Ash Wednesday, after the Nightmare

Ash Wednesday, after the Nightmare February 15, 2024


It was Ash Wednesday, but I couldn’t stand to go to Mass, not yet.

I wanted to go somewhere and pray, even if just for a few minutes.

The car’s still not in good shape, so I didn’t go further than two miles.

There is a chapel where the Eucharist is reposed, in the old Trinity East Medical Center on the south side of town. There wasn’t going to be a Mass there. It’s never crowded. I could go and pray without running into anyone except Jesus. I didn’t really think about the fact that I used to live right in that hospital building until after I parked Serendipity.

More than seventeen years ago, there was a nursing school attached to the back of that hospital, with dormitories on the upper floors. Franciscan University had made a deal with the school to stick their graduate and non-traditional students there instead of in their own dorms on campus. I was one of the last Franciscan University students to live in that dorm. It felt like an adventure. I was getting out of my house, away from dull Columbus where nothing ever happened, going into the world to serve the Lord. Two years at Franciscan University, studying philosophy and Catholic bioethics at the graduate level, and then I’d be out of this strange little town and preaching the Gospel somewhere else. That was nearly two decades ago.

“I just hope this school can do something for you, because we give up,” said my mother, as she dropped me off right at this building.

It has certainly changed me.

This hospital is for outpatient care and long-term care. There’s no emergency room. It doesn’t have that sharp smell of antiseptic that sometimes makes me flash back to my emergency surgeries or Adrienne’s catastrophe childbirth; it just smells like a building.

The chapel is in a different room than way back then. It used to be in the basement. I was glad that they don’t still have that teal and aqua statue of the Virgin Mary. I knelt in front of that statue crying in early 2007, begging her to be my mother and not hate me.  Later, some well-meaning students wouldn’t let me leave the chapel during a severe meltdown that they thought was a spiritual attack. They kept me there until I recited the prayers of the Louis DeMontfort Consecration, asking the Virgin Mary to make me suffer joyfully without human consolation. I never want to see that statue again.

I think the tabernacle is the same one.

Someone had placed a tacky dollar store cutout that said “BELIEVE” in front of the Presence, and nobody had put away the Advent wreath. It was easy to imagine that nobody had been in the chapel since before Christmas. But there were prayer cards for Ash Wednesday in the pews, and the Sanctuary Lamp was flickering.

There was so much I wanted to say, but for awhile, all I could do was stare at the word “BELIEVE.” I have nearly always believed. That’s just the trouble. I have believed and wanted Jesus so badly. Even after this terrible few years of shock and deconstruction, I know that what drew me here was real. Jesus is real. But His Church is hell on earth.

I tried so hard to fit in with a community here, any community at all. But of course, I couldn’t. Something always went wrong. I went to Mass once or twice a day and confession once a week. I went to Father Scanlan to get the demons prayed out of me, over and over again. Nobody knew about high-masking autism in those days, and I couldn’t have gotten a PCOS diagnosis either– otherwise, somebody might have told me that the severe bouts of anxiety were hormonal and not preturnatural, and that the crying in crowded prayer services was sensory overload and not demons. And then my physical health fell apart, and then the agonizing nerve pain that was blamed on fibromyalgia. Then the wedding at the traditional church downtown, and after the wedding the marriage. The baby. The rape. The PTSD. Nobody understanding the baby’s autism, everyone assuming she couldn’t sit still or keep quiet because I was a bad mother. Trying to be part of this and that Catholic clique, this and that parish, this and that cenacle. Always failing because that’s how it is in  Steubenville. You’re either a certain kind of middle class pietistic Pollyanna or you’re not welcome. Sometimes we just drifted out of groups. Sometimes we were bullied and shunned. It all got so much worse after Trump’s election, when I waited for pro-life Catholics to grow a spine and instead they all fell into lock step.

And then the truth began to trickle out, and I learned that the religious movement in which I’d desperately tried to follow Jesus was a cult, one of a network of Catholic cults with a myriad of victims.

It’s been a couple of years since I could go to Mass regularly without a panic attack. I don’t know if I can ever go to confession again. I would like to. I would like to love the sacraments again.

I gave up on being a Catholic homeschooler and put Adrienne in a public school, where she’s happier than she’s ever been. I said she still has to go to church with her father until she’s eighteen, but I don’t insist on anything else. I don’t know how to talk to her about God just now anyway.

I’ve grown to enjoy living here, now that I’m not trying to have a place in a religious movement that never should have existed– not the Catholic Church, but the Covenant cults and the culture that grew out of them.

It feels like a spell has been broken. The evil sorcerer died, the magic dissipated, the glamor dropped away, and I see clearly.

How odd that I still see Jesus standing there in front of me, even with all of this.

How agonizingly painful it is to be standing here, with both my most traumatic fears and my happy dreams completely destroyed. But still, the triumph: they didn’t take Jesus away.

How strange to meet Him in the real world, instead of the terrible false one I lived in eighteen years ago.

I would like to get to know Him in this world.

I might even be able to love Him in this world.

I might even see Him in the next.



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.


"This brought a smile to my face on a rainy morning and I've had similar ..."

A Shovel, A Skeleton, and Stewed ..."

Browse Our Archives