(This is the fourth article in a ten-part feature series in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine about my experiences at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, OR. This article is slightly edited in the magazine.)
Under the cross where worthiness lives
“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Gal 2
People seeking faith need to see the Church vulnerable in our need for God. If we are to be credible witnesses to God’s truth and mercy, then our evangelizing efforts must carry within our own hearts a humble need for God. We cannot survive in the life of the Holy Spirit buy living under our own ideas, opinions, answers and directions. Every invitation to join the Church to the non-believer and every act of worship for the believer begins in a humble notion that only God fulfills our lives. Christ’s passion, death and resurrection begins our liturgy not as a pious reminder of the past, but an act of sheer need by all who long to follow Christ Jesus. So we begin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I invite the assembly to mark their mortal bodies with the sign of salvation. This gesture of the Crucified on foreheads, chests and shoulders claims our identity. In the outside of our chapel building a large steel cross tells the world of this brand. In our lobby, the logo of my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, the cross and anchor, shows everyone who walks into the chapel building that the cross of Christ is our only hope. The sign of the cross on our human bodies shows us more personally that Christ Jesus is present for our own lives and that of the community.
Yet, under the cross on our bodies lies the belief of many people that they are unworthy of God and the attention of our community. Within our community I hear many stories of childhood abuse that caused a lifetime of depression and despair. One of the most devastating reminders of abuse is when people look back on the abuse and blame themselves. This self-blaming behavior manifests in the degradation of people for the rest of their lives.
Several years ago, I offered a Saturday morning retreat for people living with depression. Fifteen people arrived in our parish center. As the morning progressed, we all learned that all fifteen people participants were sexually abused as children or young adults. (Certainly not all depression comes from abuse; this statistic is extraordinary from this group.) I saw in the sad eyes of every person that medication could not heal the stigma of abuse. Every person told stories of how no therapy or counseling or psychiatrist had provided solace or a new identity beyond their abuse. These therapies are usually helpful for many people. Many in the group had searched for well over fifty years for answers and relief.
Most of the people in the group had never heard another person verbally link their pain to the healing of Christ Jesus. I spent most of the sessions with two other facilitators listening to their stories and sharing again in a gentle, calm voice the stories of healing and love that are found in the scriptures.
The people who attended the session began to open up; they slowly began to trust people within that supportive circle. The healing that occurred went far beyond any therapy they had received; the healing was deeply rooted in the power of Christ’s presence. People found a glimpse of a new identity in God’s love. The Paschal Mystery, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection became so clear, present and honest.
That single morning of retreat turned into a group gathering every other month for the next three years. In that group, I found the real meaning of the Penitential Rite. I discovered that every time we gathered that we needed to bring our suffering immediately into the promise that God’s fidelity heals us all. This is what this next moment in the sacred liturgy is all about. God’s mercy overwhelms our doubt, our insecurity and our negative labels we have of ourselves and other people.
Lord, have mercy! This crying out is a revelation of love. This posture of prayer means that we have already found our desired home in the graciousness of God. We gather at the great Feast of Salvation ready to affirm the fact that God comes to us in weakness and in honesty. The adults around that conference table still teach me about waiting for grace and searching for healing in the sacred liturgy.
I will never invite people in our community as we begin the Eucharist to strike their breasts in an expression of unworthiness of God. I avoid this particular gesture among marginalized people because life already beats them down. I never want folks to think that their abuse was their own fault. Most people with mental illness do not need to be reminded of their fear that they are unworthy of God. For many people who live with obsessive-compulsive disorder, they know repeatedly that they can get into a trap of hopelessness and despair through this gesture.
For many people who have been beaten and abused as children, they cannot bear a public invitation to keep the abuse going. For many women who have suffered breast cancer, I do not want them to be reminded of their pain and loss. For many women or gay and lesbian people, they do not need another public scolding. This gesture within this Penitential Rite of striking the breast should not be confused with put-downs and unworthiness. We seek God’s mercy that is available for us in our baptismal life and in our willingness to come before God at every Eucharist.
I am reminded of these put-downs now well beyond the circle of stories of people who suffer depression. I overheard a young man walk up to our front desk one day hoping to get some new clothing in our hospitality center. His face was bloodied. His lip was swollen and saliva dripped out of his mouth when he spoke. His arm was swollen and most likely broken. He was robbed the night before in his sleep, beaten by a man using a baseball bat. He did not need on that day to be reminded of his fears of his unworthiness before God by beating himself.
The striking of the breast may become a violent gesture for some people. The women who sleep outside our building on some nights remind me that they are often there in the first place because of domestic violence. Striking the breast may become a cruel gesture for people who have already been beaten by a spouse or tormented by a loved one. The Penitential Rite begins the liturgy for us to be grounded together in our common need for God. Here we know again that God is the source of salvation and we are not. We lift up all that is worldly, sin and doubt, hardship and grief, into the glorious awareness of the mercy of God. Under the cross of Christ marked again on our human bodies, we discover the safety of divine love.
I never take for granted the words of absolution that I speak in the Penitential Rite. I often hear priests rush through these words. The words are a sacred fire that burns within us all. They are meant to invigorate our souls to unite us again in divine love and forgiveness. I give voice to God’s love for the sinner, the marginalized and people living in doubt. I can never speak these words casually or mechanically. These priestly words are rooted in the real lives of the people who hear them. I do not speak them to reveal my own power, or to make me look good or to set me apart from others. Within them, I also claim my own sin, my own unfortunate decisions and my human mistakes. Unless I am willing to connect this absolution to my own sin and the lives of others, I am a cymbal clanging, an empty voice of false power and authority.
Several years ago I told some of my life stories in a parish retreat. I stood in front of the group feeling extremely vulnerable. This takes practice for us who are put on pedestals, who lead others and are bound by various professional boundaries. The following day a woman who suffers profound mental illness spoke to me before Mass. She had attended the retreat on the previous day. I was sitting in front of the Tabernacle. She thanked me for my ministry here among people with mental illness and loss. She then spoke of her appreciation that I was vulnerable in my sharing with the group the day before. She said to me, “The last thing we need here is a priest in a box.”
A great grace was given me in her words. I heard in her voice a message of forgiveness. I felt she spoke for the entire congregation. I felt the grace of an absolution coming from the profound faith of a parishioner who has suffered so severely for many years. From her poverty, illness and abuse, she opened up for me a new reliance on God and the community. This is the dialogue of contrition within the liturgy; this is freedom for us all in the Risen Christ.