The Donor

Jane had no reason to suspect Craig was the reason she was always sick. He was her joy. He cheered her up when she was down. He bought her flowers and turned them towards her saying she was the sunshine that they fed on. He noticed when she paused over a piece of art and bought it months later as a surprise. She often thought to herself that she’d never had such a kind and considerate boyfriend her entire life.
He never minded that she was often cranky because of the pain. The chronic feeling of un-wellness kept her up at night, made it hard to spend time with friends. Often all she wanted at the end of the day was to curl up on the sofa with a book and let her mind escape into the pages. At least there she could forget the dull but ever-present pain that ruled her days.
She drank anti-inflammatory tea by the gallon, did everything her therapist suggested, and still she had no relief. She had come to believe that pain was part of who she was, just as much as her bunions and her curly hair. She could no longer remember a time when she wasn’t at least a little achy, since a little had been a lot for so long.
It had started when she was in college, the year she met Craig. Under hypnotism much later she realized it was the very night she’d first seen him at a frat party that the aches had begun. They were mild at first, like the ache from being hung over. Then it continued, like she was getting a summer cold. Then it never left.
She had been dating someone else then, but Craig caught her eye and they had chatted. It was a few months later before she ran into him again, and by then she was single. The last relationship had left her a little sour on the idea of dating again any time soon, and she had told Craig so when he inquired. He understood and respected her space. There had been no question about it – he honestly and sincerely accepted her feelings. There was no hidden agenda of pretending to wait just so he could date her later. It was the first time in her life she’d ever felt like a potential suitor actually cared about what she wanted.
She’d decided to date him after six months, after she’d had enough “me” time and wanted “we” time again. Maybe it was the lack of pressure. Maybe the pain was wearing her down. Or maybe the hex sign he’d sketched out between her shoulder blades had done it.
She’d never noticed at the time. How could she? That evening had been a little hazy, what with the kamikaze she’d consumed. It had tasted so good on that hot summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of the frat house. Her friend Fish, a resident of the house, had mixed it for her and it was a little stronger than she liked. So when Craig offered to give her a back rub when she mentioned how her shoulders ached, she thought nothing about how he warmed up with some delicate tracery on the bare skin between her shoulder blades. She didn’t know he had traced a sigil. She didn’t know it was a sigil of marking, of ownership. She didn’t know that his attitude of indifference afterwards was just an act. In that moment, she was tied to him for as long as he desired, and that was for as long as she was useful to him.
He had been born normal, like any other child of the Midwest. Nothing exceptional had happened that would have raised any red flags. No one would have ever suspected a thing until Bebhinn saw them together years later. She was a friend of a friend, really, not connected to either one. This made her objective, like a reporter. She was a curious about them as a couple since she’d noticed them at the Yule party three years ago. Sure, they had been at other parties before then, but this was the one where she had finally seen them, seeing the energy between them, and it wasn’t good.
Electric blue lines streamed from Jane to Craig, but none the other way. Bebhinn had seen that only once before, and it was in her native Ireland. A man had drained his wife’s life from her, bit by bit at first and then more and more as he grew hungrier and she grew weaker. The less she was able to give, the more he wanted until there was nothing left.
The town priest was secretly an exorcist. This was in spite of the official church statement that such activities were not in keeping with the rites and canons of a post Vatican 2 faith. He named the cause of the poor woman’s death, having seen it many times before in other guises in his native Nigeria.
The dire priest shortage in Ireland had meant that he’d had to transfer to this backwoods village a long decade ago. Bebhinn wasn’t pleased with the change in accent most of all, finding his heavily accented sing-song voice at odds with the native lyricism of her people, but what other option was there? So many parishes had closed or merged when their priest had finally died and not been replaced. So few young men chose to be priests these days. She should be grateful her parish’s doors were still open, even if the doorkeeper was almost unintelligible. For a while she decided to pretend that the mass was in Latin again, and just let it wash over her. After a few months she started to make some headway in understanding him. She decided to try to befriend him, to help make him feel at home in this wild, wet land, so different from everything he knew.
It was during their weekly lunches together that he confided to her that he could see spirits. She was the only parishioner he’d told and the only one he would ever tell. He knew, with the same sort of knowing that had led him into this clandestine club, that she had the same ability. Over the years he taught her all that was safe to teach a layperson. It was these skills that Bebhinn used now.
Jane had stopped going to church when she entered college, the same as many young people. Unlike them, she still had an interest in God, but didn’t have the time. Most quit because they no longer had to go as a prerequisite for free room and board. If she had continued to attend, her pastor might have seen the biggest change in her – the light slowly leaving her eyes. There wasn’t a spring in her step or song in her heart anymore. The change had come on so gradually that it would have been impossible for anyone to notice if they’d seen her every day.
Craig had been draining Jane for years before Bebhinn noticed her at that party. He was sly about it, withdrawing only tiny bits of energy at a time. He had to be sly – otherwise she might notice and leave, and then he’d have to groom another donor. For that’s what she, and at least 60 other women before her were – donors. Unwilling, unwitting, certainly, but donors nonetheless. They’d not signed a card or registered with any agency, but a part of them was being removed nonetheless.

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I miss church.

I miss going to church. It has been 8 months since I have been to church. I miss church in the same way I miss my family. When holidays roll around I miss the warm fuzzy feeling of family that I never had. It is part of why Mother’s Day hurts so much. I miss the never-was, or the might-have-been. When the holidays roll around I miss going to church even more. I feel like I’m missing out.

I think a lot of people go to church because of those very same feelings. I think that church fills a hole in them that family couldn’t. It provides a sense of belonging. It is an artificial construction, but a good one, usually. Family is an accident. Friendships are chosen. Church, being (hopefully) a conscious choice, is more like the latter. It provides some of the same kind of support that family should provide but often doesn’t.

The problem is that I can’t go back to my old church. Even if the priest there leaves, I can’t go back. I’ve seen behind the curtain. I know too much. The magic spell has faded away to tinsel and mirrors.

I can’t go back to church as it is, because it isn’t what Jesus meant for us to be doing. But every now and then I have a hankering to go back.

I know three families who left that church before me (because of the same priest) and attend another one of the same denomination. I know that the priest of church A has called the priest of church B to tell him about those families. She told me this back when I was still on her side. She thinks she was “smoothing the path” and “building bridges.” If she was so good at doing that, then how come she couldn’t do that at her church with these families? Now I wonder if she has called the priests at the other local Episcopal churches to warn them about me? I wouldn’t put it past her.

I went to a “Lay Ministry Appreciation Day” at the Cathedral last year. It was the second one they had. I went to the first one too. I felt that something was wrong when I went to the first one, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. After the second one I figured it out. At the end we were asked to write our impressions. I wrote that I was very sad to find that we’d spent the whole day learning how to “do church” and not learning how to be better Christians.

There were classes on how to be an acolyte, a chalice bearer, a person who administers home Communion, a lector, and an altar guild member. There wasn’t a single one on how to serve Jesus outside the church. There wasn’t anything about building up the Body. If you wanted to know how to wear vestments or hold a candle or prepare enough Communion wafers for a crowd, they had a class for it. Everything else, forget it.

Here are some examples of things I saw at the Cathedral that opened my eyes.

These are kneelers at the altar rail.
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I wonder how much time was spent needlepointing them. Wouldn’t it be more Christ-like to spend that time visiting the sick and those in prison?

This column is one of many. The marble is imported from Scotland. They are at least twenty feet high, by my estimation.
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I wonder how much that cost? Wouldn’t it have been more Christ-like to spend that money housing the homeless?

Check out the stained glass window and the pipe organ.
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There are stained glass windows throughout the building. One is from Louis Comfort Tiffany. The tour guide says that the Cathedral paid for none of them – they were donations. He’s missing the point. If someone can donate 5 to 10 thousand dollars for stained glass, they can donate the same amount to feed the hungry and clothe the naked instead – you know, the stuff Jesus tells us to do?

God didn’t come down to Earth for us to spend time and money prettifying a building. Jesus didn’t die for us to debate over where to keep the reserved sacrament. The more I went to church, the more I realized that I wasn’t serving Jesus at all. I was serving the administration. I was serving the institution.

Sadly, there are a lot of us who are stuck in this hamster wheel. There are a lot of people who go to church who have invested a lot of their lives and their egos in what they thought was being a good Christian, and what they are doing isn’t Christ-like at all.

It isn’t un-Christian. It just isn’t what Jesus would do.

Breaking out of this mindset is very hard, especially for people who have spent a lot of their time and money in and on the institution that is church. It is especially hard for those who get paid to lead. They have the most to lose. Yet, the way I’m seeing it, they have even more to lose if they keep on following the wrong master. We can follow only one master – make sure it is God, and not the institution.

So yes, I miss church, but it is more like I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I can’t miss what I never had. There are a couple of options I’m looking at that have a lot of the qualities I feel Jesus meant. I think they are a good start. But I’m wary. I’m wary of getting sucked in and fooled again, like I was last time. I’m wary of letting down my guard and getting really hurt.

Confessional.

At the retreat center I went to in September, there is a confessional in a separate room on the way to the chapel. The priest goes in first and sits behind the screen.

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The confessee goes in separately and sits in the front section.

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Here is the screen he sits in front of. It means that his identity is obscured. This is supposed to mean that he can speak freely, without fear of judgment.

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I was amazed at the difference in the two sections. The area for the priest is three-quarters the size of the confessee. The priest’s chair is large and comfortable. The other chair is small and hard. The priest’s area is filled with light. The other area is dark and depressing.

It seems like the person who needs the light the most would be the person who is confessing. It seems to me that jamming him into a tiny, dark, cramped area will only add to his distress. He is there to be made to feel better. He is there to have his sins forgiven.

Now, the point is that all of our sins are already forgiven. Priests don’t forgive sins. Jesus does that. Jesus did that on the cross. The priest just reminds you of that. Sometimes they get that part mixed up.

This is a painting that is visible to both people. I don’t know the story behind it.

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