Friday, April 10, 2009

That Dark Night

This was first published in The Living Church, an Episcopal magazine, March 24, 1991 and I am reprinting it with their permission. It refers to events that happened some years before that when I had just entered the Episcopal church—now 25 years ago. Reading it, I was struck by how much has changed for me, and how much has remained the same. Thanks be to God for both.


Lent is a time for contemplation. I am an intensely practical woman, a physician, a scientist, a medical examiner, a lawyer who has spent her working life explaining away in logic and learning the tragic and brutal works of mankind. Deep-thinking philosophy aids little in the practical service of such a profession, and I am not at ease with it. The dark and transcendental time of penance and contemplation that is Lent leaves me feeling bewildered and left out. I haven’t a mystical bone in my body. And so it was that much more peculiar that a particular Holy Week found me sitting watch over the sacrament early on Good Friday morning.

My confirmation had been a few days earlier on Palm Sunday. I came late back to the church, after the birth of my son. I came back for him, out of duty to provide him a foundation of belief, although unsure at times of my own. But then, too, there was a need to make sense out of senseless violence and murdered babies. Part of comfort to my logical mind is the dependability of ritual, of words and actions that come to mind easily to mind because of their familiarity, to help in those times when responding is hobbled by hurt or confusion. When the sign up sheet was posted for the watch with the sacrament between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I decided that I should sit, outsider in feeling or not, one more ritual of my faith I should at least get to know.

When the alarm went off at 2:30 a.m., I dragged my protesting bones out of bed, carrying a vague, unshakeable feeling of dread. In my business, being waked in the small hours is always a sign of death, unexpected or violent. It is the time when hospital patients inexplicably die, the person inside giving up the struggle to keep the person outside alive. It is the time when domestic fights end in tragedy, when drug deals go sour, when drunken drivers plow into trees on their way home, when new parents tiptoe into to check on their sleeping infants to find that death has come calling. And at the end of all this, the telephone by my bed rings and I am called out of dreamless sleep to deal with grieving families or the bloody aftermath of murders and suicides and accidents.

I pulled my clothes on quickly and downed my cup of coffee. Outside, it had been grey and cold all week, and now there was a steady rain. I put up the hood of my parka and started out to walk the two blocks to church. In the silent streets, the feeling of dread enveloped me. I hurried past street lamps that dropped light into puddles of water, scurrying past hedgerows shaking gently with the rain, afraid of the threatening evil that I knew to be abroad in the hours before dawn.

The fact that the door to the chapel was locked form the inside did little to reassure me. My predecessor in the watch pushed open the glass door and passed a few soft words before leaving to his dry car and warm bed. I stood alone in the blue, silent chapel wondering what to do now, suddenly feeling very alone. I settled into a pew and began to read.

I read the Gospel for the day and the prayers from the Prayer Book. I read quickly and soon found myself idly thumbing through the tissue thin pages, drifting through thoughts not particularly religious. Finally, I opened the Bible I had brought along and began to read, beginning to end, the physician’s story of our Lord. Luke’s account of the Gospel has always been my favorite, paying attention to the practicalities of life, written by an outsider, laying out in simple terms the story of His life, taking time to speak, every now and then, to the cautious logic of the unbeliever.

And so I read. And when I came into to the brief account of the passion, I began to think about it, not with the mind of faith, but with the mind of a medical examiner. I knew what it meant to be beaten, to be stabbed, to die slowly of agonizing injuries. I had seen it all before, dozens of times. I had touched the broken bones and lifeless bodies of others with my own hands, had recoiled at the reality of their injuries, and had testified in court calmly and dispassionately about how long it took and how much it hurt to die. And I had stood by helpless and isolated too many times as mothers and sisters and friends came into the morgue to see and touch and weep over the body of one suddenly and brutally dead. A sense of pain and understanding washed over me, so physical it cramped my throat and burned my eyes. I began to recognize, in terms I knew, in experiences of my own, the kind of love it would take to send into the world to such a painful and spiteful death God’s only Son.

I have no idea how long I sat contemplating my newfound idea. I was knocked out of thought by the gentle tapping of my successor on the chapel door. I opened the door for her, flipped up the hood of my parka once again and started off for home though the now-driving rain.

No great changes happened in my life, because of those few minutes of revelation. I saw no visions, heard no voices, received no call. I still lose patience with my children and my husband and myself. My baser self controls me much more often than I control it. I haven’t sold my belongings and set out for India to take care of the poor. And I still feel uncomfortable with Lent. But I did stroll home through that dark night, in the early hours before the gathering of dawn, peaceful and comfortable instead of wary and ill at ease. And when I find myself confronted with the despairing and senseless in the routine of daily life, I sometimes call up the feeling of that morning and remember what love really means. Of such, experiences, too, perhaps, are miracles made.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting.
    So you weren't born into the High Episcopal?; curious as to your religious origin.
    Yes, I enjoy EWTN's Marcus Grodi's Journey Home series ;-)