that felt like rot. And was.
My poor physical health was only the least of the baggage. My life was most definitely not in order. I was carrying years of lies and secrets—pretending that I was not depressed, not medicating myself into a stupor with alcohol and food, not deep in crippling debt of my own irresponsible making, not a hoarder living in the unspeakable chaos of my own filth, not someone who believed I and the world around me would be better off if I were dead. I was dancing as fast as I could, on feet swollen to the size of bowling balls from sleeping sitting up for two years in the two square feet of inhabitable space left of the beautiful, beloved historic home my friend Janet had rented to me.
What I didn’t know was what was carrying me. The prayers of people I’ve never met, like my online friend Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, who promised to pray away the anxiety attacks we are both prone to, and did. The prayers of people I know, like Michael and his mother, Mary, my 5-foot-tall, 80-year-old roomie, who often dragged me up the hills. The encouragement of my Patheosi colleagues, especially The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia, who gave me the best advice of all: “When you go on pilgrimage, just be open.” And love: the love of my family, who wanted me home and well but didn’t know how to tell me; the love of my friends; the love of God, who sent me to His Mother for healing.
There were no miracles for me at Lourdes—or so I thought. There were glimmers of grace and forgiveness and truth that penetrated the misery of body and soul, all along the way from Fatima to Avila to Zaragossa to the Village of St Bernadette, and coalesced in one ineffable evening at Notre Dame in Paris. But I came home believing nothing had changed.
And yet, and yet. A week after we got back I blurted out the truth of my life to Michael, who immediately and without a blink of judgment set into motion the process that got me to where I am now, a year later—living near and rejoicing in my family, caring for my space, 50+ lbs lighter and counting, able to breathe and walk and cook and sleep lying down and wash somewhere other than a public restroom, managing the depression with medication, 9 months sober. Not all that far along the way still—much debt, monetary and otherwise, to repay, many damages to repair, lots more therapy to be engaged in.
One of the first things Michael did, after I told him my truth, was hand me a box of crucifixes a donor had retrieved from a school being refurbished, telling me, “Pick one. It’s your weapon.” I did not let go of that simple, modern brass crucifix during my three months of temporary homelessness, and it hangs on my bedroom wall now, the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning, the last thing I see at night. And what I feel, every day, is exultation.
Thank you, Mary, for leading me to the foot of your Son’s Cross, and standing there with me. My childhood game has come true: digging through the beads of the Rosary, I found the True Cross—and it lifted me high.