“Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?” The question pulled my attention to the attendant placing themselves in my field of view. I should be concerned that the attendant wore a white featureless mask over their face. I should be more concerned when I realized that wasn’t a mask at all, but that their bone ceramic face had no features. I would have been at least, if I was awake.
Instead, I was thankful for their intrusion as I gained lucidity. I don’t know where my thoughts were headed before they discreetly touched my hand, but now my thoughts were reunited with my awareness and I felt safe and comfortable.
“Ah, no, thank you.” Their hooded robe gleamed brilliantly in crimson red as I took their hand. The more attention I gave the attendant, the more the attendant stood out from the shadows. I clasped their hand in gratitude for the assistance even though I knew the attendant had not done anything special or unique from their duties. “But you can catch me up to what’s happening now. I think I missed an instruction.”
The texture of their hand was neither flesh nor glove, neither leather, cloth, nor plastic. No wrinkles folded the bone ceramic hue of the surface as they accepted my grip with their own. They softly pulled at me as a nonverbal cue to step away from the line of people I would soon be interrupting as said people approached. The people were not looking where they walked, but were slightly turned and watching a conveyor belt running recessed in the wall. I accepted the cue and followed the attendant’s lead to step to the other side of the hall.
“You are in the hall leading from the showroom of the rosary factory to the back rooms where meetings and other business is conducted. The first room that will be available is the conference room, which has been converted to a cafeteria for today’s purpose.” The attendant’s voice was soft and gentle, as if a comforting hug could be transmitted by sound alone. They spoke only loud enough for me to hear, though they did have to speak louder than they normally would have as the line of people walked noisily down the hall in front of me.
“Before your peers arrived in the hall, the conveyor belt was not present. Instead there were a series of niches that showcased various component parts of different styles of rosaries. You had stopped before one of the niches and were reflecting on the component. Unfortunately, your meditation had to be interrupted lest the other attendees cause harm to you by walking into you while you were in that state.”
I was still holding the attendant’s hand as the attendees continued to talk loudly to each other as they watched the moving conveyor belt expectantly. I was a little annoyed by them now that the attendant had explained why I was interrupted, followed by being a little surprised to see small plates of food moving on the conveyor belt towards the repurposed conference room.
The attendees were excited to see the plates. Some moved to quickly grab certain plates before someone else could. Some replaced their excitement with disappointment and declared the offerings unsuitable for them due to whatever imperfection they imagined to see. Regardless, all moved towards the conference room quickly.
“Attendant.” The featureless face moved to to the edges of my peripheral vision. “I see food, but what is it, really?”
“You are not physically here. Neither are your fellow attendees. Just as viewing the components of the rosary gave you a means of the elevation of your mind, so does what you perceive as food give you a means of the feeding of one’s soul.”
“So… it’s not so much what is on the plate, but how the partaker receives it, then? And that means that the food I’m seeing on the plate is not the same as what they are seeing on the plate. So the person turning up his nose at what they think is flavorless gruel may be a serving of someone else’s mother’s apple pie to that someone else?”
The attendant patted my hand. “Yes. You understand how dreams work.”
“Then that also means that each person is seeing the offerings on the plates from their soul’s perspective, which includes what they believe, their virtues, and their vices. The person judging the food choices of others is actually judging their own prejudices, both kind and unkind.”
The attendant did not answer as I turned my attention to the plates. “Attendant, is the food that I perceive what I want, or what I need?”
The attendant’s face remained at the edge of my peripheral vision. “The food that you perceive is what you are willing to partake. Some of it represents what you believe you need. Some of it is what you truly need. Some of it is both. It is up to you to discern which would be the better to partake of, and when.”
My perception of the food changed as I allowed myself to explore the meaning of the attendant’s words. “There is a time for steak, for potatoes, for cake, and for abstinence.”
The attendant patted my hand again. “Yes. You understand. And now that you do, you do not require this.” I realized that the hall had emptied and only the attendant and I occupied it. After the attendant spoke, the conveyor belt lowered into the wall and the lengthwise niche closed. A collection of windows opened in the wall, revealing various component pieces of different rosaries again. “Please, join your peers in the conference room.” They withdrew their hand from mine.
I quickly turned towards them but they were gone and I was standing alone in the hall. Behind me, where the others had came from, the hall was darkened and uninviting. Before me, where the others had gone to, the hall was bright and open. I nodded and followed the dream’s lead.
In the repurposed conference room, large dining tables had been placed with armless, high-backed chairs arranged comfortably around them. Everyone had room to sit, room to move, room to be expressive as they talked, room to be in solitude if they wanted, room to be.
Despite this, there were still miffed voices as someone deliberately or accidentally encroached onto someone else either by physical movement or verbal declarations. “Why are you eating that! Try this!” “I’m sorry, but what I have now is very fulfilling and I am comfortable with it.” “No! That looks disgusting! I should take it away! Attendant! Replace this gravel with something actually edible!” “No, it’s okay, really.”
I recognized no one in the room, which both surprised and disheartened me. As the last person to enter, I found myself looking for a place to sit and seeing the same situations as in my waking life. The only space available was between cliques and enclaves, in the empty areas that served as borders between more respectable establishments.
No one looked up at me or even acknowledged me.
“Attendant.” I kept the tears from my face but betrayed them with my voice. Their bone ceramic face appeared to my side again. “Is the chapel open?”
“Of course.” Their face dipped as confirmation.
“I have no need or desire to eat or sit here. I don’t think I could sit peaceably through that kind of judgement right now. May I wait in the chapel for the next portion of the tour?”
“But, of course.” Their bone ceramic hand swept towards a door I had not seen when entering the conference room even though the door was directly across the room from my entrance. The door opened as my attention rose to it. The attendant faded from view as I walked past the other attendees and tables to enter the chapel in silence and solitude.
When I entered the chapel, it was through a single door. The large and heavy double doors closed softly behind me once I had taken my third step in the chapel. The small interior space held six pairs of large carved wooden pews that were only long enough to seat six people comfortably or ten people if pressed. As I passed the pews with the idea of sitting up front (for once), I noted that each pew lacked any joints or unions as if each one had been carved from one massive block of wood.
Three steps separated the common area from the sanctuary. I was surprised to see the sanctuary empty of altar, chairs, candles, or even a lectern. Only a large and roughly made wood cross hung on the back wall of the sanctuary. I noted that the cross did not have the figure of Christ on it, but was just a plain unadorned cross. I dipped a knee in respect anyway before taking a seat in the middle of the front right pew.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax into the gentle silence of the chapel. For all the churches I have stepped into this past year, and all the words my mouth has spoken, and all the visions that continue to declare that I am loved, I am still uncomfortable here.
But I am more comfortable here than being in the conference room being judged for other people’s assumptions.
The sound of something like cloth and beads being manipulated called my attention. I opened my eyes and looked to my left to find that I was not alone on the pew.
The person had a recognizable face and unbound hair. Their agile and scarred hands worked quickly to twist cord and beads into a rosary as I watched. They were leaning forward, resting their forearms on their thighs. They showed no sign of being discomfited by my presence and sat just close enough that their body heat warmed my left side but not so close as to risk actually touching.
I watch the locks of their red hair bounce as they move. A subtle twist in the hand sends a grip of hair over their shoulder. It is as if their hair is refusing to acknowledge any attempt by gravity to bring realism to the dream. I am so amused, I forget to be ashamed of where I am daring to sit.
They finish one rosary under my watch and set it to their left side. They reach into an open bag slumped at their feet and pick up another bundle of cords and beads. Without a word, they begin to spin and twist another rosary into being.
I finally feel self-conscious at being there. (Self-conscious at daring to exist) “Excuse me. If I’m in the way…”
“You’re not.” Their voice is like the attendant’s, genderless and genderful. However their voice is full and rich in a way that the attendant’s was not. As if by word alone, they would fill the chapel to bursting. And yet, their answer wrapped around me and tried to hold me to the seat the same way a hug from a friend would hold me in comfort.
The sentiment found no purchase as my self-loathing was closer than comfort could ever be.
“I don’t want to be in the way. The attendant didn’t tell me there would be services soon. I don’t want to bother you or get in the way of your work.” I wanted to run out in embarrassment but was afraid that would allow the building well of tears to overflow. “I’m just a tourist, after all, and I don’t want to impede or interfere with your duties. God knows I take up so much space as it is… If this is something special that requires holy space, then I should go because…”
I couldn’t finish speaking the sentence, but my thought completed itself anyway. «because there is nothing holy about me and I don’t want to corrupt your work with my presence.»
Before I could gather my breath or myself, they responded. “You are where you should be. I am where I should be. What I am working on does not require a presence, but it does require faith. What I am working on can be seen. What you are working on cannot. However, both what you are working on and what I am working on requires faith, and this place is where matters of faith are worked on and worked out.”
Their words held me to the pew but could not hold back the tears that drew glyphs of sorrow on my face. “But…” I had to gulp a breath to smother my soul’s pain that threatened to close my throat. “But, I don’t belong here. In regards to faith, because, I’m apostate. I separated myself from the church. At best, I am a tourist. At worst, an intruder.”
Their hands stop and in the silence of movement I thought I felt condemnation. Their head turned slightly towards me, just enough so I could understand the depths of severity from which they were about to speak.
“No. You separated yourself from a body of men whose arbitrary rules made it difficult for you to live with yourself. You can separate yourself from those who would hurt you. You can’t separate yourself from Love.”
I was still held captive to the bench. I didn’t notice I was wringing my hands in my lap until I drew blood with my fingernails. I told myself that I have heard this argument before, that this was some variant of the “Once Saved, Always Saved” justification I have heard for continuing abuses where my former church bodies have left off. I had no strength in me to play with words at the moment. I was too busy holding back fear.
“Then I’ll say it plain. I’m not Christian. And I doubt I ever was. But it is clear I will never be.”
My heart beat itself in preparation for some strike of judgement that was sure to follow. Instead, they turned their face back towards their work as their hands resumed the smooth flurry of twisting and forming a finished rosary from the chaos of cord in the bag. I had forgotten I was dreaming long ago and took a deep breath as I released my body’s bracing for violence.
When they spoke, I chilled in fright. “As you define Christianity, yes. You speak true. But you will always be Loved, and that mark is indelible.” They glanced at me without revealing their face. “Regardless what labels are forced on you or what labels you hold on to.”
As they complete another rosary, I feel a sudden lightness over me. I am free to leave the chapel if I desire. I want to run out, but I also realize I don’t know where I would run to. Right here, right now, I am safe, even if I don’t feel safe. I have comfort even though I don’t feel comforted. I remember that I am dreaming, but like the waking world, my perception and my reality are not in sync. I slump back against the pew and let gravity draw new tear-streaked glyphs on my face and neck.
“What the fuck even am I?” I did not realize I had spoken out loud until I was answered.
I leaned forward, put my head in my hands, and wept.
It is some time before I realize I don’t hear the sound of them working. I lower my hands and accept that when I open my eyes, I will be alone again. The thought of solitude, usually a welcome respite, feels particularly damning in all the connotations of the word.
I open my eyes to find they are holding out a completed rosary in front of me.
“Here. I know you have this already in the waking world, but you should carry it here as well. You need a tactile reminder, both here and there.”
As I take the rosary, it solidified into a very particular rosary. One that I do physically have. It was not made by my hands, but it was made and ordered for a particular purpose. As I examine it and find it true to the physical rosary, even to the imperfections that come with being a hand-made thing, I realize who has been sitting next to me in the chapel.
Their hair continues to defy gravity and move about their head as ambient licks of flame. I smile to see it despite myself and realize that was their intent the entire time. They smile and nod at the realization.
“Listen, I know you’re having a bad time right now. That you’re having many bad times right now, all layered and interwoven all at once. But [there are things that you are going to be called to do], and it will make some of the bad times worse. You won’t be called to preach to nations or to call out people or to do anything that will place you in the news, local, national, or international. But it is going to hurt. You need to find your footing. You need to remember who you are and what you are. But if you continue trying to use other people’s pens to outline yourself, you aren’t going to find yourself.”
I was reminded of the plates of food in the hallway, and the public reactions of people in the conference room to private perceptions.
“No, you are not Christian as you have had the word defined to you. And no, you will never belong to any body of Christian believers again. But heaven and earth will pass away before Love abandons you. You were not created for destruction, despite one of your names being [Rebellion].”
They stood. As they turned to face me, their appearance changed to [the person I normally see them as]. They held out their hand. I took it. Effortlessly, they helped me to my feet. They took my arm and slowly walked me to the double doors in the rear of the chapel.
“There will be some people who can help you. There will be some people who will take advantage of your ignorance to hurt you. You are… how did you say it? ‘A Mystery Cult of One.’ Lean into that. Though it would be the height of my happiness for you to devote yourself once again solely to that which is behind us, the cost you will pay for doing so would be damning. Then be what you are, be all the things that you are, and know that there is help here but you must ask for it.”
“You must have faith.”
We reached the heavy doors and without touching them, I knew that they had become too heavy for me to push. As they touched a door with a finger and began to open it, I realized where I had seen these doors before. As I did so, a great light ignited itself behind us in the sanctuary, so bright that I was almost blinded by the reflection off the doors.
I closed my eyes and tried to hold back my tears again. It took several deep breaths before I was able to respond.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
They opened the door fully and I stepped through, ending the dream.