I went to Divine Liturgy again.
Last time I’d wandered in when I drove by a church and realized it was starting. This time I went on purpose. I looked up the liturgy time ahead of time and tried to dress unobtrusively. I noticed most women at Eastern churches around here wear trousers instead of skirts, so I wore trousers. I’ve noticed that most don’t cover their hair, but I still don’t have much hair due to PCOS and don’t like to leave my scalp bare. So instead of a pretty scarf wrapped around my head, which I prefer, I wore a beanie and let my wispy bangs stick out the front. I hoped it would be enough so that no one would look at me.
The experience we had getting kicked out of our old Byzantine Catholic church was so embarrassing, I never want to be looked at in an Eastern Catholic church again. But I miss the liturgy so much. I want to go home, so I went to liturgy in a new church.
I slipped into the back just as it was starting. I was wearing a mask because I’d heard the news about the Delta variant being transmissible even in vaccinated people. Besides me there were only five other people there, the average age near fifty. The priest was already jangling his thurible. The smell of incense brought me home.
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever,” said the priest, and I was transported to the Kingdom– timeless, beautiful, eternally alive, the place where everyone I’ve lost is waiting for me. Heaven is where you go when you go to Liturgy, after all.
We chanted back and forth, those old familiar prayers, the most beautiful liturgy there could ever be. We stood and were attentive to the Gospel, which was about the man whose son was a lunatic and often fell into the fire and the water. Everything was fine, until the sermon.
The sermon was at least half an hour long.
The first five minutes were the priest asking us to join in the bake sale and buy lots of “merchandise” to help support the church, because we are all victims of inflation and the price of stamps is going up.
The next ten or fifteen minutes were a rant about how the head of the CDC is “hysterical,” Dr. Fauci is evil, the recent studies about the Delta variant were made up and erroneous for some reason, government health mandates are bullying, we’ve all been victims of fear since last March, and so on. He went on and on about that. He kept glancing at me, as I was the only person in the church with a mask on. Between that and the rambling incoherence of his preaching, I began to wonder if he was improvising the sermon just to chastise me for walking into his church wearing a mask.
The third part of the sermon was the one I think he’d planned. He said that the Prime Minister of Canada should refrain from receiving Communion, as should all who tried to empathize with people who wanted to vandalize churches. And then he said, “If bad things and calamities start happening in your life and you say ‘God, why have you abandoned me?’ but you’ve decided you’re too busy to go to church, you’ve been unhappy with your appearance and tried to change it to make you look like something you’re not, if you have experienced an abortion, if the supreme court says certain unions which are not marriages are marriages and the news media celebrates that…” and then he abruptly changed the subject to his memory of getting a polio vaccine as a child.
I was dumbstruck.
Experienced an abortion?
Why on earth would he use that verb? To “experience” an abortion means abortion just happened to you. The body spontaneously aborting. A miscarriage. Was he saying that miscarriages were sins? No, surely not. He just forgot what he meant to say and came up with the worst possible word. But he was saying that bad things and misfortune come down upon people as a punishment from a vengeful God. That was his point, the point of this entire tirade. That people who suffer, suffer due to direct intervention from God, because they’re guilty of doing something wrong.
I just recently mentioned how heterodox notions of suffering traumatized me growing up.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
I walked out of liturgy.
I drove home.
I loaded Michael and Rosie into the car, and we went to a state park.
It was my first time visiting this particular park; I’d never seen it before. We followed the Garmin’s noisy directions right to the shore of a pleasantly green lake, all studded with lily pads. A few families were fishing at picnic benches right up by the water, but it wasn’t crowded. It was blissfully quiet.
A different kind of incense overwhelmed me as I got out of the car: the smell of a green lake, the smell of the trees in late summer, the smell of mud that never quite dries out, the smell of wood smoke from the nearby campground. Home. The few good memories from my childhood. The place where everything is alive.
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.
I haven’t smelled a state park like that in so many years.
Rosie wandered down to inspect the shore of the pond. Minnows darted under the lily pads to hide as she leaned over. She found a huge patch of discarded snail shells in a riot of shore birds’ footprints. A moment later, she found a live mollusk in the shallows. We watched it shrink back into its shell as she picked it up.
Shore birds and crickets chanted in the distance.
A V of geese squawked by overhead.
The next thing I knew, we were on a hike. I was in my church shoes, my good trousers and blouse and that stupid beanie, hiking over noisy sucking mud through thick woods, just as I used to do when I was a child. Up and down a messy trail and over a foot bridge, in the dying orange light of a late summer sunset. I told Michael and Rosie the names of the trees and plants, the birds and butterflies we passed, just like my beloved grandfather taught them to me. For the first time in six years, I had an eerie feeling that he wasn’t dead– as if the fall and the stroke and the week fading out in the hospital when I was so frantic and couldn’t visit him had all been a lie. He was still here. He was right near me. I’d round the bend in the trail and see him standing under a tree, looking through his binoculars, trying to get a glimpse of a bird one more time.
Surely, no one who was that deeply loved could ever disappear.
I rounded the bend, and my grandfather wasn’t there.
Vichnaya Pamyat, vichnaya pamyat, Blessed repose and eternal memory.
On the way home, I took a wrong turn and then another on those twisty country roads that don’t give you a chance to change your mind or any place to turn around. We found ourselves deep in Amish country, driving past tidy picturesque farms with no wires extending to the houses. My Garmin didn’t know where we were for an alarming amount of the time– the little screen showed an image of a car that wasn’t even on a road. We inched along behind a one buggy with a young couple in the front seat, and then behind a piece of farm equipment pulled by two quarter horses. A boy about Rosie’s age stared at us from the back of the equipment, as if we were as alien to him as the horses were to us.
The timelessness was haunting. For an hour, I could have been anywhere in the world that has farmland, at any time in the past century.
I should have been annoyed to have no idea where I was, but I couldn’t be. It was too beautiful.
As it got dark, just before we found the main road again, we passed a meadow where three deer were grazing. They were bucks with small sets of antlers. The three of them looked up at us as we passed by, nearly close enough to touch them.
As a deer longs for flowing springs, so my soul longs for You, O Lord.
It was late at night by the time we got back to our house.
I don’t know if I will try to go to a Byzantine Catholic church again.
I will be sad about this before long, but I’m not sad now.
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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