I fell out through the bottom of my life this past year.
All the things I’m used to reaching for to buffer such a fall were gone: ideas about myself and God and the world, the props that have always sufficed to shore up my ego, even people I love who are closest to me (but only because I took them out on my way down).
Falling out of the bottom of my own life was a deadweight drop into nothingness. And nothingness, I discovered, has its own variations on pain – dull and pounding at times, razor-sharp and severing at others. But always there, ricocheting off the canyon walls of my hollow self.
I’d probably still be falling if I hadn’t been caught by a story. More specifically, a Bible story. One that I first heard with milk and cookies before bedtime when I was a child.
At the time, it seemed disconnected from any world I moved through.
After all whose father has a beard down to his waist, wears robes and sandals,and stands at the end of a gravel road day and night waiting for the return of a renegade son.
However, forty-five years later that childhood story was there for when I needed it. It came in bits and pieces. Flotsam washed up on a beach. When the grain I was feeding to calves looked more appetizing than the oatmeal I had at home. Or when I saw the turn-off on the highway and the long stretch of road that led back to my husband and kids. Or when I encountered the crossed arms and scowling brows of disapproving “older brothers”.
In a recent blog post I heroically called myself an outlier in the Christian tradition, living at an outpost on the edge off faith. I distanced myself from the centre. I claimed that it would suffice for me to dip into aesthetic treasures of my religious heritage the way one might dip into the assortment of cheeses in the fridge door.
That was then. This is now. Life is like that: then and now. Then, I thought I could go it alone in my little cabin out on the frontier. Now, I understand more clearly that a frontier only exists because a centre holds it.
When a sacred story catches you in crisis it brings you back to the triage ward of the spiritual tradition it represents like wounded soldiers brought in on stretchers from the field of battle.
For someone from the First Nations, that might mean coming back to ceremonies.
For a Jewish person it might be coming back to a Passover meal with mother lighting the first candle at the head of the table.
For me, as a Catholic of seven years, it meant being carried back to the sacraments. Most importantly to the sacrament of marriage, but there was a stop before that: the sacrament of reconciliation.
This required making a phone call to my parish priest:
“Hello, Father Gino. This is Tama.”
Father Gino hadn’t heard from me in six months. If he was surprised to hear my voice on the end of the line he didn’t show it.
“I need to make confession.”
Father Gino offered only to clear his schedule to make room for me.
Thank God. No preaching or I-told-you-sos, no explanations or gushing or chiding. No preliminary salutations even. No anything that would diminish or crowd out my quivering request.
When I arrive at the church Father Gino invites me into his office. This is a first for me. I’ve always knelt in the confessional booth off the sanctuary. However Italian mass is scheduled to start in 10 minutes and the sanctuary is abuzz with incoming over-50s.
I sit across the desk from Father Gino and don’t look up.
“Father, forgive me for I have sinned….”
An unorganized array of sorrows begin to spill out of me. Sobs trip over each other as though to get in on the action. I intentionally didn’t rehearse or even pre-think what I was going to say. I wanted my words to be as raw and close to the source as possible. I’m not sure if there is any coherence to the story I am trying to tell but I’m think Father gets the main point: I’ve made a mangled mess of my life.
Then I’m finished. And suddenly everything is quiet. Inside and out.
There is a box of Kleenex on Father Gino’s desk. Obviously I’m not the first person to sit in this chair and speak of self-inflicted wreckage. I reach for a tissue and blow.
“Tama”, Father Gino’s voice is in keeping with the stillness, “Your place at the table was always set for you. I knew you would come home.”
And there is was. The turning point in the story, in my story. The pivotal centre: a vigil kept, a welcome extended, a heart opened wide.
He continues with some prescribed wisdom on marriage and repentance and restoration. This sort of washes over me.
Silence again. Nice. Then it suddenly dawns on me that Father Gino is waiting for me to recite the prayer of contrition. Shoot. I always forget about that part and seven years on I still don’t have it memorized. I don’t even know the first line.
We are both aware that we have gone overtime and the Italian nonnas will be getting antsy.
“How about I say it on your behalf and you follow along?” Father offers.
“Does that count?” I ask ridiculously.
“Why not?” Father Gino laughs in the spirit of “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”.
He motors through the prayer, with good Catholic pragmatism. I catch only snatches:
O my God, I am heartily sorry….I detest all of my sins….I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace….
Back out in the sanctuary Father Gino disappears into an anteroom high-five-ing some of the seniors on his way down the aisle. I slide into a pew behind a row of rosary clutching Italian grandmothers.
Mass begins in a language I don’t comprehend. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am back at the table. The Italian vowels, long and rounded, roll over me like one of those handheld massage rollers that you find in the mall at Christmas and wonder whether to buy the person who has everything.
I think it was the 15th century mystic, Julian of Norwich who said “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”