Friday, September 3, 2010

Poisoned Chalice

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions,
 which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.  William Shakespeare, MacBeth.

 1974
I sat next to my mother in the pew as the priest intoned the Eucharist. Light filtered through stained glass, Jesus on the Cross, illuminating the altar and the flowers set there by my mother or some other devout altar guild member. I’m not sure why I agreed to go to church with my mother. But my stepfather was dead and I had not attended his funeral or bothered to visit him while he lay sick in a hospital bed. My mother was a widow a second time. It was the least I could do. And I was sure that going to church with her was a small piece of making things okay for her. She would have been hurt if I had refused.
After my divorce I had driven around in my blue volkswagon bus for two years, working for four to six weeks at a time and then moving on, in circles, from Utah to Idaho to Washington and then down the coast to San Diego, visiting my mother and brother and sister-in-law and nephews until I felt crazy and confused and then I would hop in my bus and leave. Eventually I spun off the circle and sold the bus and went to Iowa to work at the Maharishi International University where I went a little crazier before landing back in San Diego.  
I felt edgy, as if I might get up and walk out. Instead, I sat while she directed me to turn this page or that page, or hold the hymnal while we sang hymns, her beloved hymns she said she remembered and later sang in her head, just as she remembered passages of Longfellow’s Evangeline she learned in high school and would later recite to me when she was a centenarian. I would turn and see her mouth moving and hear the notes and words and watch her face and feel vaguely irritated.
We were to take communion. I wanted to stay in the pew, but if I had my mother would have been embarrassed.  “What would people think?” Instead, I went forward and knelt at the railing with my mother. The priest walked toward me, his hands holding the bread, the body of Christ, my hand outstretched to receive it. When I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church at age 10, I never was sure whether or not it was really His body. Some churches believe in the transmutation of the bread to body, the wine to blood. I just knew it was supposed to be cool, and I was proud to be participating in an adult ritual. Sitting beside my mother at the age of 27, irritated and distracted, there was still something about the ritual that reached me.
The priest walked the line of supplicants, offering up the body of Christ to tongues extended like birds in a nest waiting for nourishment. Stepping away, the priest went to the altar to prepare the wine, the blood of Christ, the infusion of life, the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of all that had gone before. I so wanted that. I wanted my life back, my innocence restored, my mother and brother returned to me from alcohol that isolated me from them, my family whole. Could the blood of Christ do that for me? I could only hope.
The priest walked to the head of the line at the altar, slowly offering upturned lips the hope that this would be the day they would feel the newness, the refreshment from the blood of Christ. The priest approached my mother who took the cup. Then, he stood in front of me, lifting the cup. Before me, a specter. Engraved on the side of the chalice, was the name of my stepfather, “In memory of Samuel Solleder.”
The way the dream plays out, I refuse the cup, stand up, and walk silently from the church, never to return, either to my family or to the church. I walk out into the sunlight, free. I’m alive, not because of the blood of Christ having washed me free, because I don’t take the cup. I walk away from the memory of the man who abused me, away from the mother I love who would sit next to me as I drink the bitter cup, the blood of Christ, in memory of the man who had shamed me and criticized me and used me and then acts as if everything is all right. I could not reconcile the two.
If this was even-handed justice, then I had received it all. The blood, the hand, the words, the touch of evil.
There’s a second dream. I take the cup from the priest, I bring my arm back, the wine spilling on the floor behind me, staining the carpet, the supplicants gasping. My arm comes forward in slow motion, the poisoned chalice leaves my hand and arcs, twisting in the air, the priest’s eyes are wide, aghast at this unseemly turn of events. The chalice falls through the air, slamming into the lovely stained glass window, the glass shattering, Jesus falling silently to the floor in shards, one eye staring up at me from a broken piece of stained glass. I turn and walk out.
Instead, ... my own blood rushing in my ears, anger and hurt and confusion tumbling my thoughts, I take the cup, the blood of Christ. Through my tears I have begun the journey of forgiveness. I just didn't know how long it would take.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Powerful and fascinating writing.