As I prayed through the nine days of Saint Mary MacKillop’s novena, I knew I was going to find my apostate ass sitting willfully in church. I could find no justification for doing so other than “It’s time”. If my path was going to go where the clues were implying it would lead, if I was going to heal further from the abuses that were forced on me, if I was going to make peace with my past and my present, there was no other way.
I was so terrified of following through, I lost the ability to shed tears over it.
When I realized I started the novena a day “early” from the viewpoint of my own timezone, I knew that this was no mere accident. I was “on time” in Australia, where the saint spent her life. The evening of the 8th was now freed of prior constraints and group demonstrations. By the eighth night of the novena, I had resolved to attend a Mass and had even found a church that was available the evening of August 8th for me to attend.
In the silence that followed the ninth night of the novena, I fully committed to attending the Mass. I did not lucidly dream that night, though I woke with the sense of having been held safely under water for the entire night. Instead, whenever my right hand was free and unused, I would feel the rosary I had prayed with for the novena wrapped snuggly around my fingers and palm. Not so tight as to restrict, but tight enough that it would not fall away if it were physically present.
I am with you.
I am never spiritually alone. I have my krew, and I have regular visitors, and I have eavesdropping spirits, and sometimes something more than a spirit will tap me on the shoulder to say hello. But whatever was emanating the meaning of those four words was nothing that usually accompanies me, and yet something I was intimately familiar and comfortable with.
As I drove to work, switching hands as needed and for comfort, I noticed a different rosary felt wrapped around my left hand. Mother Mary’s all black rosary, the physical marker of the covenant between us, felt wrapped around my palm and wrist several times.
You will be okay.
Fine. I guess. If she says so. I find myself shivering in the hot car. I tell myself that feeling the rosaries in my hands were a good omen and go on with work as if I wasn’t planning to piss off more angels later in the day by existing.
To my disappointment and relief, not a single angel inserted themselves into my field of vision, physical or otherwise, all day. As the work day ended and I began to drive to the chosen church, I thought of all the ways this could end poorly.
The church could be closed and the website abandoned with erroneous information. I wind up in the wrong part of town to be in and be assaulted for it. Someone in the church recognizes me from a former cult and calls me out. I’m pulled over and detained long enough for me to miss the service entirely.
Traffic goes smoothly, and I arrive at the church forty-five minutes early. There are only two other vehicles in the parking lot. Guitars are being carried out of them.
I’m too early to be fashionably early, so I remain in the car and review my notes for attending Mass. The words twisted themselves into incomprehensible loops and knots as my fear leached from my bones into my flesh and made my skin itch with inconsolable anguish. I gave up on trying to read and just reminded myself to stand when everyone else stood, sit when everyone else sat, and remain seated when Communion was held. My hands alternated between walking the beads of the rosary I had prayed with and twisting the lacy rose shawl I had brought to cover my head with during services.
Thirty minutes before service, the doors of the church are opened as the appointed staff begin to prepare the building for use. A few look at me with idle curiosity as I slip in and make my way to the back pews, taking a Sunday bulletin along the way. I remembered to dip a knee as I face the altar in respect and acknowledgement of whose house I am trespassing in before sliding to the far corner of the pew and sitting.
Hospitality is a universal rule.
The bilingual bulletin allows me to practice my novice understanding of Spanish. I see the usual requests and notices. Helpers are needed for the weekly cleaning of the building. Please remember the listed individuals and families in your prayers during their time of need. A short and simplified sermon for the children. A poignant and revealing sermon for the adults. Another reminder that helpers are always needed for the weekly cleaning, and is an acceptable substitute for support if the tithe is too much to bear.
I see notices that surprise me. A reminder that sharing the love of Christ is more important than sharing the label of Christian, and it is better to live in peace with your unbelieving neighbor than to be at war over idols and symbols. An exhortation to report suspected child abuse by clergy to a special telephone number and to the police. The back page of the bulletin is completely covered with advertisements for local businesses.
It is now fifteen minutes until services begin. The small church is half filled for the Tuesday service. I’m surprised to see only two others have chosen the back pews. Everyone else is as far forward as space will allow. This comforts me.
It is nice to see a real community even though I am not a part of it.
I watch the teen altar server move quickly in his white and gold trimmed vestments as he sets the items in place for service. He has a high top fade, and for some reason, this amuses me to no end. He is so nervous about his work that I want to comfort him. He’s trying his best, and doing a good job of it.
It is five minutes before the top of the hour and the official beginning of the service. The guitar players and singers have begun. There are no mixtables here. No fast fingers dancing on a keyboard. None of the upscale (and high-dollar) band paraphernalia such as what the churches and cults I had served used. One guitar had duct tape on the neck. A microphone was held in place by a binder clip. Someone was off key for a bit.
Everything was okay.
I study the twelve stained glass windows and the twelve paintings representing the stations of the cross between them. No angels twisted in the brilliances to condemn me. No pillars of fire descended to eject me.
I was okay.
Service began. Homely songs were sung. I noticed a cloth banner behind the altar had not only been hung crooked, but was pinned in an attempt to disguise the fault. The poor pinning only amplified the crookedness. It made me smile to see it. Any doubt that I was not physically here had been banished.
Perfection only happens in dreams, after all.
I was not offended that no one had greeted me. I expected it as most people that came in the church had entered through a side door and as such, turned away from me even as they entered. I did not have a lost look on my face, and the mask of contentment I was hiding behind gave them the excuse not to bother me further.
I understand Spanish if the speaker enunciates each word individually. Conversational Spanish eludes me nearly completely. As such, once the reading of the daily passage was completed, nearly all of the service that followed was understood emotionally than cognitively.
I stood when they stood. I sat when they sat. I bowed my head when the priest made prayer and/or proclamation. I was comfortable. I was okay.
Nothing was happening.
Until something did.
We were standing, and I had placed my hands on the back of the pew before me to give them something to hold as I still had the shadow of anxiety. There was a simultaneous flash of light from the two lit candles before the altar. I opened my eyes wide and gripped the pew tightly as something like a shockwave blew through me. Physically, I never moved so much as a hair.
A sudden headiness threatened to push me back into a seated position.
Before I could begin to panic, I felt something press against my back. I cognitively knew there were no people there. Only enough space for a person to pass behind without scraping a wall or the pew. The something held my shoulders and kept me upright as I quickly recovered my sense of balance and my wits.
«I am with you.»
I maintained my mask of soft contentment and with only my inner voice, inquired about what or who was with me. I felt something pull at my face, tilting my head up. I kept my head in the same position but looked up.
From one corner of the pitched ceiling to the other, front to rear, side to side, there was a shimmering that was only perceptible if I held absolutely, positively, breath-held still. The shimmering fit the space perfectly, as if the ceiling and exposed supports had been constructed to fit around it than to provide a sheltered place for humans.
Without asking to receive, I had the understanding that this was all I was going to be allowed to perceive of it, because if I were to perceive it any clearer, I would right promptly lose my shit, my composure, and possibly the contents of my bladder.
Making a scene would go against the rules of hospitality, I’m sure.
The congregation was still standing, and thus, so was I. As I continued to remain still, I listened as the priest and congregation were speaking the Call and Response portions of the service. As the words bounced between he and they, so did emanations rise and fall between the worshippers and the something above our heads.
Fear was replaced by curiosity.
The priest gave the command to be seated. I did not realize it had happened until I found my butt on the now cold pew along with everyone else. The shimmering was now gone from my sight. The candles had returned to normal. And the sense of not being alone had ceased.
I wanted to laugh. One of the reasons I was afraid of coming to service had just happened, and I was okay.
“Yup. Mark that off the list. Well done.”
I glanced to my right where [the Bow-Wielder] was seated in a very relaxed, and somewhat rude, position. Her arms were draped over the back of the pew and her hat was tilted away from her face. She looked over at me, winked, then turned to face forward again. I also faced forward, while loudly thinking all the obscenities I had forgotten during the previous apparition.
She laughed and I was thankful that she appeared to nobody but me. “Tell me, supplicant, how did it feel to pray, and to pray in faith? Did you feel that you were heard? How does it feel to be here, to be completely vulnerable and exposed to Him again? To know that you’ll never be of them…” She waved towards the assembled congregation clustered in the front pews. “But to know you’ll still be heard by Him just the same?” She pointed straight up.
I did not answer her after she finished speaking. The elder priest, silent and seated for nearly all of the service thus far, had come forward to assist the younger priest with the preparations for Communion. The congregation and the players had begun singing again, so the priests’ words and even the tone of them were drowned out. But their actions were clear.
Let those with eyes to see, see.
She sat quietly beside me as I studied the laying out of the wine and the bread. When the young priest spoke again, I was able to hear each and every word. I understood most of the Spanish he spoke, and recognized the words I did not understand were mostly likely very specific and liturgical in nature. He gave the call to partake of Communion. I remained seated and watched as nearly everyone else stood to go forward.
“We won’t be a part of that. We’ll never be a part of that. Even after you have subsumed me, we… you… have been through too much, have seen too much, and have understood too much. And that’s okay. We are as we are, and we will be as we will be. To each their faith, in the measure they can bear.”
I found myself whispering an “Amen” at her pronouncement.
She stood. I did not turn to follow her movement as I found I could see her just the same. “The promises will be kept, but you must have faith. This is not the only night your ass will be sitting here. One challenge at a time. One understanding at a time. And stop being so goddamn hostile to strangers, human, angelic, or otherwise.” She adjusted her hat and walked to the central aisle. She turned to face the altar, dipped slightly in respect, then turned to the rear of the church. As she departed, she faded from my sight, but not before I noticed a large looming shadow had joined her as she left.
The services continued without any further diversions from “reality”. I was disappointed my angelus aspect did not make an appearance to me here, but considering what did, that would have been a risky expression of madness, faith, or both.
The service ended, thirty-four minutes after it began. The doors were opened, and most of the congregation moved to exit via the door where the priests were waiting to give a last blessing to those who filed past them.
Of course, I ducked out via the door closest to me, which just happened to be the furthest from the priests, waiting until I was outside before pulling the lace shawl off of my head.
Some of the congregation were milling about outside, discussing work and quinceaneras. A few looked at me with an unspoken question on their face. I smiled awkwardly and spoke a farewell. This disarmed them, who smiled warmly back and wished me a safe journey home. “Y tú también.” [And you as well.] Mutually sincere waving sealed our mutual blessing.
“Ahí ‘tá ella.” [There she is.]
Somehow I knew I was the object of the words I just heard. I snapped my head to the right, towards the church, as if I had just been called by name. Of the five people looking square at me, the only one I made eye contact with was the younger priest.
For the first time all evening, I was afraid the way prey is afraid. I attributed the cold flash of budding panic from the emotional roller coaster I had been on for the previous nine days, and the fact I had just confronted one of my deepest and most crippling of fears. Of course I’m going to have a psychological reaction to a human representation of the belief systems that was once just to justify the breaking of my body and spirit.
I did not break eye contact right away. I smiled a bit, and nodded a bit, then let my sight fall away from his seemingly unblinking stare before turning to face forward again. I said nothing to no one until I was seated back in my car again where I took my phone off of Airplane mode and plugged back into the matrix of social media in a desperate effort to feel normal again.
My original plan was to only attend Mass this one night in honor of Saint Mary MacKillop of the Cross. But
that bitch [Bow-Wielder] has a point. I have homework now. I need to get a transcription of the entire service in Spanish so I could follow along better. I have faced the sting of my fear, and walked away. If my life is going to go the way all the pointers say it will, I need to slay this dragon of a fear that has seized me for so long.
And the only way to do that, is to expose it to light.