I’ll get back to my lighthearted rundown of the lovely Trying To Say God conference soon. But first, a touch of the numinous.
I was at your standard wine-and-canapes reception Friday night, the kind of thing well-adjusted people apparently enjoy. Most of us were dressed in fashionably uncomfortable clothes. We all wore our conference name tags on lanyards around our necks, dangling at just the right height that we had to look at each other’s crotches to see who we were. We each had a plate of canapes in one hand and a wine glass in the other; there were those supremely awkward little stand-up tables from place to place, so we could eat and drink yet not get too comfortable.
I can’t comport myself at a grown-up reception any more than I can fly. I don’t know what to do with my hands when I can’t awkwardly gesture or pretend to take notes, but instead have to keep from crunching my celery too loudly or impaling myself on a toothpick. I don’t know when to start or stop talking in order to seem normal. I don’t know which topics you’re not supposed to mention in polite company. I can never keep track.
In ten minutes, I had had enough.
I wandered across the plaza to the Notre Dame bookstore, to find a souvenir for my daughter. I told myself I’d go right back to the reception after I’d browsed awhile.
It’s funny– I never know what will comfort my anxious soul and what will set me off. But last night, the bookstore set me off.
I browsed the sideways stacks of student textbooks, literature and philosophy books, some the same editions I have at home from my fun days at undergrad and my time in graduate school. I remembered the thrilled anticipation when I bought those books. I remembered reading them for pleasure, more than was required for the class. I genuinely loved academia and thought I’d be some kind of teacher.
And then the gradually failing health, trying to work anyway, trying to finish what I’d started. And then all the little disasters, too many to name in one place. Then, the run-in with “Father Reginald” and his apparent systematic punishment, not being able to receive Holy Communion again and again, trying to tell myself it was an accident or a coincidence each time. Eventually, the terrible realization hitting me bit by bit, like the stones in a blasphemer’s execution: yes, he must be doing it on purpose. No, I’m not crazy to think that the odd things that keep happening to me here are related. Yes, Franciscan University does seem to have an informal blacklist for social undesirables. Yes, authority figures here do spiritually abuse people, just like they did in my Charismatic community growing up, just like they did in the Regnum Christi group I was pressured to join later. No, I won’t be able to make them stop.
And then I was too sick to leave my house, and then Rose was born, and I went back and tried to finish but I was done for.
I’m never going to be an academic.
I left the bookstore. I fled across the campus to the basilica.
Those who read this blog often will remember that I don’t flee to basilicas. Latin Catholic imagery isn’t comforting; it’s a reminder of what I’ve been through. I fly to icons and Chotki and other things in the Eastern Catholic church. The West seems scary and cold. But somehow, I fled to the basilica.
I don’t know what I expected to see. At Franciscan, the general gossip is that Notre Dame is a scandalously secular place, far too worldly and without respect for tradition. And for all I know, it’s true. But there’s nothing non-traditional about that basilica. It’s like the Gothic cathedrals I always wanted to go and see in Europe, the kind of thing I loved to study when I tried to be an academic. It’s beautiful beyond description, as far from that idiotic crown roast of a chapel on Franciscan University’s campus as the Heavens are from the Earth.
There were all the things I’d grown unused to seeing in a church. There was the altar, not hidden behind an iconostasis; there was the great pipe organ in the choir loft and a smaller one near the nave. There was the pulpit. There were statues of marble and carved wood.
I tried to admire their beauty instead of focusing on how out of place I felt. I did a reverence and crossed myself, right to left the way Byzantine Catholics do.
I sidestepped into the little side chapels to hide from the great altar– and that’s how I discovered the relics. Nobody ever told me Notre Dame had relics, but they do– lots of them, one for almost every day of the Church year. Shreds of hair and clothing, tiny splinters of yellowed flesh and bone, all desiccated and ugly, pinned to red velvet, labeled and stored behind glass.
I get along better with relics than with live people.
I knelt, and told the relics my troubles, how worthless I felt. I was supposed to be at a party, impressing other writers and making professional connections. I was supposed to be an academic, a philosopher who knew about aesthetics. I was supposed to be a teacher. I was supposed to publish and not perish. I was supposed be a much better mother and wife. I was supposed to be younger, healthier and more accomplished. I was supposed to weigh much less than I did. I was supposed to be a thousand things, but instead I was myself: traumatized, chronically ill, poor and in terrible debt with no master’s degree and a fear of Latin churches, praying to a collage of tiny body parts.
“I want to be where you are,” I prayed.
And it dawned on me that I was.
I’m a relic myself.
Everyone is, though it often escapes our notice until we have a chance to feel broken.
We are all shattered and dried-out splinters, tortured fragments of a Body.
The Body is Christ’s.
We’re failures, freaks, broken things, things that got so torn up and useless it’s foolish of Him to keep us around. I suppose, if He was respectable, He’d throw us away, but He doesn’t. Our God is a hoarder. He keeps all the fragments of His body close to Himself, lovingly stored for the day when we rise again. That is what it is to be a Christian. It is to be where the saints are, in the Body of Christ– someday, with Him in paradise. Right now, as torn up relics.
I prayed for a while longer. I went out the back door, to the Lourdes grotto with the perfectly Western statues and the students praying Rosaries. I lit a candle– not a taper stuck in a bed of sand before an icon, like you find in many Eastern churches, but a fat Western votive candle in a glass jam jar.
I didn’t feel anxious or out of place, not just then.
By the time I finished my prayers, the reception had long been over.
I’d failed again, but somehow it didn’t matter.
(image via Pixabay)