A Sermon and an Outburst

A Sermon and an Outburst July 3, 2022

I went to Mass today.

It’s hard going back to Mass at home after being away for awhile.

I was in Columbus at a lovely welcoming place two weeks ago. Last week we went to Pittsburgh to the conservatory and the museum with our memberships, and then went to the Cathedral which was a nice change. Today we tried to go to a new parish across the river in West Virginia, but we mistook the schedule and got there an hour late. After that, we were stuck going to an evening Mass in Steubenville.

Mass in Steubenville tends to trigger my anxiety like nothing else. It is hard to worship in the place that hurt you. All I can think of is Totus Tuus Maria and Father Morrier and the torment of growing up Charismatic. But that’s not the only reason I have anxiety. I have poly-cystic ovary syndrome. PCOS causes anxiety just by chemistry, even when everything else is going fine. I’ve suffered from anxiety and on and off depression since just before puberty.

I sat in the little alcove between the bathroom and foyer as I often do, scrolling on my phone so I wouldn’t have a panic attack. That’s how I go to church. You don’t have to do that if you suffer from anxiety. Anxiety is an illness. Illness is a valid excuse to stay home on a Sunday. But for now, it’s what I choose to do. Sometimes I do it for good reason, because I really do want to be present with God. Sometimes I only do it because I’m afraid not to.

The truth is, I’m afraid God won’t love me if I don’t follow the rules.

I have been through an awful lot of what I’ve been through, because I’m afraid God won’t love me if I don’t follow the rules.

I am always afraid God won’t love me. I am always afraid I’ll go to hell or be hurt by God, for not following the rules. For not being good.

Once, when I was a teenager, plump and pimpled from my undiagnosed PCOS, crippled by improperly treated anxiety and depression, I went to a night at the parish youth group to try and make some friends. I don’t know why I thought that would work. But I went to the youth group, and I nibbled a slice of pizza and made small talk, trying to look likeable and loveable. And eventually Father gathered us round and introduced a guest speaker, a psychotherapist who went to the parish. I don’t know why he was considered an interesting guest speaker for a youth group. This was a very strange parish.

The speaker took the floor and began telling us about his work as a counselor. He talked about how he liked to pray over his clients instead of counseling them. He mentioned that he usually identified voices his clients were hearing, not as hallucinations but as demons. He particularly called out the voices that spoke into his clients’ left ears, because the left shoulder is where the demon sits in cartoons and the right shoulder is where the angel sits. He reiterated over and over again, “You don’t need a therapist! You don’t need medication! You need to go to confession!”

And I sat there, getting redder and redder, trying to bite back tears. Because I did need a therapist, not a Catholic therapist who would call out my demons but a real therapist who would give me therapy. And I did need proper medication, for my real medical condition that was causing anxiety. But I’d always feared what this therapist was saying: that I’d brought this on myself somehow for being bad. I feared that God had done this to me because I was a victim soul doomed to offer it up for other people. I feared that God had done this to me because He just didn’t like me. And I feared that God had done this to me because I was bad.

At the first opportunity, I ran out of the youth group meeting and cried in the baptistry until it was time to go home.

One of my biggest regrets from my childhood is that I didn’t say anything. I should have stood up and rebuked the therapist right there at the youth group meeting, but I didn’t. I was too afraid, because I have anxiety. I was afraid of making a scene. I was afraid that the other teenagers would despise me and my mother would be embarrassed. So I kept quiet, and I hid.

That’s just one of the things that happened to me growing up as a Catholic in a deeply spiritually abusive environment, with anxiety. I think about it a lot.

In any case, there I was at Mass earlier today.

I scrolled on my phone through the opening hymn, the readings and the psalm. And then the priest read the Gospel and started in on his homily. Somehow, he tied it all into something to do with the Fourth of July, perhaps likening the Founding Fathers to the seventy-two who were sent out to preach that the Messiah had come. He even brought in the parable about the house built on the rock, claiming that houses that leak need to be repaired after a storm, and then he said this had to do with having anxiety. “Anxiety,” he declared, “Is a lack of faith in God.”

I looked up, bristling, not sure I’d heard right.

The priest went on. He really did think that anxiety was a lack of faith in God, and that if you had faith in God you would never have anxiety but would always do the right thing without fear. He brought the metaphor around again, to our nation’s Founding Fathers who freed us from tyranny so we could practice religious freedom.

This homily was as strange as the word salads I’d heard growing up.

I felt like I was a teenager again.

Poly-cystic ovary syndrome strikes between six and twelve percent of the female population. I wondered if any other people with PCOS were sitting in the congregation just now. I wondered if there were any other women who were post-partum, which can cause anxiety. I wondered if there was anybody there with plain old garden variety generalized anxiety disorder. I wondered if there was a fat, pimpled teenager who was afraid God didn’t love her and wondered if it was her fault.

We went through the offertory, the Eucharistic prayers. I came forward and received Holy Communion, which I often don’t do because I have anxiety that God doesn’t want to give Himself to me. Then we sang a verse of America the Beautiful, and the priest processed out.

I usually don’t walk out the back of church and shake hands with the priest. I avoid the receiving line. I sneak out a side door. But this time, I felt I had to go talk to the priest.

I got out onto the steps and saw him standing on the sidewalk. I was going to walk down to the priest and talk to him privately, but I froze, because I have anxiety.

Still, I’d gotten this far. I had to do something.

“Anxiety,” I said from the steps in a stage voice, “Is a medical condition caused by a biochemical imbalance. And I’m not the only person with anxiety you hurt by saying that.”

I should have stayed and listened to what he had to say to that. But I have anxiety. I fled to my car. I leaned on the steering wheel, shaking a little.

I don’t know how to explain that in the exact same moment, my anxiety was much worse, but I also felt much better. My heart was pounding and I was embarrassed, humiliated for speaking up. I felt the eyes of the receiving line on me and knew I’d made a spectacle of myself, and that was terrifying. But I was also smiling, giggling, high-fiving a Mary who I used to be, a Mary who was afraid to speak up, a Mary who didn’t know why she suffered so much and feared that God didn’t love her.

I don’t think I’ll be back to that church again.

I don’t know when I’ll next go to Mass, to tell you the truth. It hurts.

I’m still not exactly sure that God loves me.

But just at that moment, I knew that I’d won.




Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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