Other people is where God is

“I hate being here,” I snarled at Jesus.

I was in adoration, for my appointed hour. This is what I get for shouting far and wide how wonderful adoration is, how marvelous, how life-changing, how all-but-essential: I sign up for a slot . . . and so does this other guy. 

This other guy, who barges into the tiny, dim, sacred, space humming and whistling, grunting and wheezing comfortably, like he’s meeting his pals at the VA bar. He plonks his stuff down on the floor, and sometimes taps out a jazzy little rhythm on his thighs. If he spots someone he knows, he’ll gab about the weather or his sore hip. Right out loud, right in front of the monstrance! Finally, preliminaries over, he’s ready to act like he’s in a chapel, and so he drags out a rattling sheaf of prayer booklets and begins to pray . . . out loud. In a whisper, technically, but loud enough that you can hear every single word.

This is bullshit. I want to be with Jesus, to lay my turmoil and agitation at His feet, and reconnect with Him, who brings peace. I want to read my Ratzinger book, which is helping me know Christ better. I want to make the most out of this one measly hour, because I knew this is where Jesus wants me to be. But none of that is going to happen, thanks to Mr. Oblivious who won’t get out of the way. Yes, friend-o, we all pray. Yes, we’re big fans of the rosary here. But what the HELL makes you think it’s okay to monopolize the entire room with your own personal devotions? I could barely hear myself think, let alone pray.

And I have misophonia, which makes it almost physically painful to hear mouth noises, especially in a small, enclosed space. Smacking and slurping and snorting engender irrational rage and panic that I haven’t figured out how to overcome in four decades. How and why a man could smack, slurp, and snort his way through five decades of a rosary, I do not know, but I am your witness: It can be done. 

“I hate it here,” I told Jesus. “I don’t want to be here.” 

Now you think this is going to be a story where I learn to drop my spiritual pretensions and come to understand that we do not meet God only in silent, spiritually elegant moments, but that God speaks to us in the rattling, baaing, shambling herd of our fellow sheep.  It may not be edifying and it may not look well on a gilded holy card, but it’s so much more satisfyingly real. 

Heck, I thought it was going to be that kind of story, myself. I remembered hearing that St. Theresa (I forget which one) was driven batty by one of her fellow sisters rattling her rosary chains in the chapel. But she was a saint, so apparently you could use even annoying people to get closer to God. Right, Lord? That seems like something saints do. No one’s going to be the insurmountable obstacle that keeps me from getting to God, not even some kind of psychopath who doesn’t know how to behave in adoration. 

Wait, he’s done with his rosary! Maybe he’ll quiet–

Nope. “Sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld. . . sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld . . .”

I put my fingers in my ears, discreetly. Then I put my fingers in my ears indiscreetly. I even turned around twice and (I’m not proud of this. Any of this) administered a fleeting Adoration Stinkeye. I stewed. I sighed. I wrestled with true red-brain rage. And I prayed. I prayed most earnestly to God for aid, that He would help me tune these disruptions out, that I could overcome the things that were distracting me from having a good and fruitful experience with Him.

And He says to me, He says: “That man isn’t being distracting. You’re being distracting.”

Okay. 

I hope I can convey to you how different this was from what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting for God to somehow arrange it so that I could be alone with Him, even despite everyone else in the chapel. That I would not hear, or not care, or not have to deal with the distraction of other people. I was quite convinced that being alone with God was the goal we both wanted. That’s what adoration is for! Isn’t it?

But instead, I saw very clearly that this desire to be alone with the Lord — this desire to have the experience that seemed fruitful to me — this desire to get what I came for — the desire to be in control, even to bring about something objectively good — that was the distraction, and I was carrying it in front of me like a shield; a shield between me and Christ.

If that man had not been there, and if I had come in and knelt down and read quietly and prayed what I wanted to pray, I would have come and gone still carrying that shield. I just wouldn’t have known it.

I’m always carrying that shield. I don’t like other people. I want them to leave me alone so I can accomplish what I think is fruitful. I want them to be quiet. I want them to behave to accommodate me. Not only in the dim, sacred space of the adoration chapel, but everywhere, at all times. It’s not that I have some pietistic fantasy of aesthetic loveliness in my prayer life. It’s that I want it to go my way, every time. I want to be able to yell at Him, alone. I want to tell Him I love Him, alone. I want to be able to have ugly prayers, alone. But I am always disrupted from doing what I want to do because I am always distracted by other people. And I clutch that distraction firmly to my breast, because it protects me. It shields me from God, even as I complain to Him that we never get to be together. I saw the shield, almost with my actual eyes. My fingers ached from clutching it so hard.

And I looked at Christ, in the monstrance. No shield there. Just a willingness to be with all comers. 

So what did I do?  Ever gracious, I shouted “FINE!” at Jesus, and went ahead and dove headfirst into being with other people, if apparently that’s SO GREAT and WHAT GOD WANTS, apparently. I started to pray along with the prayers Mr. Annoying was praying. “You give me this man?” I said. “Fine, then he can be my FUCKING RETREAT LEADER sorry.” And I started shambling and sputtering and mumbling alone with him. What he prayed, I prayed. I leaned right in. Never mind the important things I needed to pray through. Never mind the illuminating truths that were waiting for me in the next pages of my book. Never mind. NEVER MIND, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world!

Have mercy on us.

Have mercy on us, and on the whole world. 

Have mercy. On us.

US.

Would you believe it, my rage drained away, and it did not come back. What rushed into its place, I’m not ready to name; but it felt like the presence of God. 

Because, apparently, other people is where God is. You don’t get past other people to get to God. You don’t use people to get closer to God. You can’t use people at all, if you want to be close to God. All you can do is be with people, and . . . that’s where God is. I don’t know what that means, but it sure is what happened to me today. I wanted to be in the chapel because that’s where God is; and guess who was also there? Other people. Sometimes the obvious answer is the answer. Other people is where God is. 

I’m not going to lie: I hope that man isn’t there next week. He really was terribly annoying, and I know enough not to hope I can somehow replicate this experience next time around. And I know better than to hope I’m somehow transformed from now on. But I do want to remember this: Other people is where God is. The world is full of people, and people is where God is. Have mercy on us, on us, on us, on the whole world.  

***
Image: “Harmonie” by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain]

Easter and other people

We made it to the Easter Vigil most years when I was little, often bundled in down jackets over our frilly Easter clothes.

We could just barely hear Fr. Stan‘s voice, muffled with age and with an aging sound system as he read the opening prayers. Then there was silence while we waited inside the church, twisted halfway around in our pews, wanting to follow the action outside but feeling so odd to turn our backs to the tabernacle. There would be swishing and clanking noises as the fire was prepared, and sometimes a whispered warning to the altar boys with their wide, flammable sleeves. Then more silence, and then . . .

Christ our light!” would come crackling from the twilight outside.

Then a kind of magic that made you forget your awkwardness: Here came the flame. First we could only see a few points of light in the dark, then a few dozen, then enough to make the dark stained glass flicker, and then only a few pews were left separating you and . . .

some guy with a Bic lighter. Every single damn year, one of our well-meaning brothers in Christ thought he could speed things up, make Easter a little more efficient. No sense standing around waiting for that one flame to make its way all the way ovah heah! Here ya go, yut, no problem.

It makes me laugh now, but it didn’t seem funny at the time. We wanted the real Easter flame, not the fake butane one! Here it comes, contaminating the entire church! Somebody do something!

Well. It’s surely not in the spirit of the risen Christ to get all snippy and say “No thanks” when someone offers you a little light in the darkness.

On the other hand, every other single damn day of the year is a day for substitutes, for good intentions, for not-the-point, for whatcha-gonna-do.  Surely we can get it right on Easter. Surely we have that much coming to us. What is more pure than the light of Christ? What is more simple and searing than a candle that divides itself but is not dimmed? When are we allowed to experience this loveliness except in the middle of the night in fragile, early spring, with the ground still trembling from the stone as it was rolled away?

And . . . what if there was more than one guy with a Bic out there, and we just didn’t know it?

I hope you’re not looking for a lesson here, because I don’t have one. We were way too tired to go to the vigil Mass this year. I spent most of Easter yelling at everyone I love the most, and I don’t even know why. I was sorry afterward, if that helps. I was even sorry during. Still, if I were all alone, without all these damn people, I’d get it right. I know I would. Would I rather be alone?

Christ plays in ten thousand places, better in the face of someone who just wanted to help than in someone who loves beauty and is enraged when she doesn’t get it. The idea that hell is other people made me laugh then, but it doesn’t seem funny now. To be alone, getting everything the way I want it: That is Hell.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember a single year when the Easter candle wasn’t adulterated with a helpful, dopey Bic lighter or two. Whatcha gonna do. Even though there never was even one time when we did it right, I still have it in my mind that there was something pure and holy there in that congregation, or else there wouldn’t have been anything to be spoiled.

We don’t want to miss His approach, but we don’t want to turn our backs to Him, so we plant our feet on the ground facing East, we twist at the knee, and we wait for someone else to get it right. And the Lord, too gracious to sigh at yet another night of missed-the-point, came to us without delay.

“Christ our light!” comes to us over an aging system. But it does come. Next time someone offers me a dumb little butane flame, I’ll try to accept it with thanks, in honor of the undimmable loveliness of the Lord. Because ten thousand places is so much better than none.

***

Photo: Steve Moses via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, at The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous . . .

Let me give you a little background.

One time, my mother opened the front door to let in a guest. My father darted through the house, opened a window in the back, and jumped out. This qualified as a brilliantly successful social situation, because he did not have to talk to the person he didn’t want to talk to.

One time, they brought a fruit salad to a potluck dinner, but they decided to try some new recipe that included a sort of eggy custard. They said it tasted good, but it looked a lot like someone had just thrown up in a bowl and then added a ladle. No one ate it. Rather than own up to being the ones who brought a basin of puke to the potluck, they just abandoned it and slunk away. It was a nice ladle, too.

So that was how I was raised. When in doubt, run, slink, hide, just get away! And then you can go sit in the bathroom for a while by yourself until you feel better, and then maybe have lunch.

One time, my husband and I went to a wake, and I was eight months pregnant. The widow greeted us at the door and, clasped us warmly by the hands and, in hushed tones, thanked us so much for being there with her on this difficult day. So I responded in un-hushed tones, “I just need to find a bathroom!”

Why did I say this? I do not know. For some reason, my brain reads any kind of social interaction as ULTRA EMERGENCY PANIC TIME, and responds by shooing intense spurts of electrons toward the Inappropriate Response Center, and my mouth opens, and the wrong damn thing comes out, but loud.

It’s not always a catastrophe. Sometimes, I find myself in a social situation and I manage to escape unscathed, and only have to eat a few sandwiches before I’m ready to breathe normally again. Here are a few of my recent social triumphs:

While shopping, spotted another mom from school browsing through produce section; shoved past an old lady who looked like she was planning to pay in nickels, scored that red-headed bagger who does not mess around with eye contact, and was able to scoot away and rocket out of there before other mom even noticed me.

Came face-to-face with that guy who is named either Rick or Rich, and I definitely can’t ask which it is, because I already did that a few months ago, and I can’t remember what he said. So I got right out in front of it and shouted, “HEY, how’s Wendy?” Which was a not-inappropriate thing to say. Wendy is his wife. They just got divorced, actually, come to think of it. Or possibly I just feel like they ought to get divorced. Or possibly Wendy is his dog. But she does still exist, and is absolutely affiliated with Rih in some way, so it was totally normal to ask how she was. High five, Rih.

Ordered food at restaurant and was unexpectedly asked to make choice about salad dressing. Answered in appropriate fashion without stammering, freezing up, or laughing inappropriately. Ended up with very unpleasant salad dressing, but still, the waitress didn’t back away looking nervous and come back with a burly manager for back-up.

Went to party; didn’t cry until was in car.

Went to other restaurant. Waitress said, “Enjoy your food!” Was able to prevent self from responding, “You too!” Did say, “Meh heh heh heh!” like a goat for some reason, but oh well.

Got pulled out of line and received next-level pat down from TSA agent because I was very suspiciously sweating and trembling and my eyes were darting around like someone with explosives strapped to him or herself. Was able to persuade a very skeptical Janiqua that this is just how I am when I have to stand next to people, and if anything was going to explode, it was going to be my bladder because I was too shy to ask anyone where the bathroom was. But, I did not fall down.

Call it a victory and pass the fruit salad.

***

Image: Werwin15 via Flickr (Creative Commons)