The Chapel

This week's SB is a little different, a lot more immediate, and a whole lot riskier than what I normally do. I've written it out because the chances are good that someone, somewhere, in your faith community probably goes through a roughly similar experience at worship services. I thought about fictionalizing the piece, but that wouldn't work and would be dishonest. I hope it's okay!

In Christ,

It's a big room, airy and light, painted in shades of soft yellow and creamy white, with softly coloured stained-glass windows. At the center, there is a circle of grey upholstered chairs surrounding a square plain-wood altar, covered with a simple linen cloth. I've come to Eucharist in this chapel several times now, and I love it here: I love the peace, the satisfying way in which silence gets woven through the liturgy, the part-singing rising naturally from the circle of congregants. I find the services here calm, orderly, rational, and intellectually challenging--most satisfying. It's a friendly community, too; I've been made to feel most welcome.

But today is a little different. Today I am symptomatic. For the last couple of weeks, God knows why, I've had simmering post-traumatic stress disorder. My PTSD tends to gnarl at me in Lent, perhaps because of the seasonal change--I'm not sure.

We settle down for the sermon. The preaching here is, as always, excellent. The head of the community is giving a sermon on today's Gospel, the story of Lazarus and the rich man. He talks about chasms, and how frightening they are, and about how Jesus, through his death, bridges the chasm between life and death, uniting us. It's an elegant sermon and my head hears and appreciates it. But today I am mostly dwelling not in the clear air of the mind, but down in the hot, stinking "foul rag and bone shop of the heart".

Suddenly, as he preaches, a chasm gapes between me and the good, calm, intelligent people in the circle. For they are well, and I am not; and they may not know it, but I do.

Could they descend the ladder, bringing me a little water, a little comfort? I don't know. The Gospel says that the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is unbridgeable, but that's because they're both dead. During their lives, all the rich man had to do was to take a loaf of bread, a cup of water, out to Lazarus-- or just send a servant. All it would have taken was a word. The chasm between me and these others isn't unbridgeable. But unless they are on the watch for me, or others like me, I'd have to make the first move. And that's too frightening.

I do know that those who are best at ministering to the suffering are those who have tasted suffering themselves. They tend to be on the lookout for the signals, and they find ways around the chasms; they know the terrain, how to climb from one ledge to another, carrying cool water. The rich man may not have been a bad person; he just didn't know what it felt like to starve and thirst. Of course he should have noticed Lazarus and looked after him, but don't we all have our lapses?

Standing for prayer, I look around the circle. Some--most--of the people here must have done suffering at least a little, because it's so universal. Could we ever connect at that level? I just don't know. Maybe the soul of this place doesn't allow for that sort of connection. But there's also an element of will, a matter of choice. Suffering is messy, after all: it's sloppy, embarrassing, unsettling. One's afraid of saying the wrong thing, or of being sucked into the other's emotional compost heap. Maybe, for some of the people here, this place is a refuge from having to deal with others' suffering--a chance for a breather. I can respect that. And just maybe, for others, this place is a refuge from having to deal with suffering at all. We have, after all, been called God's Frozen Chosen. Sometimes we purchase peace, but at what cost to others?

Without knowing what's going on here, I can't judge whether this is a safe place to be not-okay. It's not a risk I'm prepared to take. I can hardly put my hand up and say, "'Scuse me, does anybody mind if I've got active PTSD today? Yes? No?" They'd be hideously embarrassed (rightly!) and I would have made a fool of myself. It's a great way of asking to be hurt. Been there, done that, know something about risk-taking... If these people are indeed God's Frozen Chosen, I don't want to find out the hard way.

But here I go, damn, damn, DAMN.... During the offertory hymn, my singing voice dries up, as it always does when my eyes and nose start running. Thank God, I've got a handkerchief. I wish this wouldn't happen. Dammit, I should have known better than to have come to this Eucharist. Whenever I'm symptomatic and I'm in church, it's the same old show: my PTSD wants to get out and go snuggle up close to God. It's like having an unruly toddler in the pew who wants to go running up to where the action is, at the altar.

The woman standing next to me, who is a friend, gently pats my shoulder; she knows something's wrong. That's okay, but I am doing my best not to let anyone else know. I want to be discreet about this, not to be unseemly in all this seemliness. For a while, it's a struggle to stay in the circle. I want to break free and flee to a place where I can honk my nose loudly, without having to worry about upsetting anyone, and where I can let the disobedient toddler out for a run. But I stand my ground and hang on through the prayer of consecration, which takes several years. The kid may wiggle ferociously, but I am a strong broad, and highly disciplined. So there.

What must have been hard for Lazarus was exposing his sores to the stares of others, who averted their eyes in horror: "Yuck! Unclean!" Or maybe he was too far gone to care. I hope so. I hope the dogs lay down beside him and helped to keep him warm, too.

We've gotten a lot more civilized about physical ill-health; mostly we know better than to say "Yuck! Unclean!", or at least not within the patient's hearing. But when the illness is in your neural system, as mine is-- a complex matter of misfiring neurotransmitters and adrenal hormones that send suffering-type emotions into hyperdrive --there's always that possibility: "Excuse me, but would you kindly take your personal problems out back? We're trying to worship here." Yuck. Unclean.

I don't try to wipe my wet face, and I keep my nose-blowing minimal and quiet. I don't want to disturb anyone. I'm shaking slightly from the effort to stay in control, but if I hold my prayer book carefully, it shouldn't be obvious. From the peaceful, inward-looking expressions on the faces across the circle from me, it looks like nobody's noticed. Good. It's working.

By the time I go for Communion, the fit has passed and I can pass for normal again. I can sing the last hymn, one I love, and the deep buzz of singing in my chest helps to calm me. After the service, I flee to the ladies' loo. My face is okay. I don't think anyone but my friend noticed, and she won't talk. Thanks be to God.

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Fri, 01 Mar 2002
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