Even on the Banks of the Ohio

Even on the Banks of the Ohio July 21, 2021

I went to a Divine Liturgy.

This was my first Eastern liturgy since Forgiveness Sunday several years ago, when the pastor bawled out my husband at the doughnut social and informed him that my blog was “grave scandal” and bad-mouthing the Byzantine Catholic Church. This was all news to me. I thought I’d always spoken very highly of the rite. We did not go back to that parish. I’ve been sneaking into the backs of Latin churches ever since.

I’d been going for a drive, exploring the Ohio Valley. That’s what I do on weekends now. I go for drives. I try to learn the freeways and the back roads. I sit on  benches in parks that aren’t my local park and shop for the week’s groceries in stores that aren’t the local grocery store. I park the car and go for walks in small towns that aren’t the small town I live in, and try to imagine what it would be like to be someone who isn’t me. I go to Mass at other churches and imagine what it would be like for this church to feel normal.  Most every town around here has a Latin Catholic church, and quite a few of them have tiny Eastern Catholic churches with about ten parishioners each. This time I drove past a church with a round dome, and saw what time it was, and went in.

It all came back so naturally, the chants and the gestures. The sign of the cross with that little bow. Standing instead of kneeling during the Anaphora. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us. Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity now set aside all earthly cares. 

When people shuffled up for Communion, the cantor led a hymn we used to sing at my old parish: How great is God in power and glory, no mortal tongue can ever contain. I couldn’t receive Communion because of my allergy, but I watched the other servants of God receive the Body and Blood of Christ, for the salvation of their souls and for everlasting life. Hold the napkin under your chin, open your mouth like yawning, Christ drops off the spoon onto your tongue.

I left as soon as liturgy was over, to avoid talking to anyone. Eastern churches around here are so small, they always notice a new face and they usually try to say something. I am still too skittish to talk to anyone in a church. Maybe I will always be too skittish.

I’m still not sure how I feel about going to Liturgy.

On the way home, in another small town, I followed a sign indicating a point of interest. It looked like it was pointing straight into the Ohio river as if the landmark was underwater, but I found it was pointing down a steep hill to a small park. The park had a ramp for putting your boat into the Ohio. It had a little pier zigzagging out into the river. It had benches for anyone who wanted to sit by the river and watch it go by.

Three people were fishing at the end of the pier; they looked up curiously at me, and then turned back to stare down the ends of their poles.

Why would anyone waste their time fishing in the Ohio?

What kind of fish could you possibly catch that would be worth having?

The Ohio is the dirtiest and most polluted river in the United States.  Surely you’d only pull out something sickly and deformed that couldn’t be eaten, if you caught a fish at all. The Ohio is the river that people dump their fracking waste into, and their coal waste before fracking was invented. The Ohio is where despairing people jump and we read about it in the paper the next day. The Ohio is not a nice place. The Ohio is worth nobody’s time.

I’ve lived in this valley for fifteen years, but I don’t think I’ve ever been right on the bank of the Ohio river. Up above it in the city park, yes, but not down by the water. Why would I want to stand by the water? The water smells like sulfur.

It’s not the Greenbriar where everything is alive, that runs right by where my ancestors used to live, where my bad cousins and I used to go swimming and tubing. It’s not the Scioto where I used to skip rocks with my uncle back in Columbus– the Scioto isn’t very clean, but I used to take my shoes off and wade in it. The Ohio is dead.

The wind played over the surface of the water, shimmering it back and forth. West Virginia was right across from me, a wall of noisy rustling tree branches, so close I could have swam there in a few minutes. Down at the bottom of the boat ramp, the Ohio lapped loudly, sounding like the ocean but with no smell of salt.

I watched the water go black and white and pewter gray until the rain picked up, and then I watched the raindrops pecking at the surface until it looked like the surface of the moon.

The fishermen kept fishing.

Eventually, I got in my car and left.

It’s not the greatness of God that fills me with wonder and awe; it’s the littleness. Not the power and the glory but the saturation, the in-dwelling, the God-with-us. On behalf of all and for each. Everywhere present and filling all things. All of God present here in my life, and all of God present in the life of someone very different from me.

I could imagine God out there somewhere, God across the river and on the other side of the mountains, God Himself as big as a mountain or a river or a star. I can’t comprehend God immanent, God uncomfortably close, God in the chalice, God in the spoon or the palm of the hand. I could be quite comfortable with a God so grand that He lives in the Vatican or in Constantinople, or only in the cathedrals in great big cities, or only in Paradise. But a God Who could be present in a church with five or ten people in it, in a tiny town along the Ohio… that’s a scandal. I could be totally nonplussed by a God who dwells in the greatest saints and brings them into Heaven as his exclusive country club. But a God who dwells in all of us; a God who desires each of us entirely, all of God for Mary thinking gloomy thoughts about the river, all of God for that man fishing at the end of the dock– such a thing is beyond comprehension. A God Who looks down in snobbery and revulsion at our little rituals and cultures in the same way I look at the Ohio is something I can accept. A God Who is with us in our culture, in our ritual, in the words of our prayer, fills me with numinous dread.

As I drove home, I imagined God as some relentless fisherman, standing on the bank of the Ohio, rain or shine, no matter what we dump in the water, determined to have every fish no matter how small and no matter how useless. A Being who will not stop fishing until He’s gathered all the fish of the earth into one net. Even uninteresting ones like me, leading lives not worth talking about.

When He is lifted up from the earth, He will gather all people to Himself. Even in dreary places like this one.

Even on the banks of the Ohio.


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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