Sicut Cervus, like the Hart

Sicut Cervus, like the Hart February 10, 2023


Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

Like the hart longs for the flowing streams, so my heart longs for you, O God.

I haven’t been saying my prayers very much lately, but I want to be.

The other night I tried to picture God so I could talk to Him, and all I could imagine was a dying hart.

Prayer hurts so badly.

I don’t even know why the religious trauma is coming to a head just at this time in my life. I thought it would die down as I got further and further from the Charismatic Renewal and the recent events in Steubenville, but it’s worse. I can’t even describe the fierceness of the panic attacks. I don’t like the sound of Catholic prayers recited in person or in a recording. I don’t want to listen to hymns. I think, maybe, I could go to a Mass again, if I were far away from the diocese of Steubenville. Maybe the next time I visit Columbus. But not here. Never here again. I don’t think I will ever go to confession again no matter where I am. I don’t know how I possibly could. I don’t even think I could stand still without cringing if a priest was saying general absolution to a room I was in. I think I’d run away.

People online were joking and bantering about Lent being just about two weeks away, and it’s made the panic worse. No. It can’t be Lent. It can’t be that time of year. I can’t fast and abstain and listen to chants and make jokes about “alleluia.” I’m not ready.

Nothing has ever hurt so badly.

The worst part about deconstruction and religious trauma, for me, is that I keep swirling back to this exact same spot: I really do believe that God is real. I really do believe that Christ is God. I’ve decided the frenzied excitement I had during Praise and Worship was emotional contagion, and I think the happy peace I had getting deliverance prayer from that old con artist Father Mike Scanlan was just his manipulation. But the others, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sense of oneness when we help one another, the things I’ve learned in my quiet meditation time and when I’ve studied the Bible, are true. God is really there. He comes when you call. But the places I learned to commune with God are toxic and abusive. I have no home. I have no spiritual family. I don’t even know that I could desire a spiritual family again. And I don’t know what to do with that.

The other night, I just wanted to say something to Jesus, but I didn’t know how.

I started trying to picture a giant red hart.

Not a heart but a hart.

I had a dream a few years ago– and I don’t think this dream was some kind of vision from God, I think it was my brain telling me what at some level I already knew to be true. Because I am Catholic, my brain speaks in Catholic imagery and my dreams sometimes look religious. In the dream I was standing in the foyer of Christ the King Chapel. In the corner where there’s actually a statue of Saint Francis, there was a scraggly-looking bearded hippie in a jean jacket who kept whispering to me that this wasn’t a safe place and I had to get out. I kept whispering back to the hippie Saint Francis that I didn’t know what he was talking about. This was a beautiful place with a great reputation. But Saint Francis was adamant.  After our argument, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a giant hart, a red deer, a great big majestic antlered cervus taller than a moose, walking off into the slice of hallway that Christ the King Chapel uses for a cloakroom. I followed the hart. I followed him down a maze of darker and darker hallways that don’t actually exist in Christ the King Chapel. I followed him down what looked like the hall of an old parochial school basement, past the school library and the boiler room and the cafeteria. Finally, he turned the corner and disappeared into a door.

When I got to the door, it was barred with a prison gate.

Inside the prison gate was what looked like a public bathroom, in hideous disrepair. The toilets had been pulled out and there was nothing in each stall but a drain hole filled with murky water. The floors and walls were a collage of dust and filth. The light overhead was fluorescent, harsh, too bright.

I looked at the hart straight on in the bright light for the first time, and he didn’t look like a gigantic beast anymore. He looked like a human child in a prison uniform, with a deer’s head. And the deer’s eyes were full of tears. That was when I woke up.

After thinking about it for awhile, I decided that the hart was Christ.

Christ chose to come to be present with us in our humanity and won’t go back on that choice, and Christ is abused when the Church abuses.

Christ is held prisoner in every church where they dangle the sacraments over people and then make them submit to spiritual abuse and far worse to gain access to the sacraments.

He suffers with us in the darkest, dirtiest, most offensive places, at the heart of a Church that looks so pretty on the outside.

I couldn’t pray last night. I couldn’t say a Rosary or the Divine Office. They hurt too much.

I didn’t know what to do, but I thought of my dream, and I tried to imagine myself at that prison gate again.

I wanted to talk to the hart.

I couldn’t keep picturing him as a human child in a uniform with a giant hart’s head. The closest I could get was imagining that great big red deer,  a dear as big as an elephant, curled up sick and suffering on the floor of that disgusting prison. I walked up to the door and somehow squeezed through the bars. I went to the dirty bathroom sinks to get Him some water, but when I turned the taps there was nothing there, so I just went and sat with Him. I leaned on Him and patted His velvet back. It felt feverishly warm.

I cried– not tears of pious shame like a Magdalene but tears of anger and outrage and hurt. I suppose they felt the same to the hart as He died of thirst in that prison.

After awhile I finally dozed off.

When I woke up, life was much the same: a cloudy, miserable, never-ending February with anxiety that was so bad it was hard to breathe.

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

Like the hart longs for the flowing streams, so my heart longs for you, O God.

And if my heart thirsts, God thirsts.

That’s where I am this week.



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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