A Brief Resurrection
By MARY JOHNSON
Published: March 29, 2013
I was sitting next to my husband in our neighborhood pub on a spring afternoon, munching on fish and chips. I reached for my beer and looked out the window, and there he was: a 30-something fellow in a scruffy beard. My ex-husband.
I felt my breath catch, my heart race. What was he thinking, showing up in my town, the New England city that felt so free because it held no memories of him? As he passed the window, his red robe slipped a little, revealing his collarbone. He was weighed down, lugging a cross along Main Street. Through the glass, I heard a familiar hymn: “At the cross, her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, for our Savior, crucified.”
It was Mother Teresa who introduced me to the concept of Jesus as my husband. I was 19. Until then, I’d thought of him more as model or partner or friend. But she insisted. On the day in 1980 when I walked down the aisle to take my first vows, the organ blasting, my sisters carrying flowers, she had written those words on a little card for me beneath the face of Jesus. “Sister Donata” — my nun name — “you are the spouse of Jesus Crucified.”
Countless times I’d sat at Mother Teresa’s feet and watched her face take on the glow of a woman in love, heard her repeat: “Sisters, no one has ever loved you as Jesus loves you, and no one ever will. Never allow anyone to separate you from the love of Christ.”
I thought I was over all that — but there it was, a tightness in my throat, a pulling in my chest. Something in me still longed for those years when I worked and prayed and laughed beside my sisters as we made the world a better place.
It was Good Friday. How could I have forgotten? During my 20 years as a nun, I would have eaten only a crust of hard bread on Good Friday morning, out of respect for the suffering of my mystical spouse. Though I’d since left the church, I dropped my napkin and stood, simply unable to do otherwise. I left my coat and my gloves and my real husband and ran from the pub.
A crowd had formed on the sidewalk between Jesus at the front and the priests trailing behind. I looked over the shoulder of a gray-haired woman, but two tall teenagers blocked my view. I was frantic to see the man in the robe.
This was crazy, and I knew it. He was no Jesus — he was a plumber or a lawyer or some guy who worked in a convenience store, a parishioner who grew his beard all winter so he could carry a cross down Main Street on a nippy spring day. I didn’t even believe in Jesus anymore. Yet here I was, an atheist searching for the Messiah in the crowd.
Had Jesus forgiven me? I wondered, in spite of myself. Would he take me back?
I had sinned. Or that’s what they called it. I fell in love with a sister, then with a priest. I sought consolation and friendship from others when a nun should seek only Jesus.
But I hadn’t left the convent because of a scandal — I’d cut myself off from my lovers by then. I left because I couldn’t bear being forbidden to think my own thoughts, couldn’t survive in a group that valued conformity and obedience over creativity. Truth be told, my irreconcilable differences had been more with my in-laws, the sister-wives, than with my ex.
Yet, 12 years after my spiritual divorce, I found myself shivering on Main Street, repeating, “Lord, have mercy,” even though the things I felt guilty about at that moment were things I no longer considered sinful, like forgetting Good Friday and loving a human husband. What was I doing here? The hymns and the pageantry still held a certain appeal, the sense of being part of something larger than myself, but no way was I trading my hard-won freedom for a mystical thrill. Luke, my flesh-and-blood husband, was back in the pub, waiting quietly for me while I revisited my past.
I had to let Jesus go again. I had to let the sisters go. I thought I had let them loose long before, but they had clung somewhere deep inside, the way those we love somehow become part of us.
I stood on the sidewalk and allowed the crowd to pass around me. I’d grown tired of death and resurrection, bells and incense. I wanted fish and chips and beer. I wanted the half-grin on my husband’s face when I re-entered the bar. I wanted Friday to be Friday, nothing more.
Mary Johnson is creative director of retreats for A Room of Her Own Foundation. She is the author of a memoir, “An Unquenchable Thirst.”
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