Christ comes to us in strange ways, in blessedly strange ways. I remember a day in spring last year, somewhere between St. Valentine’s Day and Lent, and I had some small religious epiphany. I was in a dentist’s waiting room, and the TV was playing the live action version of 101 Dalmatians. The scene was of the marriage of Roger and Anita, and without expecting it I found myself transfixed by the background.
The painting showed the body of Christ being taken down by the cross, about to be placed in the arms if the sorrowing mother, and all at once I imagined the tears trickling down her face and the blood trickling from his heart, and it felt that everything around me dissolved in that one moment, the TV, the dentist office, the spring day, and it all was caught up in the utter emotional intensity of that picture painted upon me.
And I sat down in one of the shabby chairs and felt as if I had just been granted some mystery that touched upon every single person in that room, but I could not tell them. But what can you say? Look, everyone, behold the Lamb of God! Behold the sacrifice of our salvation, behold Him slain from the foundation, and from the root of ourselves! Behold the dead king who won our souls by right of conquest! How can be it be, and so very few see?
And then, still in that waiting room, like a little purgatory, I pulled out a book from my bag to pass the time, “The Reed of God” by Caryll Houselander, the British Catholic author and mystic. It was my project leftover from Advent, bleeding over into that frozen in between time that straddles winter and spring, Christmas and Easter. Yes, the readings of a liminal space, between the age of grace and the end of the world, and the taste of a new creation.
The passages that fell before my eyes were all about searching for the lost Christ Child as the Virgin Mary had, and finding Him in the faces of all men and women:
“In our seeking for the lost Child, our contemplation of Our Lady becomes active. The fiat was complete surrender. Advent was a folding upon the life growing in our darkness. Now the seeking is a going out from ourselves. It is a going out from our illusions, our limitations, our wishful thinking, our self-loving, and the self in our love…We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found; we must look for Him in them all…”
And perhaps it is the heart, the sacred, pierced, burning heart we see on holy cards that is blazing silently in everyone, in meekness and humility, begging to be sought out and found, even as it is burning with the passion and the pain, and the fire that He wished was burning all over the world, and will burn on when all the world is consummated. It is lit from the Spirit of God and the soul of Mary, and her tears only feed it, as does His blood.
Looking upon the sorrowing virgin, weeping over her pierced son, is suddenly not so very different than looking upon the ecstatic Theresa of Avila, twisting her body in rapture at the angel’s dart. Two women, crying out, in the writhing pain that is love, in the utter passion that is God, breaking us, and binding us to Him. And here He is broken like bread, torn in the flesh, and here with mourn and we swoon, caught up in all our senses by this invasion of our world by the Glory of the Lord.
On another day, yet in that same waiting room, I would experience another visitation of Christ in my soul, in a way I least expected. A young man with a sparkling earring and clothes that reeked of a strange sort of smoke was sitting there, waiting to be taken in for his appointment. It was a scent that dulled the senses, and caused me, even sitting several seats away, to struggle not to choke. He was tapping his foot in a jerking rhythm of uneasiness, fumbling with hands, turning his head around this way and that, as if he could not manage to keep still.
The smoke was still in his mind; I know that. His eyes were blood-shot and glazed, and they darted as if watching ghosts from the night before, evaporating into puffs of smoke. Death and dullness seemed to hang over him, though living and awake. The color of his clothes were black and purples, like his bruised mind, and the circles under his eyes from sleeplessness. A raven’s head was staring blankly from his crumpled shirt. I knew it was a football team mascot, but still, given the state he was in, it gave me chills.There was a tattoo scrawled up his neck, green words, unreadable, possibly swear words, like every other word he mumbled either under his breath to himself or into his phone. His tone was monotonous; his meaning unclear. I worried, and curled up in my corner. I don’t want him looking at me, or having to look at him. This is the county social service building, and sometimes desperate people come here for help. But I can be timid, so timid, when I feel threatened. Perhaps it is prudence, perhaps cowardice.
O God, whatever it was, I wished he would leave…
A little child came into the waiting room, pudgy-faced, pink-cheeked. She coughed a little. Did she have a cold, I wondered, or was it…the smoke? I couldn’t be sure. She had a golden mop of hair and baby-blue eyes, and was playing with toys, sliding beads along twisted wires, running in circles, pretending to be a monkey or to fly from off a chair. And then she did something that took me aback. She ran right into the arms of the young man with the sparkling earring and smoke-stained clothes.
And he picked her up, and I saw Love in those blood-shot eyes, and I heard Love in those mumbled words. And her face lit up with angelic innocence, and she started to play with his backwards baseball cap. What a strange thing, that I should be afraid, and this little girl should not be, to meet those eyes and see nothing but the purity with which no doubt she sees the world. I watched, and there were words in my heart burning, like my face:
“Let the little children come to Me.”
Was Christ before me in this waiting room, gazing out through smoke-seared eyes, and mumbling through drug-cracked lips? Was the heart of Christ bleeding afresh in this county building, in so many human hearts, in peril or pain? And while I wished Him far away so as not to bloody me, did this child not gravitate to a deeper truth? So in my heart I prayed, and in my journal I scribbled, O Savior with the Suffering Face, teach me how to see!
Perhaps that wounded heart is the ground of our inner battle, to open our eyes to the pain of others, and see nothing more or less than the pain of Christ. It is demand upon us as Christians to submit to compassion, and pour out the essence of ourselves in service to our neighbors. As a Child in the Temple or a Man on the Tree, we are always finding and losing Christ, always glimpsing His glory only to have it obscured. We must pray the scales be stripped from our eyes, and the callous from our hearts, until we are meek as warriors and bold as shepherds.
Perhaps that wounded heart is the crux of what we mean when we say chivalry, that sternness in battle and mildness in hall, toppling tables and healing lepers, that which gushes out for others unto the last drop and makes up look upon the wounds sin has wrought, and feel compassion. St. Valentine died, legend says, for the love of his Lord, and in the place of his friends. For who has more love, than he who dies so that his friends may live? And yet the blind girl he befriends and heals carries on the message in heart, and plants the pink-blossomed almond tree over his grave.
How do we live, then? We who are His friends? Are these things bound by time, or beyond it? Perhaps the Waiting Room is a “thin place”, a cell of contemplation, a necessary purgatory for the soul. it is like the tomb on Holy Saturday. We dare to die with Him, to be the buried seeds that crack open and flower. We dare to be watered by the life-blood of God. We are all knit into this reality, the pulse of our hearts beating into His, if only we might stop to realize it, and allow ourselves to be expiated, to bleed out and die so that through love we might find a new rising and a new dawn.