Blessed and Damned

By Jon Hillenbrand In Poetry


I am a luminous being. Look into my tomb and you will see my outline visible as though looking through a veil of cheesecloth. My identity is not the product of man-made fallibility. I have been illuminated by brilliant shafts of light cast about from many sources. That is why today, despite a potential 12 year absence, I walked into a church and participated in a Catholic Mass.

The painted window of my memory reveals times when I was referred to as, “Christian Jon.” But that moniker left me as I went through the cocoon stage of life and emerged free of religious ties and sponsorship. But recently I was challenged to face the music of my past and this is one of the unfinished symphonies I wanted to once again take my ink and feather to.

When re-entering a building of worship after many long years away, I recommend, as I did, returning to the largest place of worship you have access to. In my case, the largest Catholic church in Illinois. This is not of course to get lost in the crowd, but instead serves to reinforce that you are returning to something which is larger than whatever reasons you left in the first place. The gilded and oiled church I went to was immensely large and filled with organ pipes as intimidating and ornate as the legendary gates of St. Peter. I imagined several Chicago noise ordinances being violated every Sunday, the police fearful of enforcing that law here. The intricate attention to detail on every wall, pillar and door would make any watchmaker proud. A life size marble recreation of Jesus being cradled for the last time by Mary broke me down, tears welling and falling as I leaned against the wall and soaked in the moment. Overall the setting was everything I had imagined while standing outside in the crisp morning’s misty sun.

But our service was not in this football field size room. I attended an 8am Saturday Mass in a small basement chamber with the acoustics of the inside of a diving bell. This is the service that only the dedicated, proud and seriously fearful attend. My presence was never challenged, but as a passing red-headed man stared intently toward me, I wondered if he suspected my amateur status. My head on a swivel, I studied the visages of others looking straight ahead or down. Some people seemed friendly and full of smile, others slightly standoffish. Still others had a familiarly passive expression to their faces which spoke of rote recitation from years of repetition. Attempting to ascertain the reasons for everyone’s visit and then feeling rude, I decided to concentrate on my own potential spiritual moment in a ceremony I had sat through thousands of times from birth on through college and after.

Initially, I was struck by my reaction to the old familiar ceremony. I don’t know what I had expected, certainly not a tearful approach to the priest afterwards or a knee-born episode of breakdown and repent. But when the familiar story of the Last Supper came up, I was frankly moved and fearful that I would cry in the presence of so many hardened attendees.

For what seemed like the first time, I could see it. Jesus there with his friends for the last time. It seemed real to me. I could imagine myself sitting there with people I knew and loved, knowing that I was to die soon, and proudly asking all of them to simply remember me, God or not. It seemed to be clear to me in a way that never could have been clear until this moment in my life. As a child, you never recognize the finality of mortality. But now I do. I’ve felt alone and morbid and full of life and blissful happiness. I’ve cried at the passions I’ve seen in others and recognised the humanity revealed through honest expression. I think for once I recognized the humanity of Jesus at the Last Supper. I could see the freaked out expressions of those around him, their wondering…Jesus’s take on the whole sequence of events that was to come, his place in history, the expanse of all time and space paling in comparison to what he must have felt as a human in that moment in time and in that warm dusty place.

What also struck me was the echo of unity I remembered feeling in a relatively passive experience. I felt the memory of what it was like to be a part of wandering flock of lambs looking for fresh sweet grass and hoping for a touch from the Shepard. I remembered the longing for inspiration. And I was intrigued at my own realization that I very seldom spend time standing, sitting or kneeling in one place and being still. I seem to always be editing, blogging, driving, eating, sleeping, reading, drawing, shooting or otherwise physically or mentally actively working toward a goal, big or small. Watching and waiting for a deliberate hour of introspection with others hasn’t been on my plate in a while. Even my current moments or hours of introspection seem somehow on task to solve some internal riddle. But while at mass, I seemed to not have a task to perform. I wasn’t expected to accomplish anything despite my deliberate activity in this ceremony. I felt a bit liberated as a dusty part of my mind shivered in the new wind.

Other cynical moments came to me from time to time, but these may have been the machinations of a mind resistant to taking a deep step back toward a helpless time in my life. I often write on here of my dependence on self and intellect. The forfeitures of responsibility that some often mention in connection with Christianity often seems like a cop out to me or the unfair granting of credit in the presence of human accomplishment. Also, my early childhood was peppered with religion and bullies which seemed to often share the tasks of mental or physical abuse toward my innocent and childish form. So like virgin hands on a Ouija board, my instincts are to keep my hands still and keep what I know about the universe so that I don’t have to redefine everything in one short 40 minute session.

But it was interesting. I’ll give it that. I am not sure what my future holds. I recognize a universe out there that I have no knowledge of, and logic that I can’t approach. Life seems to have happened to me partly by choice and partly by some other series of factors which I have no control over. Jobs, girlfriends, pain and happiness have all come to be through the variables of the mathematics of Life. So will I return to a more spiritual life or an organized religion? Only time will tell.

What do you think?