Sunday, Outside the Church

Sunday, Outside the Church October 17, 2023

a stained glass window
image via Pixabay

On Sunday I went to Mass, but I didn’t get out of my car.

Adrienne had brought home another head cold from school, and I caught it a few days after she was done with it. The head cold meant I had a good excuse to stay home with no Catholic guilt, but I didn’t want to. I also didn’t want to go inside, and make people sick, and have a panic attack to boot. I have had panic attacks while badly congested before. They are disgusting.

I thought about sitting on the church porch, but I ended up parking the car facing the back of the church, and staring up at the window, and pretending that I was in Mass.

I tried to pray, and God said nothing. I told Him how terrified I was that He would smack me.

I remembered that I am trying to be merciful with myself. That’s all I’ve got right now– just the notion that any god worth my time would be patient and merciful with me, so I’ve got to be that way with myself. I’ve been through a lot lately.

The good thing about getting a diagnosis and a treatment plan for your chronic illness when you’re nearly middle aged, is that your chronic illness is under control. You can have the beginning of a normal life. You can go on hikes and go swimming, as long as you don’t overdo it. That “as long as you don’t overdo it” will always be a sword hanging over your head, but it’s a thousand times better than what it was before. It’s a thousand times better than most people with a chronic illness can hope for. The bad thing is that now you’re middle aged and you’ve never had a normal life. You don’t have a history to put on a job application. You don’t have savings or a retirement plan. Your student debt has been in IDR for ten years, and it’s doubled instead of going down. You don’t have friends because they all fled after you’d been sick for too long. You don’t have a normal grown-up’s notion about what to do with your freedom. You have to live in the body of a middle-aged woman while still, in many ways, being a teenager.

The good thing about your stalker of seven years dying is that you don’t have a stalker anymore. The bad thing is you still have your nerves turned up to a panic at all times. Your brain is constantly looking for something to protect you from. The littlest thing sets it off: the jingling of a dog’s chain, the sound of a woman shouting from the next block, the movement of the trees against my window on “her” side of the house.

The good thing about finding out that your crotchets and eccentricities are called autism is that now you have a name for it. You can talk to other autistic people and find out why you do the things that you do. The bad thing is that you’ve gone a whole lifetime trying to mask your real identity, and failing, and being severely punished for not masking, and you have to mourn that.

The good thing about Adrienne going to middle school is that I have several hours a day to myself. The bad thing is that I feel like I lost my whole purpose and identity. I always wanted to be a homeschooling mom buried under a great big Catholic family of messy little children, and that’s a dream that’s dead now. The grief and depression mean I often spend those hours in bed at the moment.

The good thing about realizing you’re in a cult, and leaving it, is that you’re not in the cult anymore. The bad thing is that you don’t get back what you gave to the cult. Your youth, your faith in human beings, your ability to trust, your sense of what’s normal and what isn’t, your notions about sex and sexuality, your financial stability, your credit score. Those are gone. You have to have something else. If there’s a God you have to discover God anew, and accept that maybe God wasn’t what you thought. You have to cope with the vulnerability of realizing that you can’t earn that God by falling in line and obeying the authority figures you thought you had to obey. You have to figure out what’s right and wrong on your own, when you’ve been taught that you can’t possibly do that. You might end up parked outside the church on a Sunday, hoping there’s a deity inside who knows you’re there, unable to walk in.

This is a lot to go through. I am in bad shape.

I have no idea who I could have been I had lived some other life. Maybe I could have been that beautiful housewife I dreamed of being, or the nun I wanted to be when I was even younger, or maybe something else would have gone wrong. I only know who I am– me, Mary Pezzulo, impossibly  introverted but wishing she knew what it was like to be popular and loved, constantly stimming, constantly daydreaming, taking ridiculously intense pleasure in small things like a drive to run errands or a swim at the rec center if she isn’t exhausted. Me, having nightmares and flashbacks at the slightest provocation. Me, the nerdy girl who was supposed to make everyone proud by being a scholar, who dropped out of graduate school with severe fatigue and never went back, who doesn’t have the attention span to read books right now but listens to audiobooks when she can. Me, baptized Mary Elizabeth and confirmed Therese of Lisieux, queer in both the old and the new sense of the word, afraid to pray to most saints because I suspect they won’t like me, trapped in a town famous for its Catholicism but where the Catholics can be impossibly cruel, longing to know God and finding it impossible to walk into a church.

There is only me.

I have never done anything right in my life.

If I’m to have any kind of communion with God, I will have to have it as me and not any other sort of human being. That’s the place to begin.

I stared up at the backside of the stained glass window, hoping He saw me. Hoping that there was Someone there to see me. Wondering if the Someone was happy to see me. Angry with the Someone. Angry enough to grab Him by the shoulders and shake Him. How dare He leave me like this?

With me was Saint Therese, dying of tuberculosis without painkillers at the age of twenty-three, unable to feel the presence of God at all. There also was Saint Joan, murdered by the Church for doing as the archangel ordered. There was Saint Francis, a madman despised and rejected by his family, walking out of Assisi naked. There was Saint Catherine of Sienna, dying of anorexia. There was John the Baptist, the longed for only son of the High Priest, going into the desert to cry out. There was Christ Himself, the carpenter’s Son Who managed to get himself lynched by a bloodthirsty empire. There was His grieving mother. There was everybody.

Or maybe they weren’t, but I hope they were.

Not just then but sometime later, I remembered that Christianity, if it’s worth anything at all, is not very much like Steubenville or any of the Catholic cultures I have known. Christianity is not about getting things right and doing things in a nice neat sequence to be the right sort of person and earn a nice neat Heaven. Christianity is more about Emmanuel, God-with-us, dwelling in you while you live your broken catastrophe of a life.

Maybe I’m not doing so badly at Christianity, then.  Because I am here.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.



"Sarah is a gifted musician. She specialized in vocal music at the Mississippi School of ..."

Let’s Talk About School
"Congratulations! Adrienne wants to be a teacher or a programmer."

Let’s Talk About School
"My 28 year old neurotypical daughter also completed thirteen years in Mississippi Public Schools. She ..."

Let’s Talk About School
"Well said! I'm glad to hear that public school is working out for your daughter."

Let’s Talk About School

Browse Our Archives