Betty Duffy

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Every Knee Shall Bend

In Chicago we did a lot of walking, a lot of eating and browsing, and a lot of Churching. Saturday night during the Festival of Lights when thousands of people roamed the closed-off streets and shops, trying to catch sight of a Mickey Mouse Float on parade, my husband and I dodged into Holy Name Cathedral for Confession—to see holiness more clearly, in one another, in all of these people around us.

The stores and all the walking can gradually suck a little something out of your soul, if not from perpetual wanting, then from pure exhaustion, and I’ve realized lately, on several different occasions, that there really is no other place on earth to live one’s life but in the Church.* It’s always a homecoming, stepping inside, all candle smoke and quiet, and of course the Presence that puts all the wanting back in its place.

The last time I was in Chicago several years ago, Holy Name had recently had a fire, and we couldn’t go into the Sanctuary. It has been restored beautifully. The woodwork on the ceiling took my breath away. By the time my husband and I got there for Confession, Mass had just ended, but I thought I would like to come back in the morning to attend Mass, even though we had to hit the road early to meet up with our kids and my parents for Mass in Indianapolis.

When the wake-up call rang through the fog of a deep sleep, I thought for a minute that I might just brush off going back to Holy Name, because sleeping was so nice, and the bed was so comfortable. But as soon as I rolled over again, I was awake and debating with myself about lost opportunities, among them, the pleasure of being one the first souls on the street in the morning after a revelry. It was the street, more than anything that I wanted to see—Michigan Avenue with the shops closed and the sidewalks empty, and all the remnants of yesterday’s festivities discarded on the pavement, glow sticks and chewing gum.

It was the Feast of Christ the King, and the empty street in all its faded glory was just what I needed to see. I was glad to be awake for it. I’ve always considered myself a night owl—late to bed, late to rise—but I’ve developed a recent fondness for these dark autumn mornings, particularly slipping into a Church where a domed ceiling encapsulates the warm light like a secret. All of these people have crawled out of their beds so recently, to sing in the morning, not with the boisterous pipes of a noon Mass, but with the whisper quiet song of a mother waking a sleeping child.

A nun with a soothing voice did the first and second readings. The priest, as well, was all gentleness and precise elocution. So it came as an irritation, I’m sorry to say, when I heard a voice during the Creed that was not in solidarity with our somnolent tone. I thought at first that it might just be a loud talker, one of those people who likes to hear their own voice carry a word just a half-second longer than the congregation.

It soon became apparent that the voice was not only off rhythm, but it was not saying the same words. It was saying some other words that I couldn’t make out, that didn’t have the cadence of English. Utterances came in jerks and then petered out, and I thought that maybe the speaker suffered from Tourettes, poor soul, and I prayed that people would be patient with him—that I would be patient. I turned around in time to catch a glimpse of a security guard sliding into the pew next to the man emitting the sounds. Words were exchanged between them, and the man became quiet for a time.

Mass continued through the Consecration of the Eucharist, and when we began to edge our way out of the pews to receive it, the man once again made his presence known. He had been sitting near the back, and when the first few rows had stepped out into the Communion line, the man walked briskly up to the front of the line, only a few people in front of me, and cut in. He had on a thick silver ring with engraving that I couldn’t make out. He was dressed, not exactly well, but not shabbily either.

The Security Guard followed him hastily, not knowing if the man was stable or not, if he wanted to harass the priest or desecrate the Eucharist. I heard the Guard ask the man his intentions in cutting the line, and the man turned around and growled at him (really, a cross between a growl and a hiss), “I just want to taste it!” And then he turned back around and got down on both knees in front of the priest. It was a groveling posture, where most of the other communicants received the Eucharist standing and in the hand.

The priest hesitated for a moment, whispered something softly that I could not hear, and then administered the Eucharist to the man. Immediately, the man stood up and began to crow the most confounding noises I have ever heard. There was some language pattern there, but no language that I could recognize, and his voice was deep but shrieking, like a pig in the slaughterhouse. He was uncontrollable then, and he ran, followed by the guard, directly out of the Church making this choked and gurgling sound.

I have been in Churches where panhandlers come inside and ask people in the pews for money. I’ve heard men whose voices ring with insanity cussing out entire sanctuaries of people worshipping God. I’ve heard stories of people standing up in the middle of a Mass to tell everyone how the Church has ruined their lives. But I have never heard or seen anything like this.

I would like to dismiss the case--the man was probably homeless and crazy, and wandered in off the street, made some vocal and random expression of his frazzled mind, and left again. But there was nothing random about his behavior. Every knee shall bend before Christ the King, even that of he who recoils at the Creed and shrieks at the Body and Blood of the Savior.

I cried for him, mother’s tears, which I suppose are the only kind of tears I cry anymore. Poor boy. Poor little boy. Because if the man has been lost, he at least was once a child and innocent, and maybe it’s that part of him that still hungers for righteousness, like we all do. I just want to taste it.

Outside the streets began to wake. Coffee brewed. Varied churchgoers made their way to and from their chosen houses. A homeless man pulled a blanket over his head where he lay on the sidewalk. I’ve heard it said that lifetimes are lived before 8 o’clock in the morning, which means, of course, that there can be death before sunrise.

I flatter myself that I have been called to be a witness to the lives of others, though I mostly bear witness to myself. What I want to say is that if entire lifetimes are lived in these morning hours, how can I delay? Get up! Take note. They are passing.

*Thanks, Pedge for pointing this out to me.


Anne said...

"I just want to taste it!"

Those are tragic words! I am so grateful that you didn't continue to say that he spit our Lord out after receiving Him. All I can think to do in a situation like this is to pray for that poor soul who must be longing for the Lord, yet at the same time, petrified of Him as well. Thank you for sharing this story, you've given me much to think about.

karyn said...

We all too often take the Eucharist for granted. This man, even in the state he was, still somehow knew the Eucharist is a powerful thing. May God have mercy on him and us.

Peter and Nancy said...

A snippet of a Bible verse came to mind -- about the fact that even demons believe in Christ and tremble at His name. I would not be quick to dismiss this incident as merely mental illness either. I am moved by your compassion for this man . . . I think I might've been afraid instead.

P.S. I live a few hours' drive north of Chicago, but visit at least a few times a year to see my college friends who are now gainfully employed by the CSO.

Anonymous said...

Darling priest for blessing this man with Jesus himself. I am not allowed to take the Eucharist! x This may have been the most acceptance this man has ever been shown. And Jesus held true to His word. And the priest held true to Jesus x Blessed x

Idoya Munn said...

Wow - your words are beautiful. You saw something that most other people wouldn't have seen, and in writing it you have shared it with us. This will stay with me for a long time. Thank-you.