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Guard Your Heart All Ye Who Enter Here...

In 1982 I was in pretty rough shape.  I had been pulled cold-turkey off booze and vallium by a shrink who had his head up his ass  (they don’t do that to people anymore, thank God).  I was in a terrible withdrawal, on the ceiling for days, not sleeping.  Stripped arbitrarily and suddenly of what got me though life, I was in a round the clock state of terror.  I hung in and resisted the physical and emotional urge and need to use for days.

After I couldn’t go through with suicide, I checked into a psych unit, which didn’t help much either; I was jacked up on antidepressants and locked in my room when I had an allergic reaction.

In desperation I called our family priest.  Deep within, I thought that if I reached for the faith I had abandoned in my years of addiction, if I could get help in reconnecting to something familiar, it would help me.

He came to my bedside in his black suit, shirt and white collar. I was glad to see him.  I hadn’t seen him since he had given my mother last rites  in the ER after she had a heart attack.

I thought he would pull “the sacraments” out of his pocket and get to work on me.  But that’s not what happened.

He pulled his chair over to my bedside and sat down.  He said, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior?”

After a few moments, brought up short– I had called him, after all–I said, “I don’t know.”

For me, this was an honest answer.

He said, “Then I can’t help you.”  He got up, and left my hospital room.

In 1987, still sober, in therapy, making progress in inches, I gave it another try.  I was in a muffler shop having my old blue Ford Fairlane worked on, surrounded by clanging and banging, in stifling air that smelled like grease and exhaust.  Suddenly I felt that I couldn’t hold in the guilt and pain I was carrying; my pain was intolerable.

I called a church that had for years been the only Episcopal Church in Fort Collins and asked to speak to the priest.  Our family had gone there too, and I had sung in the choir after my parents had died.

The priest picked up the phone.  I told him that I didn’t think I would last much longer if I couldn’t unburden and get some help with feeling forgiven and forgiving myself.

There was a long pause.  Then, with a thin voice, and diffident manner, he said, “I might have some room in my calendar next week.”

I hung up.  I went back to my apartment and fell on my knees in tears and poured my heart out to what I hoped was listening to me.

Five years ago, at the urging of a social worker and friend who was active in that same church, and after I told her these stories, she urged me to return.  She said, “It will help. I know you’ll feel better.  It’s beautiful there.  Father So and So is gone and Father So and So and another priest are there.  You’ll like them.”

She was right; I liked both priests.  Father So and So the First was bright, and seemed welcoming, albeit somewhat distracted when I tried to talk to him.  Father So and So II was a winsome, sharp accessible guy serving an apprenticeship.  We had long talks about God, the Church, healing, and his issues– all priests seem to have them– with AA:  “I don’t get that generic God they talk about in the Big Book, and the business of relative truth.”

I didn’t either, but I went to meetings and strove to be a sober person anyway.

I hadn’t sung in years, and at the 10 a.m. Eucharist I began to sing again, rediscovering my voice.  I got a lot of compliments.  Finally, I worked up my nerve to ask the choir director if I could come back on board.

We had a guest choir director at that time while the regular one was on sabbatical.  She was  harried, thin, a Southern woman whose hair was recovering from being dyed bright red.  She was a tremendous musician and a task mistress.

We were to perform the John Rutter Requiem on Good Friday; I was outfitted with a robe and a portfolio for my music.

The first few rehearsals, I picked up on the choir’s dislike of the guest director nearly to a woman and a man.  I didn’t understand it– but it seemed to have something to do, someone said, with their affection for the one who was away.

I reached out to the substitute director and chatted with her after rehearsals.  I also made friends with a Native American woman who sat in the soprano section next to me, and we would go out for coffee.  She seemed like a nice person and we both loved music, art and the Southwest.

Singing the Rutter Requiem was an experience I will never forget.  It is a gorgeous piece of music and we worked hard, rehearsing and rehearsing.

A few weeks after the performance I determined that I should undergo a Rite II Reconciliation and Absolution.  I was having powerful experiences of connection to a greater power at that point.  I had, to put it with as much subtlety as possible because, like many, many people, I absolutely hate being bludgeoned over the head with religion, felt love emanating toward me from the direction of the Cross. I was trying to trust that experience.

I remember that day vividly.  Father X had put a chair, table, glass of water, and box of kleenex in the Southwestern-style  chapel, where candles flickered and shadows draped the carved crucifix on the wall over the altar.

I went down on my knees and recounted my misdeeds.

I came to a list of men with whom I had been involved.  I didn’t flinch; I talked about my anger, and was as specific as I could bear to be.  I had to fight through fear and worry that I was taking too much of his time.

He stopped me at one point.  He said, “You can be more specific; get it all out, about all of them.  You’ve had a lot of them.”

As I had made myself vulnerable, this was a direct hit.  I tried to absorb it and keep going, but, clearly, like an elephant, I haven’t forgotten it; it still stings.

Some time later, the regular choir director came back and we began fall rehearsal.  I was one of two sopranos in the choir with a strong and trained voice.  The other soprano was the section leader and she said, “Help me encourage the others to sing out.  Nobody can hear them.”

We rehearsed shortly before the performance and the director seemed unhappy with all of us.  Out in the foyer I said to my friend, “You have a beautiful voice.  I know you can open up and sing more powerfully.”  She glared at me.  It seemed that everyone was uptight.

I was distracted and then turned around to see her running into the arms of the choir director, crying.  The choir director was glaring at me.

We all went back into the church and I was moved over right next to where the director sat at the organ.

I put a toe in the water.

“Are we… am I singing in the way  you wish for me to,” I asked.

She turned to me in utter rage.  “NO,” she said loudly.

When I returned to the Church I brought with me many many years of anxiety over whether I would be accepted or whether I belonged anywhere, at any given time, in any group or activity.  I was, despite how I kick up my heels on the page and let myself play occasionally, extremely shy and self-conscious.

Her response hit an old wound and reopened it.  Before I began to spurt blood through my choir robe, I excused myself.  I ran out into the parking lot and got in my truck.  I threw down my music and some of it blew away in the dark.

I went home and got under the covers and sobbed myself to sleep.

The next day I tried to talk to all of them.  They blamed me and I blamed them; we got exactly nowhere.

Two  years ago, as I lay recovering from a broken leg in the nursing home, Father X came to see me.  We talked the whole thing over.  He said, “We’ve all talked, there’s a new director; you can come back and sing, all is forgiven.”

No one in the scenario had asked my forgiveness, but I let it go.

It took me two years to work up my courage to call the Church and express my desire to sing.

I spoke to the new director.  She said, “I’m glad you called, because we need to talk.”

Apprehension welled up in me.

She said, “We don’t want you in our choir.  Your presence stresses everybody.”

By now it was three years since I had left on the night of the performance, and I had apologized numerous times.

Now I was furious.  I raised hell with the Church, the  diocese and tangled with the Chancellor for the Bishop– an attorney. Nothing has been resolved, except that I’ve decided dealing with all of it isn’t worth it.  I even have a cousin who, improbably, is an ordained lesbian minister in a church– where else- in San Francisco, who has written me off and holds seminars on “emotional resilience” and “forgiveness,” when she has a little sewage in her back yard, i.e., how she treats  our family.  Another cousin is an ordained Episcopal priest who is evidently above reaching out or responding to us.

As I write I am listening to Bach, Brahms, Handel. I am surrounded by the beautiful churches of Fort Collins.  I should be singing somewhere, instead of writing this story, telling it to my small readership, something so deeply personal.

But if there is any pain worse than that of rejection, particularly in an environment where the rhetoric of unconditional love abounds,  I’d like to know what it is.  I didn’t deserve this.

It is snowing here; it is beautiful.  I have come to terms with my solitude and I write many hours every day, with seemingly, many stories to tell, including this one.  Perhaps this was meant to be

At the risk of sounding like a homily torn from the pages of Reader’s Digest, I speculate that these “trials” have strengthened me.  I have been forced to forge self-love, self-belief, to re-empower myself as best I can.

The unfortunate consequence of these things and others like them in other venues, however, is that to a great extent, I hide myself away.  I come and go in a subterranean fashion.  Recently, I have felt myself withdraw from the open-heartedness with which I pursued faith.  What had seemed like a hardy sapling of belief has dwindled back to mustard seed status.  How dare these alleged men and women of God wear the collar and inflict so much suffering on a vulnerable person. And where the hell was God?