Outline of a Cross

Outline of a Cross March 5, 2023

a wooden cross against a blue sky
image via pixabay

It wasn’t a very good weekend.

A friend I know on social media was having trouble with religious trauma as I do, and didn’t want to go to Sunday Mass. Tiresome people who didn’t understand were droning at her that it was her obligation and she’d be in mortal sin if she didn’t. Several people including me tried to explain the situation, but it didn’t help.

I had some professional writer I’d never heard of assuring me over and over again that the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist could never hurt anyone, and to say so would be to denigrate the Mass and mislead anybody who heard me. It was impossible for the Mass to traumatize anything except a demon. He really seemed to think that the Mass was a surefire cure for PTSD, and I only wish it was. He went on for some time.

I also had a Dominican Tertiary say patronizing things about how everyone should persevere in going to Mass no matter how much it hurt. And when we pressed her on this, she acted as if she were being persecuted. And then, of course, she informed us she’d pray for us and boasted that we were “lost souls” missing our Sunday obligation because of “feelings,” and many Catholics fawned over her for that. One of them even managed to get in a dig at our weight.

It was only after that that I happened to look at my Disqus notifications, and noticed that a fervent Catholic had been responding to my most recent post about religious trauma. Except that that post has the comments locked, because I didn’t want to be heckled about my religious trauma. They started ranting at me under the next most recent post, a lighthearted post about birds. They called me every name in the book including “pedophile.” They quoted Catherine of Sienna at me. They accused me of being bad with money. They said that I was not only possessed but also oppressed by demons because of my sins. They went on for several different walls of text. I would have thought it was one of my estranged aunts except that the grammar and vocabulary were much too good.

Then it was time to go to church.

I haven’t gone to church since early January.

I’ve barely been nearly anywhere since early January, with the car still acting up. But we did have a ride to Mass from a friendly neighbor with a pickup truck. I just haven’t been able to make myself go. I have panic attacks every time. I start to cry for no reason and my throat closes up. I feel everything that’s happened to me in the name of the Church falling on me like a caved-in roof. And then I feel as though Jesus hates me, and I go to bed, and Michael and Adrienne go to church.

This time, I couldn’t feel the panic.

I put on my good jacket, and I went to church with them.

The church looks nicer than the last time I was there. They’re repainting the dowdy walls. They’ve put in a kneeler at the front for anyone who wants to kneel and receive Communion on the tongue. And they have new, more colorful Stations of the Cross. But I couldn’t manage to get into the main church to look at the Stations of the Cross. I just hugged the freshly painted wall in the foyer.

The music was fine, I guess. I think the preaching was fine. I paid little attention.

After awhile, I went to sit in the room next to they foyer, where they keep the first aid kit and the extra hymnals. There used to be a display of all different styles of cross or crucifix hung on that wall, but they’ve been taken off for the painters and the holes for the nails puttied in. All there are now are outlines of crosses against the drab gypsum.

I stared at the outline of the cross.

When it came time for Communion, I wanted to receive. I racked my brain to think of any mortal sins I’ve committed since the last time I was there. I remembered being told it’s not a mortal sin if you’re not certain it’s a mortal sin, because mortal sin requires full consent. But I always wonder if I’m too easy on myself– if, if I were more honest, I’d realize that I sin mortally several times a day. I wondered how badly I’d magnify my punishment in hell if I added the mortal sin of unworthy communion to my stack of mortal sins.

I wandered into the communion line, and received.

It was then that the panic attack started.

There are two kinds of panic attack that I know of. One is the one I’ve already described– my heart races, my throat closes up, I feel like I’m going to vomit. It’s over quickly but it’s exhausting, so I spend some time in bed afterwards. The other panic attack is much worse. It starts with a niggling worry that I ought to be afraid of something– usually, something unrelated to the circumstances I’m in. I need to know if my student loans are in default or if I’ll go to jail for accidentally transposing a digit on my taxes, if the mole my doctor cut off last December has turned into cancer or if my driver’s license has been suspended without anyone telling me. I start googling things on my phone or reasoning with my obsessive compulsive disorder to reassure myself, and it only makes me more afraid. Next thing I know my stomach is twisting with an agony halfway between pain and pressure. I feel as if I’ve seen a ghost. All my fears seem perfectly rational. I desperately want to stim or pinch myself or sprint down the sidewalk. These panic attacks are the worse kind, because once they start they wax and wane all night. That was the kind of fear that gripped me after Holy Communion. But I couldn’t run away. I was in church.

I stood in the side room, looking at the outline of the cross.

My cross.

This life that I bear, whether my fears come true or not, whether God cares or not, whether Heaven is real or not.

My personal Gethsemane, whether there will be an Easter or not.

Everyone carries a cross. I have nothing to share with you but mine. I appreciate it when you share yours with me, because I feel less alone.

I went outside the church, where the sun hadn’t set yet and the grass was beginning to green up. The sky was blue. Daffodils were nodding in neighbors’ yards. Everything was coming to life, except me.

I don’t know when I’ll go back.



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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