Invitation and accompaniment. Invitation and accompaniment. Invitation and accompaniment.
I have decided to believe in a God of invitation and accompaniment, and to cast down any idols that ask me to revere something else.
That’s the penance I’ve set myself to do during Lent. I’m going to act as if mortal sin and obligation aren’t real, and there’s only a God of genuine love inviting me to grow in grace and accompanying me when I suffer. Wherever that leaves me– there’s my religion.
I wouldn’t say it’s going terribly well. I tried to go to Sunday Mass for the first time since January last weekend. I was sure it was a good time to go back to Mass. I didn’t have a sharp gagging panic attack at the thought, and I thought that meant I was ready to give it a try. But the anxiety and OCD surge that happened after I received Communion was worse than it’s been in a long time. I have been sick all week. And yes, I already know brain chemistry exists. I know medication exists. I’ve been chronically ill my whole life and I am familiar with doctors. But while I get that part of the puzzle under control, which is taking far longer than I want, I’m here on my own reacting to the religious trauma.
My commentators are kind enough to inform me this struggle is because I’m possessed. The Eucharist is only poison to demons, so I must be one. If I were not under the influence of a demon, I’d find the yoke easy and the burden light. Maybe they’re right.
After all, if I were a demon, how would I know?
When I was growing up, when we were defiant and rebellious, my mother used to say “Don’t say ‘I will not serve.’ That’s what the Satan said.” And I would shudder.
There was a painting of Saint Michael in my childhood bedroom– a standard, ugly print of a suspiciously Caucasian archangel with blond curls kicking a suspiciously black demon into the abyss. I used to squint when I looked at it because I was afraid I’d become possessed if I gazed too long at the devil. I don’t remember refusing to serve God and curly-haired Archangel Michael kicking me into the abyss. But maybe not remembering the occasion is part of my punishment.
All I remember is starting out thinking that God was Love, and loving God back. And then the anxiety and scruples took over bit by bit, as my family descended into the madness of the Charismatic Renewal. Ordinary Catholicism wasn’t enough. The catechism they were teaching at Catholic school was too liberal, too feel-good, not “real” Catholicism. Everything was a possible conduit for demonic possession. Everything offended God or made the Virgin Mary cry. Next thing I knew, at about puberty when my PCOS symptoms started up, the obsessive-compulsive disorder began in earnest. I came to Steubenville, which was lauded in my social circle as having the very best, most orthodox Catholicism ever, and I guess that was when I got kicked into hell. But I did mean to follow Jesus and obey everything He said. I have tried.
I was mapping out a plan to go to Mass and confession more gently in my head last night. Once I get my car up and running, I thought, I could go to Pittsburgh by myself on a Saturday morning. I could go to confession in a friendly-looking parish, then treat myself to sashimi in Oakland and go to the Carnegie or the Frick for a few hours and try not to commit a mortal sin. I could even explore Frick Park, where Lady Elaine materialized in her Museum-go-Round in one of my favorite Mr. Rogers episodes, and see the big slide. Then I could drive just a mile to a nearby parish that looked friendly and inviting and go to a vigil Mass, perhaps even receive Holy Communion. But then the shuddering terror came back. What if I had a panic attack in the confessional? What if I forgot to confess a mortal sin, or couldn’t bring myself to confess it out of fear of the priest yelling at me, and thus got the mortal sin of sacrilege added to my tab? What if the priest abuses me and nobody believes me? What if he gives me a Rosary for penance and I have to say that awful prayer that triggers even more panic attacks? But what if I don’t? What if I never go to confession again and Archangel Michael kicks me into hell? What if this terror I’m feeling is a sign that I’m a reprobate and God would never save me anyway?
Late that night or early that morning, I couldn’t sleep at all. The fears chased their tails over and over again in my mind, faster with each rotation.
What if I’m a demon? What if all this fear is a sign that I’m already damned? What if I owe thousands of dollars in taxes and the IRS drags me to prison? What if I go to Pittsburgh for confession and Mass and have a panic attack? What if I crash the car after taking this long to get it fixed? What if the priest is mean to me? What if I don’t go to confession and Mass and I keep this up until the Easter vigil that used to be my favorite Mass? What if my student loans default and the Department of Education drags me to prison? What if Adrienne becomes a lapsed Catholic because I wasn’t harsh enough with her and God damns me to hell for that too? What if I have cancer and the department of Medicaid drags me to prison? What if I never make any money and end up in that terrible nursing home the strange old homeless lady ran away from? What is the point of going through a miserable life, if I’m not even confident anymore that Heaven waits at the end?
And then I was sitting up in bed sobbing, and Michael– not Archangel Michael but my husband who’d been reading in the next room– was in the doorway asking if I needed help. I couldn’t answer. Adrienne had left her giant Squishmallow guinea pig in my bed, and I rocked myself, sobbing, with my face pressed into the stuffed animal, unable to talk, unable to think, unable to feel anything at all except bad.
Michael made me scrambled eggs at four o’clock in the morning.
I still feel impossibly anxious eighteen hours later.
I am not going to Mass this Sunday, whether I’m a demon or not.
I don’t think I’m going to leave the house all weekend.
I hope that God is less like blond Archangel Michael kicking demons into hell and more like a human Michael bringing me breakfast at four in the morning.
I hope that God is less like the Lion of Judah and more like a comforting lamb who lets you hold Him and bury your face in His wool while you have a panic attack.
Less like an angry ranting priest in a confessional and more like Mr. Rogers writing that screenplay where Lady Elaine transports her Museum-go-Round to Frick Park.
Maybe, when I get the car back, I won’t rush about returning to the sacraments. Maybe I’ll just go to Frick Park and slide down the slide a few times.
I think a God of invitation and accompaniment is a God who would sit up in bed crying with you when you’re having a miserable night, and walk out of Mass with you when Mass got to be traumatic, and descend into hell with you when someone kicks you there.
I think that that God is the only God worth my time.
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.