This post was originally shared in February 2011, during my month-long “pilgrimage “ to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It tells the story of one woman’s redemption in a land far from home.
Apologies to Judy Blume for borrowing her infamous title. Today's post has to do with the spiritual aspect of my journey to Argentina. Not everyone is comfortable when the conversation turns to God. I know, because for most of my life, I was one of those people. So feel free to stop reading right here if it's not your thing.
Remember two Sundays ago when I told you about my trip to the local English-speaking church? On that day, I was looking for comfort in a new and unfamiliar city. Something about that little church touched me enough that I decided to go back. Last Sunday, the woman who coordinates the mass for the priest approached me as I sat in the pew. She introduced herself as Beatrice, and asked me if I'd like to help by passing the collection plate. "Me? Seriously?" I thought. "This lady obviously has no idea of my checkered past!" (maybe that's the point, but more on that later)
For the first time in my life, I felt like an invited guest at a celebration where previously I had been watching from the window. This is funny, but I was so nervous, I forgot to put my own money in the collection plate!
Today I returned, and this time, Beatrice came right over and gave me the collection plate. Okay, I thought, I've got this. I'll know to put my money in first. But that's not the end of the story. Beatrice came back a few minutes later and asked me if I'd like to do one of the readings. A reading? Me? What's going on here? And why was I feeling as though it shouldn't be me?
The Catholic Church and I have a long, tumultuous history. No organization is better at laying on guilt than the church. I can remember being a little girl in religion classes, preparing for first holy communion. I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8. The teacher, a nun, drew a circle on the blackboard. "This is your soul," she said. Then she drew a little dot in the circle. "Every time you lie, you commit a venial sin, and you mark another spot on your soul." She put more spots for speaking harsh words, little things like that. Then she said, "Suppose you miss Sunday mass?" She took her chalk and colored in the whole circle. "That's a mortal sin, and you will go straight to hell forever!" Eek! A mortal sin! I sure don't want any of THOSE on my soul! For a long time, I really tried to be a good girl. Well, okay, there was the time the big girls convinced me to light all the candles in the chapel of St. Joseph's Cor Jesus. I got caught and was told I had committed a MORTAL SIN! Imagine, at 7 years old, my fate was sealed. Eternal damnation was mine for having been a gullible little wisp of a girl. Line me right up with those murderers and thieves. We were all going straight to hell!
Over the years, sins have a way of mounting up. Should I go through the list here? Suffice it to say, the only commandments I haven't broken are thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, although if that includes neighbor's husbands, we can check off that one, too.
For a long time, I believed if I was on the outs with the Church, then I had no access to God. Thankfully, I've learned that's not the case, and yet, there was this whole matter of forgiveness. What about all those things I've done in the past? What about all those things Beatrice didn't know? That is EXACTLY the point. Beatrice didn't know me, and more importantly, didn't judge me. And in that moment, I realized that God had forgiven me, a long, long time ago. The problem was, I had yet to forgive MYSELF.
So in this little church, so many miles from home, I took one of the most important steps of any journey I have ever or will ever take. I let go of the last person who was blocking me on my path to forgiveness. I walked up to the lectern, and all the while every inch of me was tingling with a combination of anxiety and grace. I read my passage, and as I looked out at the congregation, I wondered if they realized the miracle happening right before their eyes.
Beatrice knew. When the mass was over, I lingered for a moment. As she collected the song books from the pews, I asked her to sit with me. I told her it was my last Sunday in Buenos Aires, and I wanted her to know how much her little church had touched my heart. When I began to tell her what it meant to me to be a part of the mass, I started to cry. The funny thing was, she cried, too. She knew! I don't know how, but she knew. They say that God sends angels to help us right at the moment we most need it. Beatrice was my angel. This lovely little woman brought me a healing 50 years in the making.
Perhaps my story of personal transformation can best be explained through an incident shared by poet Mark Nepo in his book “Awakenings.” One day, a man set out to clean his fish tank. While doing so, he placed his fish into his bathtub. Later, when he went to retrieve the fish, what he noticed was this - even though the fish had an entire bathtub full of water in which to swim, they contained themselves into a small space exactly the size of their tank. Do you know that fish tank we all create? The one that’s lined with all the falsehoods we believe about who we are and what we are worth? Listen to the sound... that's my fish tank shattering into a million pieces. Sometimes we have to travel 5000 miles to finally find our way back home.