So, I haven’t been feeling great these past few weeks — it’s one of the reasons for the scant writing; between the aches and pains and the fuzzy brain, reasoning has been a challenge for me (that is, more of a challenge) and it’s difficult to write with coherence when you feel like you are about to die right…this…minute.
Tomorrow I go for more lab work — including some gross stuff that goes on over a few days — so hopefully by next week we will know more. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to know that not all of my bulk can be blamed on gluttony (although enough of it is!) on the other hand googling possibilities with these symptoms is halfway to terrifying.
I tell you all of this not to engage your sympathies (although I will happily and gratefully accept your prayers, if you’re so inclined) but so you will know why things have been relatively dull around here, and also so you will understand how the scene I am about to describe to you could possibly have happened.
I am talking about Adoration and the Guy in Church with the Gun. Rifle, to be exact.
Feeling punk as I was, I knew if I did not quit my desk early, yesterday, I would never have the oomph to make it to Adoration, and for more than a dozen years a weekly knee-dip-and-holy-doze before the Blessed Sacrament has been a spiritual nutrient so powerful I dare not pass it up. Being compulsive in my work, however, I did not manage to slip into a pew until the final hour — which includes Benediction.
I settled into my prayers and thoughts, and all was as usual, until a few minutes before the priest or deacon was scheduled to show up. Since I often find myself attending this hour, I am familiar with most of the regular attendees: the older couple who by my reckoning have only ever missed two weeks of Adoration, and that because the woman had had a stroke; the woman with seven children; the older woman I used to drive to church when her kids couldn’t; a young man discerning a vocation; a few scattered young mothers seeking a blessed bit of quiet; one had brought a well-behaved four-year-old.
All was silence, everyone seated and absorbed — disciples attentively looking at the Master, who looked back at them and taught each to his or her need. I was (unusually) seated toward the back of the church, and from behind me I heard steps and then a man passed by; a new face I did not know.
He was dressed in a camouflage hoodie and carrying one of those soft picnic bags, and something in a canvas bag — a thing long and metal and weighty.
It is not unusual to see new faces pop in and out of Adoration — this particular parish has a bustling soup kitchen that runs during this final hour, and sometimes people who are awaiting a meal will come into the church and sit quietly for a moment; I once saw a man wash his face with some holy water and then wipe it with the American flag that stands sentry, so a camo hoodie wouldn’t be enough to pique my curiosity.
But the canvas bag and the man’s behavior held my attention. He did not make the customary bow or two-kneed genuflection common to Adoration, but slipped into the pew between me and the rest of the adorers and then looked around and around, mostly at the people praying. Again, this is not suspicious behavior; the church is minimalist and there isn’t much to look at, but this man was unsettled and fidgety. He couldn’t seem to get quiet. Finally he stood, headed over to the choir section and — seating himself there — began to sing the Panis Angelicus a capella, in a clear, strong and tuneful voice.
And now, I became a bit concerned. The rest of the adorers did what is usually done when a stranger comes in and behaves oddly: they tuned him out and kept up their own worship. None of them, however, had seen the man enter; they hadn’t seen the long, heavy-looking canvas bag.
Imagination is a useful thing and in these strange days; the ability to imagine a thing happening can mean the difference between living and dying. One of my sons, a natural planner, would begin each semester at college imagining the best way to deal with a violent intruder within each particular classroom; he would note the exits, and the placement of all possible weapons that might be used to distract a shooter. If that seems strange to you, to a young man raised in an era of school shootings it was merely a practical exercise and a reasonable use of his time for the world in which we live.
My imagination began to percolate: here was bizarre behavior being exhibited by someone carrying something that seemed like it could be a rifle; who knew what the cold-bag could be meant for? He was in a church, close to the point where a priest or deacon would be raising a monstrance in blessing. Through my (admittedly unwell) brain flew images of Oscar Romero, slain at the altar; of newscaster’s voices describing carnage at Christian churches in other parts of the world. And there was that troubling bag, which — as Ray Stantz said, “I couldn’t help it; it just popped in there” — reminded me of Kevin Spacey in “Seven.” I wondered, would this guy conclude his hymn and then unleash hell?
Like my son, I began to consider what could be done to stop this man, were he inclined to open fire upon us. I had my cane. If I could hobble over to him, and not get shot doing it, I could whack him upside the head with it. But I’m a large target; chances are I’d be splat on the ground after my first step. What could people do? Throw missalettes at a gunman? Could we charge him with the flagpole? It seemed to me that, should something terrible unfold, nothing could save these people, short of hiding beneath a pew and playing dead. I thought of what that would mean, and suddenly Flannery O’ Connor showed up in my conscience, mocking me as she drawled: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”
I fail at things so often, and fail at love continually; was I failing an opportunity for potential martyrdom, here? I pondered all those moments in prayer when — overtaken with love — I had assumed I would willingly die for Christ, should it be required of me, or perhaps more correctly, offered to me. This particular circumstance did not seem to meet the case, though. Shouldn’t martyrdom be less vague, less opportunistic? The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne handled the guillotine with supernatural grace, and here I was, wondering if I could hide in a confessional. Failure again. I looked at the Master, and the Master looked at me — teaching me to my need — and I had to look away. Lord, I am not worthy.
But then I thought: maybe no one is supposed to be martyred, here. Perhaps I was meant to see this man and blow a whistle on him. I usually sat near the front of the church at Adoration. How did I know that I hadn’t been prompted to sit near the back of the church this week, specifically so I could see this man enter and do something about it?
With visions of the parish awash in blood, I decided to take action; hoping to stop the priest from entering the vestry, and to alert someone in charge to a troubling situation, I left my pew and exited a side-door. Seeing the sacristan, I related my concerns. “Well,” came the untroubled reply, “sometimes we get some strange people during the meal hour…”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but the weird behavior coupled with the long canvas bag that looks like it’s holding a rifle is the thing that I’m wondering about…”
“Well, let’s go see…” said the sacristan, looking more amused than I thought appropriate and making me feel a little silly.
Long story short: the man in the camo hoodie had arrived early for a Rosary-and-dessert meeting. The picnic bag was full of, um…picnic stuff…and the long, troubling canvas bag? It held a ridiculously heavy collapsible chair meant for comfortable outdoor seating in the hunting season.
Yes, I felt pretty stupid. The sacristan, now justifiably displaying open mirth tried to make it better, saying, “well, but it’s probably good to be aware…” and leaving the words “you maniac,” kindly unspoken.
My family, hearing the narrative at supper, was duly amused. My son’s girlfriend — an Eastern Orthodox — suggested that had my imagined slaughter occurred it could have been romantic: “then you would have been a martyr!” she enthused.
Channeling Jerry Seinfeld I said, “but I don’t wanna be a martyr!”
“Yeah, mom, you blew it,” my son said; “if you’d saved them you’d have been a hero for five minutes on the nightly news, but if you’d just stayed in your pew you might have been a saint! Forever!”
“Golly,” I muttered, “I’m so sorry to disappoint you folks because I didn’t want to die today…” and the family hooted at my expense some more.
And I? I was left contemplating Flannery O’ Connor and the reality of a Christian commitment. Jokes about my failed martyrdom aside, as I write this our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters are being threatened with extinction and are fearful of gathering. Just a few hours ago, a ten-year-old Christian girl was slain in the streets of Cairo, targeted for her religion.
We do not know the day or hour when we might be identified as for Christ and made to pay for that identification with our livelihoods or our lives. Yesterday, my assumptions may have been foolish, but I am grateful for the experience and the wake-up-call it delivered. I want to be counted as for Christ, and nothing in my being or my actions or my love sufficiently does that.
I do not want to be weighed in the balance, even if my thyroid and my adrenals are making things heavier (and my reasoning fuzzier), and still found wanting. I need to do better at asking for grace and then accepting it; I did not want to die yesterday. But I do want heaven. What if I am called to it, tomorrow?
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