It was time for McFluff’s monthly bath and manicure.
McFluff is the family guinea pig. His other names are Fluffy, Piggy, Pig, Pigface, Piggity-Pig-Pig-Pig, and Poor Starving Pig Who Hasn’t Eaten in Days. He is Adrienne’s constant companion. He even came with us in a travel cage when we went to Columbus last month.
We’re trying to trim McFluff’s nails every two weeks now: one manicure to get the four toes on each front paw and one manicure to get the three toes on each back paw two weeks later, and once a month follow it up with a bath. Guinea pigs can die of flystrike if they’re not kept clean, and their nails go black and get too sharp if you don’t trim them. They can work their teeth down by chewing on things but they can’t work their nails down, so I have to give McFluff manicures. Of course, he hates them. They are terrifying.
It started the moment I took him into the bathroom. We never take him to the bathroom except for the bath and manicure. He likes being carried to sit next to me on the sofa and watch me write blog posts. He enjoys trips to the bedroom to go spelunking under my quilt while Adrienne and I watch movies on the tablet. He’s not sure what to make of his car carrier, but he liked being in the big backyard in Columbus with all the clover to eat. But the moment he enters the bathroom, he starts to whimper with a cry of fear that he doesn’t give anywhere else.
I hate that cry.
I have anxiety. I literally have a medical condition that makes me suffer from chronic fear. I never want to be afraid. Sometimes I feel like I’d tear myself apart to get away from my fear. But I would far rather be afraid myself, than make another sentient being feel that fear and give that cry.
“It’s okay, Fluffy,” I told the pig. “We’ll do this as quickly as possible. Just six toes today, I promise.”
Adrienne handed me the clippers and quickly turned on the bath to get it over with.
McFluff twisted around in my hands and crawled up my arm. He made a bee-line for the only safe hiding place, which was my armpit. I found myself holding the guinea pig’s backside with his head lodged behind my right arm, which was actually a convenient place to trim.
“Really quick!” I said, and grabbed one small back foot.
Clip, clip, clip.
He gave me a harder time about the other one, but I caught it and trimmed the other three claws. Clip, clip, clip. Then I dropped the clippers to show McFluff that the enemy was gone.
Then that annoying citrus pump soap we bought at the the pet shop, and then into the bath with an inch of warm water barely up to his underbelly. Adrienne and I splashed him until the suds rinsed off, then wrapped him in a warm towel and carried him to the bedroom to dry off. And that was the end of the tribulation.
The pig sulked in his towel for a few minutes, but as he warmed up, he forgave us. We watched YouTube videos on Adrienne’s laptop as he explored under the quilt, tickling my feet with his whiskers. Eventually, he climbed up onto my chest and stood there, chattering in that friendly guinea pig way, not the loud squeaks that mean he needs something but the soft warbles that mean he is content with his family.
I told Adrienne about when she was a baby, after the emergency Caesarian. I didn’t tell her about the horrific events leading up to the surgery, because I never want her to feel that she was in any way indirectly responsible for me being hurt. But I told her about the surgery, the doctor saying “Look at that cone head. Look at that hair! He’s huge! Oh, he’s a girl.” And I told her about the fact that she had a high white cell count and needed to spend her first night in the nursery. She screamed for me but I kept falling asleep and couldn’t be there. The next day they had to draw blood, and to do that they needed to hold her flat and prick her heel. So I held her down. But as soon as they pierced her, I picked her up and tucked her into my hospital gown skin-to-skin, where she’d calm down immediately.
She trusted me, even then. And I will not violate that trust.
Sometimes, a good parent has to lead a child through things that frighten and hurt. But a good parent will make them hurt as little as possible. She’ll get the painful part over with as quickly as possible. She’ll console as much as possible while the hurt is ongoing. And most importantly: the hurt must always be a side effect of the good they’re trying to do, or the harm they’re trying to avoid. The hurt must never be the point. Otherwise, that parent is an abuser.
In the Charismatic Renewal, the hurt was the point, and God was an abuser. They didn’t call him an abuser, but that’s what he was. My mother used to say God would send her “prayer burdens” out of love: she would be overwhelmed with a deep sense of agonizing fear, a gift from God, and she would pray very hard and offer up the fear. I understand now that that’s not true. My mother had undiagnosed poly-cystic ovary syndrome, as I do, and one of the symptoms of PCOS is severe anxiety. But she thought the anxiety was from God, given to her on purpose for its own sake. Sometimes she would get very sick and have to lie in bed for days, with an aching back and terrible fatigue. Doctors didn’t know why because PCOS is hard to diagnose. we now have a crossword puzzle of symptoms called The Rotterdam Criteria which is bad enough, but it used to be harder. Sometimes, my mother would say that she was suffering a mysterious ailment because God sent it to her, as a gift.
When I was a teenager and my own anxiety and panic got so bad I couldn’t stand to live anymore, I was told that this anxiety and panic were a gift, to bring me closer to God, so that I could be a saint.
I was told that God blesses some of his most privileged souls with a lifetime of mysterious suffering and agony, so they could be “victim souls” to appease his wrath against poor sinners. I saw the photos of a stigmatist from somewhere in Italy, grimacing in pain, her hands and the side of her pajama top mysteriously gushing blood that went on forever but she didn’t die. I saw the picture of some mystic in South America sobbing as an entire rose with a thorny stem supposedly burst out of her chest– the camera was conveniently on her face at the time and not the actual preternatural event. This, too, was a gift from God. I read about the mystic who stopped eating and lived only on the Eucharist, and spent every single Thursday through Saturday night suffering the pains of hell itself, only calming down on Sunday mornings– this was also, supposedly, a good thing.
My scruples and self-loathing were a gift.
The panic attacks I felt at Mass and before confession were a gift.
The reason trying to practice the Faith hurt so badly, was because it was a gift. The pain would appease God the Father and buy mercy for poor sinners. As if mercy was a thing that could be bought and paid for.
“God always sends the suffering you hate the most, or else it isn’t really a sacrifice,” I was told. As if God were a mother who would have her daughter’s heel pricked just for the fun of it. As if God were some sadistic monster who liked to pull the toenails off of guinea pigs and dunk them in water to see it hurt.
I don’t believe that anymore.
Well, that’s too grand a thing to say. I do believe it and it terrifies me. But I am choosing not to believe it.
I am setting the resolution to believe that a God of Love wouldn’t hurt people on the mistaken notion that suffering is a good thing. If someone goes through something painful, God is there suffering with them, but suffering itself is bad.
I am firmly resolving, with the help of God’s grace, to believe that a God of Love is infinitely more reluctant to do anything that might cause pain, than I am with my daughter or my guinea pig.
If the Atonement means anything at all, it isn’t that God ordered his only son to jump in front of his wrath to soak up all that pain and humiliation, so that a few might be saved from the hell God desired for them. It means that God doesn’t desire hell at all. It means that the Father and His Son mutually agreed that the Son should descend to suffer with us, in all the pain and injustice we have to suffer, so that nothing would ever happen that could separate us from the Love of God.
If God is anything at all, God is a Parent who would never cause gratuitous pain.
I don’t know what that means for the journey of deconstruction I’m on right now, frankly. I don’t think the conclusions I come to are going to please you. I don’t see how something as violating and torturous as going to confession is going to factor into this new resolution of mine, for example. I don’t know what it does to the Sunday Obligation when I have panic attacks trying to go to Mass. I only know that the Church, as I have experienced her in my life, ruined my childhood and stolen everything I had. The Church, as I have experienced her in the Charismatic Renewal and Regnum Christi, in Steubenville at Franciscan University and trapped here living in this culture, has hurt me on purpose for fun and claimed she was doing the will of God. The Church is the reason I don’t have a family, though I might have ended up this way anyway. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about that.
I wish I had another Mary Pezzulo to show you: someone who had all the answers, someone who could tell you exactly what you’re supposed to believe. But I don’t. There’s only me here. And this is the journey I’m on right now.
I am a woman who can’t bear to hurt a child or a guinea pig, and I’m considering what that tells me about God.
And we’ll see where we go from here.
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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