Take Me to Church

When I was 27 I had a condition called Henoch-Schonlein Purpura. Its when your immue system attacks the lining of your blood vessels. They become inflamed and they start to leak. The blood leaks out and forms purple spots under the skin and into some of your internal organs. People with Rheumatoid Arthritis are prone to it, but it’s still pretty rare in adults. Lucky me.

I had to stop going to work because any pressure caused the blood vessels to leak more. So when I stood, the bottoms of my feet would turn purple and swell. If I work a watch, I would have a bruise in the shape of the watch. It happened in waves over and over for months. I took lots of steroids and mild chemo drugs to settle down my immune system, but nothing worked. I got 3 second opinions. They all agreed on the diagnosis and became excited to see such a rare condition. They would gather up all the residents and any doctors on duty to come see it. They took pictures for some medical book. My Rheumatologist says they still use those pictures to teach medical students. They were all thrilled to see it, but no one could make it stop. Lucky me.

Months went by. I couldn’t work and I was miserable with pain. Friends came by and cleaned the house. Neighbors brought over plates of food. But as time went by, I became pretty down. I heard thru the grapevine that an old college friend was pretty sick too. She had breast cancer and was getting hit hard with Chemo due to her age, so I was surprised to hear from her. I knew she was much sicker than me so I was touched that she wanted to know how I was.

She said the Chemo was so intense that she had started to pray for death. This was a shocking thing to hear from Sally. She was super Catholic. In college when we went to the beach, I would read a smut novel and she would pray her way thru a stack of Saint cards. I told her we would never meet guys if she didn’t put those damn Holy cards away! It had been a few years since I saw her but I knew that part of her would never change.

I wasn’t nearly as religious as Sally. I wasn’t even sure what I thought about the whole God thing. My parents didn’t go to church when I was young so I never really got the hang of Mass. When it came time for my confirmation, my Grandmother was horrified that I hadn’t taken the classes to prepare and receive the Sacrament. I remember being in about 6th grade when she brought me to see her Priest. After a long discussion, lots of apologies from Mama and a fat check exchanged hands, I was put on the list to make my Confirmation. That was about all my religious training. Later in life, my parents went back to the church, but I never really found my place. I wanted to believe, but the logical part of my brain kept poking holes in all the Bible stories. If I prayed at all, it was to say that I needed a reason to help me believe.

Sally asked me to meet her in the city for dinner. She said she wasn’t able to drive at that point but her mother would meet me at the Speed Line stop. I REALLY did not want to go. Everything hurt. I was purple and swollen. I had only been out of the hospital for about 10 days. I would have to do a bit of walking and I didn’t know if I could. She said she needed to talk to me. She was going thru so much, how could I turn her down?

So that night, I wore the biggest, softest shoes I had. I hoped the restaurant had soft chairs. I hoped they ate fast. I really wanted to back out, but whatever she wanted to talk about seemed very important. I had my Dad drive me to the train. I couldn’t even walk from the parking lot to the station. When the train pulled in, Sally was waiting for me. She had no hair, but flashed thal kind smile that won everyone over all thru college. She helped get me to the car and we drove toward the Society Hill section of the city. After a few minutes, her Mom pulled over and gave Sally a nod. Sally said she needed to just go in the building down on Willings Alley. It wouldn’t take long. Would I come with her? Huh? I can barely walk and we’re running errands? No way! Why did I have to go too?

I looked at her bald head and she smiled and pulled my arm. How could I say no? We went down the alley and into a small hidden courtyard. That’s when I realized, she had brought me to church! I stopped dead in my tracks. Church? Really? Now? She tricked me. I was furious. Sally, there is no way I feel like going to church! I thought we were going to dinner. I was NOT happy. We went in and I sat in the last row. I am not walking up near the alter. I didn’t want to be there. I begrudgingly sat in the last row. Sally wanted to move up but I wouldn’t move. The back row was good enough for me.

Old Saint Joseph’s is the oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia. It is tucked away between some other old buildings. You can’t even see it from the street. That’s how it survived. In the 1870s most of the Catholic Churches in Philly were burnt down. There was a fear of Catholics and their Pope. There was huge influx of Irish immigrants at the time and the people of the City of Brotherly Love didn’t want Irish Catholics making a home there. It is also a little unusual because it is a Jesuit Church. The Jesuits are a different breed than the average Priest. They are said to be free thinkers and often challenge the Church’s teachings.

Here I am, tricked into sitting in some old Jesuit church at 8 o’clock on a Friday night. The pews where hard wood and the kneelers were instruments of torture even on a good day. I was tired and in pain. What was Sally thinking? I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I sat there and steamed.

The Mass went relatively quickly. I was feeling pissy so I didn’t even attempt to kneel or stand. I was too busy being mad. The Mass came to an end and Sally sat up and moved to the edge of her seat. Someone started playing hypnotic music on the piano. The mood in the church changed. What the heck was going on? We should be heading out to the car. It was so quiet I couldn’t ask Sally or her Mom what was going on. They had their eyes locked on that Priest. Everyone did.

He asked everyone to pray the Our Father. The he closed his eyes and seemed to meditate for a long time. When he opened his eyes again, he welcomed us all to come up for a “Special Blessing” He had a soft gentle voice and the people started moving toward him. Four men quietly approached the front of the alter where he stood. They took their places, two on each side. Sally got up and moved to the center aisle an got in line. She waved for me to come too. NO WAY. I wouldn’t budge. What kind of church was this? What the heck were they doing?

Then it started. People approached him in pairs. Each took a place on either side of the Priest. The men stood behind the parishioner. The Priest anointed the forehead of each person. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to pray. After another moment he placed his palm on their head. Wham! The person passed out. The men standing behind them calmly caught the them as the fell backwards. Then they layed the person on the floor and the Priest moved on to the next person. After a few minutes there were half a dozen people out cold on the floor. My first thought was to call 911, but everyone seemed so calm and unsurprised. I think my mouth was hanging open.

Then it was Sally’s turn. The Priest touched her head and she immediately fell backwards onto the floor. I wanted to rush up there, but her mother motioned for me to stay put. I was trying to take it all in. Was this some kind of Faith Healing like they have on TV in the South? I had watched those ministries on Sundays mornings when I lived in Georgia. I always though the Minister was shoving the people backwards and putting on a big show. Well, I was having NONE of that. By now, my legs and feet were so swollen from being in a sitting position that I doubted I could walk. I could feel my feet throbbing and knew I was going to pay for this adventure with days of pain. I wished Sally would wake up so we could get the heck out of there.

After 10 minutes or so Sally opened her eyes. The catcher guys helped her to her feet and she came back to sit next to me. She whispered that when she was at her lowest point, when she didn’t want to live anymore, someone had brought her here. She described seeing the Blessed Mother when she collapsed. She said after that night, she had made an amazing transformation and was feeling so good she had to words to describe it. She wanted me to go up. She wanted to share this with me.

Geeze Sally, thanks but no thanks. I was the wrong person for his kind of thing. She begged me to try and started to cry. Her mother pushed me to the end of the pew. Sally kept mouthing “Please?” I had to give in. I got up. Her mother got up too. I thought about heading for the door but her mother was right behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Damn, how did I get myself into this? The line inched forward.

As I approached the alter, I became more and more annoyed. When my turn came, Sally’s Mother gave me a little push. I stepped forward. I had a baseball style jacket on. I put my hands in my pockets instead of on front of me in prayer. I took a wide stance with my legs. No one was going to push me down. Now that I was up there I saw the Priest was a small old man with kind eyes. He asked me if there was something I would like to pray for. I said No, everything was just fine. He gave me a small smile. He anointed my head with oil and closed his eyes. I stiffened all my muscles and leaned slightly forward. I was ready. He placed his hand on the top of my head. It was hot and I suddenly became dizzy. My legs got wobbly. Things started to get blurry. I pulled myself together and turned away. I walked down the side aisle but felt slightly disoriented. I plopped down in my pew and Sally was all over me. Well?? How was it?

I said fine. No big deal. Just give me a minute. Her Mom was still on the floor up there, so we waited. Sally prayed. I tried to get my head together. After a while her Mom came back and the service ended. I wanted out of there big time. Once we got in the car, they started bugging me again. How do you feel? How is your Pain? Did you feel anything? No, I didn’t feel a thing, I lied. They were so disappointed. Well, how are your legs? Hmm, how were my legs? Ya know, I think they’re OK. They started to clap in excitement. Wait a minute guys, just because they are not killing me right now doesn’t really mean anything. In my head I really thought, I’m feeling better but it’s probably just a coincidence, Let’s just see what happens.

The next day I still felt OK, but I’ve had good days before. One day at a time. A week went by. No flares. Two weeks. No flares. A month. No flares. Sally called to see if I would like to come to the next service the following week, Why yes, I said. I think I would.

This time I still sat in the back but went up without being pushed. When my turn came, the little old Priest again asked me if I wanted to pray for something special. Again, I said No. He looked into my eyes and asked if I was feeling better. I cracked. Yes, I did feel better. He said he could feel it when I was healed. He said to remember it was the Lord who healed me and placed his hand on my head again. This time was different. Just a warm hand and a blessing. No drama. And I was OK with that.

I never had another flare after that night. It just went away.

All this happened a long time ago now but I still think about it sometimes. At first I thought, I was pretty sure there was a God, but I never thought he knew there was a Karri. Then I thought, do I have to be all religious now? Should this be a private story or should I go around sharing it?

Was I now in some kind of God debt? Did I owe him to be really really good? I hoped not. I was in my 20s, nuff said.

I never really answered any of those questions. The story still haunts me. I guess I got what I had asked for, a reason to believe. I still have lots of doubts. I still don’t go to church. I do try to be a good person.

And I try not to think about God looking down over me.

If he is, I’m gonna be in big trouble.