From My Bright Abyss
And this: that church at the end of our block turned out to be part of the United Church of Christ. The sanctuary was small, starkly beautiful, less than half filled with a mix of old German immigrants, a smattering of hipsters and upscale parents, and a couple of people who seemed homeless or headed there. The preacher had real presence. Tall, striking, clearly literary, he was definitely not the sort of person you expect to be leading a struggling little urban church. The service, too, was a surprise. After welcoming gays and lesbians, the preacher spoke inspiringly of the church as a place where our individual and communal needs and instincts were reconciled. His sermon was as witty and entertaining as it was theologically sophisticated and discomfiting. Its essence was how the void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross. I didn’t really understand that notion then, but I felt, as did Danielle, oddly lightened by contemplating it. We filled out a visitors card but, hedging our bets, slipped out the side door to avoid having to meet the preacher.
But the next morning, he emailed me. We had an interesting exchange about churches, backgrounds, poetry. I revealed that I had “health problems” but nothing further. He said he hoped to see us again, if not in church then at least in the neighborhood, since he and his family lived in the parsonage and thus just a few houses down from us. And that was it.
Meanwhile my days were manic and scattered, my nights wakeful and anguished. We traveled to Boston to see a specialist, at the time the only person in North America who was doing research on my particular disease, and he terrified us by speculating – irresponsibly, it now seems to me – that my symptoms suggested that the cancer might already have caused amyloidosis in my heart: a death sentence.
That was the cloud I was walking under early one bright winter morning, maybe a week after the exchange of emails with the preacher, when I heard my name. I turned around to see him half-running down the street toward me as he tried to pull a flannel shirt on over his T-shirt, careful not to trip over his untied shoes. I was in no mood to chat, especially not to an enthusiastic preacher, and all my thoughts were hostile. But I stopped, we had a kind of introduction as he tied his shoes, and then he asked if he could walk me to the train station. Those days are a blur to me, but I remember two things from that morning very clearly. I remember Matt straining to find some language that would be true to his own faith and calling and at the same time adequate to the tragedy and faithlessness – the tragedy of faithlessness – that he perceived in me. And I remember when we parted there was an awkward moment when the severity of my situation and our unfamiliarity with each other left us with no words, and in a gesture that I’m sure was completely unconscious, he placed his hand over his heart for just a second as a flicker of empathetic anguish crossed his face. It sliced right through me. It cut through the cloud I was living in and let the plain day pour its balm upon me. It was, I am sure, one of those moments when we enact and reflect a mercy and mystery that are greater than we are, when the void of God and the love of God, incomprehensible pain and the peace that passeth understanding, come together in a simple human act. We stood for a minute in the aftermath, not talking, and then went our suddenly less separate ways.