I pass by the holy water font without pausing, fifty-three years of reflex gone. I slide into a pew tucked in the back corner of the cavernous church, an arm’s reach from the flickering votive candles. An arm’s reach from the nearest exit. It was not always thus between you and I. I spent hours close to your tabernacle, golden sunlight pouring through stained glass windows creating a walled garden sanctuary of peace.
I kneel and gaze at your tabernacle this morning, the pre-dawn light full of shadows, bathing your walls in blue and gray. My eyes rest for a moment on those gathered front and center, anxiety builds in my throat to even think about being so trapped and visible. Exposed to those who would judge me for my lack of proper responses, or query me as to why I don’t sing anymore.
I close my eyes and wait for the mass to start, aware of the presence of our fellow brothers and sisters sitting on the fringe. I have a sense of community with the residents of these pews nestled in the back corner. We are the late arrivals, the early departures, the masters of the art of being invisible.
I stare at the sanctuary and wonder for the hundredth time why, why do I continue to attend church every Sunday? I bring nothing to the table. I have no gift to share. My only offering is doubt. My only gifts are my companions of despair and emptiness. My sacrifice laughable to many, how do you describe the sacrifice of vulnerability after betrayal and scorn? It is easier for me to stand in front of a thousand strangers than to stand in the company of those who knew me.
Despondency threatens to consume me as I hunch down in the corner pew, I lean into the silence of your tabernacle, begging for a scrap, a flicker of your presence. Fleet-footed memories run past my eyes, my other self who used to dust your altar and care for your linens. I remember being so conscious that it was pure gift and privilege and could be taken away in a heartbeat. But I never thought the exile would be so severe and arid. I never thought the offering and sacrifice you would ask would be my own son.
The words of consecration fall on my ears, “this is my body, which will be given up for you.” My head buried in my hands, I hear the familiar hiss, “You should not receive, look at you, full of doubt and rebellion.” And another voice overrides the hiss, “You are always to come to me and receive, never keep yourself away from me.”
Slowly, so slowly, grasping the hem of your garment there in the back pew, I have a glimmer of the real exchange that has taken place. I have given you nothing of worth. I simply offer my presence, caked with the aroma of doubt and hopelessness, and you hold nothing back, you give me all of you. Freely given, lavishly poured out, nothing held back. You do not wait until I can give all of me, or more of me, love and mercy spills from your heart and runs to the fringe, to the crushed and broken places.
Like the wisps of a dream remembered after waking, I sense that the very offering of my presence, joyless and exhausted, is an offering and sacrifice that is acceptable on your altar. In your eyes, which see the heart, you know that it is all I have, mud pies, wadded up tissues that have caught my tears, the pieces of lint that make up my life. You take them and carefully unfold the mess, your scarred hand resting on the back of my bowed head, stroking my hair. I steal a glance upwards at the tattered gifts I gave you and I see not the mud, or tissues, but flowers and jewels emitting a sweet fragrance and shining in your light.
I repent and ask your forgiveness for whom I thought you were, for how I thought you loved, for believing perfection was the only way to win your heart. I open my hands letting go the stones I have thrown at myself and others. No, it is not like it was once between you and I, but I am learning your heart anew seated at the fringe.