I went to Mass.
A year ago, that wouldn’t have been news. A year ago I was just beginning to think I might have to stay home from church and other crowded places for a few weeks.
I had not been to Mass since July. Michael’s asthma and my hodgepodge of chronic illnesses make it very risky with COVID. We’d resolved to watch Mass on livestream until we could get the vaccine, but the vaccine rollout is going so slowly. I found a church that was enforcing masking and social distancing, and also had basement seating with a closed-circuit television for overflow. I had a friend who could give a ride who already had her vaccine. I couldn’t stand waiting anymore, so I went.
I’m not saying this was a safe or prudent idea. Maybe we should have gone on staying home and maybe we should have gone back to church weeks earlier. I don’t know. All I know is, I went to Mass. The first Mass since July and the first Sunday Mass since March.
I didn’t know how it would feel.
Nothing has ever hurt me like the Catholic Church has hurt me. The relentless bullying in Catholic school, the bullying by my devout family, the spiritual abuse in the Charismatic Renewal and in Regnum Christi– then coming to Franciscan University and being bullied and spiritually abused there. Taking refuge in the Byzantine Catholic Church because the liturgies didn’t trigger flashbacks as much, thinking I’d found a home, and then being humiliated and thrown out of that church as well. We are supposed to call the Catholic Church “Mother Church,” but I haven’t felt her as a mother.
Christ has been my mother. Christ has been companion and friend, the only One who listened or cared reliably in all these years. And every time I’ve been so fed up with the pain of practicing Catholicism, I’ve found Him down here with me, suffering my humiliation, cringing from my trauma, crying out my eloi eloi lama sabachthani and suffering with me when Heaven is silent in response. I am not willing to leave Christ.
Sometimes I honestly don’t know if I’m staying in communion for those good reasons, or because I’m stubborn. Maybe I’m just so resentful I can’t stand to think of the people who did this having Christ all to themselves without the inconvenience of me being there.
That was what was running through my head as I went to Mass: I didn’t know if it was wise to be here or not. I didn’t know if my motives were pure or not. I don’t know if Christ wants me here or not. All I knew was that I couldn’t stand to stay away anymore.
The church was sparsely attended; it was easy to find a seat six feet from everybody else. There were bottles of that cheap hand sanitizer that smells like bad incense in the dry holy water fonts, and a bottle of bleach water sitting in the pew in front of us. Everyone I saw was masked, and there were only two protruding noses: a record, for anywhere I’ve been in Steubenville. These were the most careful people I’ve seen. The priest came in from the sacristy instead of processing down the aisle. There were no altar servers. I don’t remember the homily or the music. It was all very austere and quiet, as if Lent had started early– or as if last year’s Lent had never come to an end.
Plenty of time to think.
Plenty of time to worry.
Plenty of time to stare at the statue of the Virgin Mary and wonder if she’s angry with me.
My greatest fear is not that Jesus and Mary don’t exist. It’s that they don’t like me. It’s that they will turn out to be like my abusers, and that Love will turn out to be what my abusers said it was: I love you so much that I’m tormenting you about your weight, to encourage you to go on another diet. I love you so much that I’m berating you about how socially awkward you are, so you’ll be embarrassed into becoming sociable. I love you so much that I’m mocking your outfits so you’ll learn to dress up. I love you so much I’m throwing away the things you like and buying you new things that I like. I love you so much I’m giving you shunning and silent treatment to scare you into shaping up. I love you but I don’t want to spend time with you. I love you but I don’t like anything you do. I love you but you embarrass me so much I can’t take you anywhere. You don’t belong here. You don’t seem to fit. It wouldn’t be prudent to tell you why we sent you away because you’ve had problems in Steubenville before. You’re spreading scandal. You’re a burden. You suck the life out of me. Of all the children I ever had, you hurt me the most. You’re lucky I love you so much.
Sometimes I get their voices mixed up: my earthly mother, the Catholic Church speaking through her most vocal and fervent members in the Steubenville and Weirton area, the Virgin Mary. Three mothers. They all sound the same. Or do they?
“I just hope this school can do something for you, because we give up,” said my earthly mother, the first time she brought me to Steubenville.
I didn’t know then that I’d be living here for going on fifteen years.
I still don’t know if it’s done anything for me.
I was still worrying about all this when I got up to go to Communion; I hissed at the priest about the low-gluten Host and he brought Him to me.
I received on my hand, which I hate to do because it makes me so nervous about crumbs. One more thing to worry about. I lifted my mask just long enough to receive the Alpha and the Omega, the Lamb of God, the Father of the Poor, the Splendor of the Father, the Joy of Angels, the Crown of All Saints, the Brightness of Everlasting Light, the Mother Hen Who gathers all the chicks under His wings, the Mother Who cried out Eloi, Eloi, and birthed this dreadful Church out of His wounded side. A wafer roughly the size of a quarter with a cross stamped on the middle. Five calories, half a carbohydrate. The Living Water that sustains. Eternity. The One Whom Heaven and Earth cannot contain. I chewed twice, swallowed, took a squirt of hand sanitizer as I walked by the font, and Eternity was dissolving in my stomach. The worry dissolved along with Him.
Next thing I knew, the Mass was over. I sprayed some of the bleach water on where I’d been sitting. Somehow, I felt happy. I felt confident. I felt like I could do something brave, but I couldn’t think of what– and then I hit on it all at once.
I waited until the priest finished greeting the few other churchgoers; then I explained about my difficulty getting the sacraments during the pandemic, and he heard a socially distant confession.
On the way out I took another squirt of sanitizer from the dry holy water font. I almost made the sign of the cross as I did, out of habit.
And all the way home I was smiling under my mask.
All the way home, I felt this weird reassurance I can only describe as supernatural. I feel it with me still. If I could put it in words, it might sound like “I have given you a gift of knowledge. You have always known the difference between love and hate, even though your abusers called it love. You know that no hate ever comes from Me. I love you so much that I made you on purpose, because the world wasn’t right without you. I love you so much that I made you on purpose, so that other people could learn about Me from looking at you, in a way they couldn’t learn from anyone else. I love your body the way that it is, so much that I suffer with you in it whenever your body suffers. I love your personality. I love the geeky joy you take in the world I created for you to play in. I love that you wrestle with difficult questions. I love your quirky clothes. I love your introversion. I love your stubbornness. I love that you won’t let the bullies keep you away. I love that you know them for the liars they are. I love that you cared enough about others to stay away from crowds all this time. I love that you decided to risk it today. I love you so much that wherever your abusers left you, I made sure it was a place where you could learn from Me and teach others about Me. I love you so much whatever happens next, I will be with you in it.”
And Christ our mother says the same to you.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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