I failed to go to Mass again this weekend. I actually wanted to go to Mass. I miss it. I thought the week before Lent starts might be a good time to go back.
I hate the Diocese of Steubenville and all the traumatic memories, but until we can get the car fixed there’s no other place to go. So I was going to go. I had my good clothes and my makeup on. Our ride was almost here. And then the panic attack started, bad as ever, so I went to bed. Adrienne and Michael went to Mass.
For years, I went to Mass no matter how I felt and just gripped the pew with both hands, closed my eyes, and breathed through the panic attack. Sometimes I got so sick it took days to recover afterwards, but I always went.
Why did I put myself through that?
Because I was told it was a mortal sin to miss Mass. I’d be engulfed forever in the lake of fire those poor deranged children at Fatima saw, if I didn’t go to Mass no matter how bad the anxiety got. It was also a mortal sin to entertain any thoughts that flitted across my mind as I sat in the congregation at Mass. It was a mortal sin to receive Communion unworthily, so I had about forty minutes to carefully suppress every thought or I couldn’t approach the communion rail. Next thing I knew I’d be running to the bathroom in the church social hall, panicking. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.
Now here I was, a 38-year-old woman, afraid to go to Mass, panicking in bed.
Lent starts in two days. I keep seeing people ask “are you ready for Lent?” and I shudder. I saw a piece of advice floating around Twitter, that I should use the things I confessed at my last confession to guide my Lent. Do penance for that for forty days. My last confession was Good Friday last year, and the resulting panic attack was not a nice one. Every time I’ve thought about going back, I’ve gotten sick. I can’t even stand to think of going to confession now. I’m squirming just writing the words. I tried to remember what I confessed, but I panic just thinking about it.
Why did I try to go to confession?
Because I was told it was a mortal sin to not go to confession at least once a year.
I mentioned something about my difficulty on social media, and I got somebody telling me I had to choose between Catholicism and Jesus, that I should give up my desire for liturgy and just serve the poor and the sick. I was offended. I actually do try to do my best for my neighbors and I think that’s important. But I’m tired of being told that that’s the only place I ought to find Jesus. I think that a religious practice ought to be both– ritual and service, being nourished and nourishing others again and again and again. But I haven’t been nourished in weeks. The people who were supposed to nourish me have been abusive monsters from the time I was a little girl. I can’t take it. I crumbled. Now I’m afraid that this is all a sign that I was never cut out to be a Christian in the first place. A Christian would endure in spite of dungeon, fire and sword. I got PTSD instead of heroically enduring. Many are called, but I wasn’t chosen.
I closed my eyes in bed, and tried to pray.
I don’t know how to pray, but I tried to do an Ignatian meditation. I am horrible at Ignatian meditations. My mind never stays in the right place. But I tried.
I tried to imagine Jesus as the Good Samaritan, caring for me. And immediately I failed.
I dislike that parable because it ends on a cliffhanger. The Samaritan abandons the wounded man at an inn and just trusts the innkeeper will take care of him the way the innkeeper ought. We don’t know if the innkeeper really did do that. The text doesn’t say what happened to the victim. When I was a bookish, neurotic homeschooled teenager with no friends, I read the complete unabridged Les Miserables and became Victor Hugo’s biggest fan. Later on I was given the musical libretto and sound track for a birthday present, and spent way too much time telling people how the play and the novel are different. All I can think of when I think of The Good Samaritan was Fantine leaving tiny toddler Cosette at Thenardier’s inn and just trusting that it would be all right. That’s a bizarre juxtaposition, but my mind goes there every time. What happened to the victim of that terrible crime? Did he get better, or was he victimized again? Did the innkeeper enslave him, force him to do the housework, and beat him whenever he got the chance? Did anyone ever come to rescue him and take him away to Paris?
When I look at an Eastern Christian icon of the Good Samaritan, with the Samaritan painted as Jesus and the victim painted as Adam representing the whole human race, I think about the Church that Jesus left us in, just trusting we’d be nourished and cared for. I think of how horribly it turned out.
Why was everyone so horrible to Fantine?
They thought she deserved it, because she’d committed a mortal sin.
This is the way my mind works, drawing random artistic and literary themes as if from a deck of Tarot cards and presenting them to me for meditation. I am hopeless. But this is the thought I keep coming back to: maybe mortal sin is the problem.
Maybe mortal sin is the problem.
Maybe I could start to build a spiritual life, if I gave up worrying about mortal sin entirely.
Maybe if it were all about invitation, instead of avoiding that lake of fire. Christ setting out His banquet and inviting me to the party because He loves me. Christ looking around in shock at all the evil murderous people who showed up for his banquet, and saying “I never knew them.” Christ leaving the party and running to find what’s become of me, feeding and caring for me where I happen to be.
Maybe if it was all about accompaniment. Not Christ dumping us in the Church and hoping things will be right, then coming back at a time no one knows to take us away to Paris, but Christ here suffering with us and showing us a way. Not Christ with a clipboard counting up the number of bad thoughts you had between the opening hymn and the Domine Non Sum Dignus, but Christ jumping off the altar and running to find you in the bathroom, cry with you, heal you, and take you where you ought to be.
That’s not enough for me. But it’s something to hold onto.
These are the things I’m pondering.
I guess this will be my theme for Lent: invitation, and accompaniment. Try not to think about sin for awhile. Don’t do anything to appease a god who insists on mortal sin. Just let the God of Love accompany me and invite me to do things His way.
We’ll just have to see where that leads me.
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.