Progress, not Perfection

Somebody’s baggage left outside the door of St. Andre Bessette Catholic Church in Old Town, Portland.

Good Friday. This was the day in 2010 when I realized that I desperately wanted to have what all those people who bent and kissed the cross have.

I come up out of sleep with a carousel of moments from last year playing behind my closed eyes. Image: priest on the concrete floor in red — reaching towards the horrible painting of Christ with His bloody thorns. Image: Valerie looking like a choir boy — kneeling on the step to the altar. Image: People bending to kiss the large crucifix, cradling Jesus’ head, touching His feet, putting their lips on the cross where He is nailed….. I come wide awake, heart pounding. I am going to do this very thing today. I have serious doubts that I can. I jump out of bed and make it before I can get back in.

Shakily, I get dressed and head over to church. I took a vacation day and I am going to volunteer at hospitality before vigil. I have not been in so long and I am looking forward to seeing everyone. We sit around the table while Andy makes assignments. I never volunteer for anything. I wait to see where Andy will put me because I believe he knows — somehow, the place I should end up. He assigns me to the clothing closet. My heart starts racing again. As we are waiting for the others to join us to take the elevator down into the bowels of the place, Perry tells me “usually I don’t like a woman to be in there alone with two men, but you have the experience and attitude to handle it — I will be right outside if you need me.” I think he is nuts. I kind of actually don’t like — ok even hate being in the clothing closet. It is tight and I cannot be removed from someone who is so physically close. I almost want to tell him I’d rather just wash dishes in the kitchen, but I don’t — mostly because I don’t want him to think I am a wimp, and also because I’ve learned that I can’t say “no” to a reasonable request.

So we all go down the elevator with Perry and follow him into the low-ceiling room.

Today, it smells really bad in this tiny closet full of man clothing. Thick, rich, ripe….. not quite putrid. I can’t tell if it is the laundry cart full of the cast off clothing the men are trading in, or the men themselves. Probably both. My eyes are burning. I keep dipping my nose and mouth down into my neck scarf so I can breathe in the comforting scent of my perfume – a small protection from the alcohol faces, rotten teeth, missing fingers, scabby inflamed skin, bloody toes and oily matted hair that are bombarding my senses.

In two hours I helped eight men find clean pants and exchange their shoes and coats in that tiny room. I was grateful when Perry came and told me “last one”.

On my way into the sanctuary, I run in to the priest — in red like last year — all I have to do is see his face and my eyes fill with tears. I don’t think I can breathe. My hands flap as I blurt out “I just spent two hours in the clothing closet” An idea occurs to him. He touches my elbow. “I wonder if you will do something, JB.” I feel my eyes narrowing, suspiciously. “I wonder, JB, if when it is time to reverence the cross, if you will get up and join the other women in walking the cross from the back of the sanctuary up to the front.” My eyes widen — what is he asking me to do? “We will lift it three times”, he goes on. “…and you and the two other women will lift your hands up to the cross in a gesture of love, and then you will reverence the cross before everyone else comes up.” I am aware that I am staring at him like he is a lunatic from another planet. “this will be the perfect thing for you to do with this energy” he touches my shoulder lightly, “it’ll be fine.”

He always says that.

His eyes are open wide and he is nodding encouragingly like he wants me to agree. I doubtfully say OK, and he turns and heads to the sacristy, his red chasuble floating behind him.

I am absolutely horrified. I have been obsessing about this moment since I signed up for RCIA in September. Last year was the first time I had ever seen people venerating a cross. Sitting in that pew watching person after person embrace Jesus, lovingly kiss him, touch their hands to their lips and touch his feet. I couldn’t get out of my seat, get in line, and kiss Jesus Christ on the Cross. No way. I sat there and gawked at every single person who willingly and with confidence reverenced the sign of salvation. Somewhere in the middle of all of that I started weeping, realizing I was more broken — less complete than anyone who went up there because I was unable to let God love me. The last person who came was palsied, in a wheel chair, urine bag creeping out from under her lap robe, barely able to purse her lips. But she strained forward to get closer as the boys who were holding that cross dropped to their knees to lift it up to her. Every ounce of her energy went into kissing that thing while I sat frozen — not able to even think words of anger or deep shame over how I had lived my life — just paralyzed.

I feel like I have been weeping for three years. Actually, I’ve been crying since that day when I took my last drink. I stopped at the D Sands beach on the way back to Portland from Lincoln City to have what felt like a last look at the surf before my life ended forever — doomed to rooms filled with folding chairs, bad coffee and slogans like “easy does it”. It was a beautiful day. A woman standing next to me on that beach wished me happy Easter. “Fuck Easter!” I spat at her. She looked shocked and sad. I feel bad about that today. And, now I know, if I kiss that cross, I am going to really admit that I have to die to myself and let Jesus take on all the stuff I’ve been desperately hanging on to — even in three years of working the program.

David is kneeling and muttering prayers. He moves over slightly so I can join him on the kneeler. My legs are trembling and I have to hold the back of the pew to lower myself down. I look at my hands and see little red half moon scars on my palms. Even in the dark, I can see what my claws have done this time. I can smell the clothing closet on me. We stand and kneel and pray and stand and kneel and pray and then it is time to get up and stand with the priest and the women in the back. I am absolutely certain that I am going to burst into tears, vomit, and pee in my pants. Somehow I manage to get one foot in front of the other and get to the back. Peggy is hunched over, her mantilla hiding her face and the thin black woman who always wears what looks like an Easter hat are standing next to me. My face is burning hot — I don’t look at anyone. “Keep your eyes on the cross” I think.

The women lift the cross and the priest says something and it sounds like it is coming from forever ago. I am hot. What I can hear is my heart beating in my chest. I am looking intently at Christ’s bent head and the nails in his hands and feet caught in the light. It’s the only thing I can see — everything else has gone fuzzy at the edges. I wonder if I am going to faint so I shift my focus on to the priest’s frayed sleeve. It’s a little dirty. I watch Peggy bow and then the lady with the hat and I hold my breath like I am going underwater. This cross is not the sterile metal symbol I remember from my childhood. There is a twisted corpse nailed to it that is impossible to ignore. So, it is my turn, and I bend, touching my lips lightly to the wood just under Christ’s feet. A line from the third step prayer comes to me, “relieve me of the bondage of self”. l am suddenly so tired I just want to lie down right there on the concrete floor but I walk back to my seat and sit with my head in my hands while everyone else takes their turn.

On the way out, we depart in silence. A man I offered clothing to in the closet earlier, wearing the yellow shirt he was so happy to find there, puts his hand in the holy water font the same time I do. He smiles at me and blesses himself.