by Suzanne Henley
The last thing my psychologist said before my release after the eighth and final week of my hospitalization for major depression and anxiety was, “Well, Suzanne, we’ve tried everything there is. You might want to give God a chance.” I did not have the emotional energy to even be mad at what I considered a totally inappropriate remark. God was nowhere in any details I knew of. The concept had not even registered with me since I was 12 and—to the mournful strains of “Just As I Am”—walked the long aisle to the altar steps at First Baptist to rededicate my life, oblivious of any commitment except to the power of peer influence.
However, being a first-born, I was an I-want-my-gold-star perfectionist and allowed my friend Carol Ann to take me to Waffle Shop in a church during Lent. I had a panic attack as the lurid colors of the mural on a wall bounced, shifted, and screamed; the ceiling seemed as though it was sneaking ever lower and would squash us any moment, and the loud bodies and swirling trays pressed on my windpipe and throbbed. Carol Ann seemed unaware, even joyful, laughing with the roomful of friends. I did not even touch the wiggling red aspic. She then dragged me—exhausted, limp, and nauseated from my adrenalined battle—to the sanctuary upstairs and plopped us down in one of the front pews. The place was packed with people who’d driven downtown in the middle of a workday—to church! I found this weird, and not my vision of the way to win a gold star, or ever be a person again.
Nor was it when the speaker, an Irish/Canadian priest—a stern-looking old guy named Herb O’Driscoll—started telling a story. I was slightly embarrassed for him as he stepped away from the pulpit and started acting out his story, at the climax moving kabuki-like in profile, emphatically thrusting an arm forward and grabbing the air, “And this hand has held this hand,” then thrusting the other arm forward hammer-like and grasping the imaginary hand, “And this hand has held this hand….”
I was becoming slightly alarmed but riveted to this embarrassingly dramatic performance. “And this hand has held this hand”—he approached the far end of the space, arm outstretched—and, still facing sideways, bowed forward, slowly turned his face toward me, and said, “All the way back to Jesus.”
And then he was still and there was silence. The universe paused in this deafening moment, and the Holy Spirit might as well have been holding hands with O’Driscoll and looking at me, laughing, and saying, “Yeah, Suzanne, why don’t you drive on up from Hell after this and meet me for a beer, maybe a game of shuffleboard. I’m paying.”
For one who’d felt alienated not just from the world in general, stuck in Dante’s ninth circle, but barred from the realm of friendships—I have a friend who today still considers my illness and hospitalization an embarrassment—, the embrace by Calvary Church saved my life. Saved my life.
Every Sunday I’d wrestle my three kids into smocked outfits (with Walker’s four-year-old demand of cowboy boots, banging against kneelers and people’s shins as he scrambled under pews). Memories of my children in the life of Calvary over the years are priceless. No pledge amount can properly honor the baptisms, the confirmations, and the times tears dripped unattractively from my chin as Walker, Sarah, and Miss Bunny’s exquisite Bethlehem Choir (larger, I think, than the adult choir at some point) sang some wrenchingly poignant hymn in their wee voices, or when pied piper Hester Allen, Nino Shipp’s mom, anointed an unappreciative Walker to perform as Joseph in the Nativity.
Priceless, too, is the impact of Lenten speakers John Stone Jenkins, John Claypool, Lawrence Kushner, Micah Greenstein, Bishop Jack Spong, and Marcus Borg. Likewise are my years serving as an EM, a Lector, a Vestry member, a pastoral care team member, helping found the Emmaus Ministry to the dying, teaching several Sunday and Wednesday formation courses, and having the honor of creating the Lenten speakers’ gifts for the past 15 years. I also cherish the memory of my brother’s memorial service—with folding chairs in the aisles and people leaning against the walls—with the bluegrass band Thomas Boggs formed for the service.
There’s also the litany of beloved and colorful Calvary members now gone from their expected pews I still grieve and give thanks for.
And of course there’s gratitude, years of gratitude, particularly for the knowledge that I am loved just as I am, regardless. That we all sit together being accepted for who we are and what we happen to believe at any particular time in our lives, that there is wisdom and forgiveness much larger than we can imagine. At each eucharist I ask for the “remembrance of me”—the re-membering of the frayed, misused, and broken pieces of the Christ in me to be put back together, rejoined, for the coming week.
There’s no pledge card large enough to bear the imprint of the wealth of these experiences, or of the storied imprints of those thousands of hands that have gripped the backs of pews in joy, bitterness, despair, hope, and longing for over 175 years, that the patina of our stories and hands now join weekly.
The now-bowing brick walls of Calvary itself demand my love, as do the unknown people themselves who made and laid those bricks, who—like those we now know were once held in bondage where our parking lot now stands—are part of our communion and must be honored. We must keep the metaphorical lights on for them. As well as lights for our own dark and joyous times.
The most consistent light I notice at Calvary is the light in everyone’s eyes as we pass the peace. We might not even know the names of some of those we reach across pews to momentarily clasp into our life, but for a heartbeat, our arm stretched wide, our eyes meeting, I believe we are each looking into the eyes of the Holy Spirit.
Metaphorical light also brings us now to the reality of the electrical light we use and must pay for, an unpleasant subject, I know, along with the salaries of our incomparable clergy—brought to us by that same Holy Spirit as well as Central Casting, the needs of outreach, the endowment, and sewage.
We are stewards of this holy place. And you will discover—after the fact of many of them—how irreplaceably grounding some moments here have or will become in your own life, touchstones you cherish, marking who you’ve become.
And meanwhile, with a little help from our friends, we’ll leave the lights on for you.