On my 8th birthday, I put all the pieces together and figured out that my father was an alcoholic. He was more than an alcoholic. He was a falling-down drunk. But I was 8, and such distinctions were beyond me.
This will surprise some, but my salvation at the time was that I was a Catholic school kid. To this day, no one in my family admits to knowing what was going on. The religious sisters sensed something, but never asked for specifics from their obviously distraught student. His drinking was a secret that must be kept at all cost – and the cost to me was enormous. But there was daily Mass. There was something about the music – both pre- and post Vatican II. The candles. The incense. The regularity of the liturgy and the liturgical seasons. These were constants in a life of chaos. For that hour, I was safe and succored.
When I entered a doctoral program in an ecumenical seminary – one of two Roman Catholic women students – the head of the seminary was the retired head of the World Council of Churches. He led us through our first week, and was a big fan of meditation from a psychological perspective, as well as brain function. The benefits of moving from an alpha state to a beta state. Try as I might, the beta state was elusive to me most of the time. A few moments, here and there. Rarely.
I was working in parishes as a pastoral minister during and after those studies. I used to bring in a priest from India, to do adult education sessions on meditation. He was well-known in the Detroit Archdiocese, and good at what he did with the topic. For everyone but me. Meditation was just not going to happen. No beta state. No letting go of the brain chatter.
Years later. Once. While as campus minister at Catholic high school. In total despair and desperation during the senior retreat, I took the pyx (small container for a consecrated host) and knelt during one of the most frustrating sessions. Four hours later, the leader of the session tapped me on the shoulder and brought me back to an alpha state. I have no idea where my mind had been, but it certainly wasn’t in a room full of bitchy teenage girls, taking our their cattyness on each other.
This comes up now, because of recent Me Too revelations. I did not experience sexual harassment in the workplace of the church. The one kiss was from a pastor/boss. On the cheek. In public. My response was “I don’t know whether to never wash my cheek, or get a tetanus shot”. Also in public. Those gathered laughed. The priest was confused.
But the lack of support…the lack of credit…wore on me. The statements. “…so-and-so thinks you’re too severe”…”I won’t fire you, but you will quit”…”Hey girlie, come here”…”A baby threw up in the entrance – clean it up”…”We don’t need to pay her; her husband is a dentist”.
And then there was cancer.
All my priest friends deserted me. All my ultra-religious friends deserted me.
And I’m pretty sure God – if there is a god – also deserted me.
But the music, the “smells and bells” – as my Protestant fellow-students teased about – can still reach a place that nothing else can. My favorite liturgy of the year is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). and once a year I still miss it. When life is too much, I still run back to that music – easily obtainable online – for comfort.
Like that 8-year-old kid, who found comfort from chaos in the liturgy.