This reflection is the third in our Lenten series, “First-Person Faith.” Read more about the Collegeville Institute’s first-person approach to theological discourse in our introduction to the series.
In late August 2014, my family drove to Edmonton, where my kids played with their cousins and I helped my brother hang, mud, and tape drywall in their newly finished basement. When we returned home to Winnipeg, I had to face the eight-and-counting young dead-or-dying marriages I’m helping to pastor.
Drywalling + the pastorate = the afternoon I woke up after a short nap and my shoulder felt like a tangled knot of bungee cords and climbing ropes. In a week, the pain spread to my neck, then down to my hip, then to the other side of my neck, then to my other shoulder—bungee cords growing like noxious weeds.
My wife booked me an appointment with a massage therapist. “It’s covered by insurance,” she said. “It doesn’t cost us anything. You’re taking way too many pills. Go.” My appointment was at noon at a place called “MassageWorks” and I went, even though I was not convinced it actually does.
My massage therapist is a grey-haired, middle-aged woman whose haircut and body morphology make me think of the cartoon Madame Medusa from The Rescuers. I strip to my underwear and hide under a sheet, and she comes in and pulls the sheet down halfway and starts kneading my back like it’s a huge, warm, stubborn lump of bread dough.
Facedown in a horseshoe-shaped cushion I mumble that the burning muscle in my shoulder might be from six seasons of tree planting. “I had a repetitive motion problem that started in 1998, from planting hundreds of thousands of trees,” I say, “but it hasn’t bothered me for years.”
“Repetitive motion problems can be really tricky,” she says.
“It’s stress, too,” I tell her, recounting how at our last staff meeting I had a headache so bad I couldn’t concentrate on the agenda. Marriages falling like burnt matches, suffering so deep, so sad. “I think I’m carrying a lot.” She says she carries a lot of weight from her clients as well, the suffering in their bodies. “People come in with injuries they’ve been dealing with for decades,” she says, “and when they come to me for help, I know I’m not strong enough heal them. So at the end of the day, I just give it all back to Jesus.”
I grew up with church, Vacation Bible School, Christian rock music, Sunday school, prayer meetings, rededications, testimonies, daily devotions, youth group, Bible camp—the whole shebang—but I have put a good deal of it behind me. I’m plenty familiar with this sort of Christianese, but I can’t really hear its meaning anymore. “Give it all back to Jesus” might be just the sort of thing that puts some people at ease, but not me. I look at my watch—45 minutes to go.
“What does that mean? I mean, I know what it means, but what exactly are the mechanics of that? I don’t get how it works. Are you talking about praying?”
“Prayer is part of it, but the simple truth is that it’s God’s work, not mine,” she says. “I am God’s hands—literally, with this job—but the task is not mine. I just follow.”
Elbows, forearms, thumbs and palms: she works my back, stretching, stretching, stretching. It’s like she can see with her fingertips, and she finds the ropes and bungees and begins to untangle them. It hurts, but it’s not agonizing like I was expecting. I turn onto my back and she starts working on my legs. “To remind you that you’re a whole body, not just a sore neck,” she says.
I keep my eyes closed to help buffer the intimacy of it all, and as I relax I picture the face of one of my charges, a young Mennonite husband with a Ph.D., two children and another on the way, caught red-handed fooling around with other women. He spilled his guts to me after he got busted, and promised he wanted to get right, quit drinking, be forgiven, mend his ways and stay with his family, but six months later he met me again to tell me he was leaving his wife and kids. “I can’t do it anymore,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can talk me out of this.” I told him point blank that until the papers were signed, I was going to try to change his mind. I wept when I walked home from the meeting, wept when I told my wife, wept when I debriefed with my co-worker from church.
A week later there was another, and then another, and for whatever reason they’re all coming to talk to me. I can listen until they run completely out of words, but they all know my stance, the unsurprising traditional church view: it’s hard to be married, yes, but you should find a way to stay. I’m not cruel or rude, but I refuse to lie: “A vow is a vow,” I say. “The church says you have to stay.” I’ve been repeating it so many times lately I ought to have my lines down by rote. But I’m improvising every time.
“All happy families are alike,” says Tolstoy; “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And so I feel it all. I carry the weight of these men, of their suffering and sorrow, even when it’s obvious they’re behaving like assholes. For weeks now I’ve cried every Sunday morning as I scan the congregation and tally the fractures and try to weigh the grief.
And I’m crying again right now, here on this table. I was worried that my massage might be somehow awkwardly, embarrassingly erotic, my mind having conflated massage therapists with sensual massage types, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this, tears streaming down my cheeks, filling my ears. I keep my eyes closed like a two year-old playing peek-a-boo: if I can’t see her, maybe she can’t see me.
She works on my neck and shoulders, jaw, eyebrows, cheeks, temples, earlobes—Earlobes? Earlobes!—and after a while I catch myself dozing, snoring slightly and performing embarrassing drift-off-full-body-twitches. “Sorry,” I say. “Nothing to be embarrassed about,” she says. “It just means I’m doing a good job.”
She finishes with some light touches on my shoulders. “There’s still a lot of tension in your right side of your neck,” she says. “I’ve done my best, but some of that’s other people’s burdens. I can’t get that out.”
I get dressed, pay my bill, drink the bottle of water she gives me, go back to work, back to life, back to cleaning up the tile in the bathroom I’m working on. Back to fatally wounded marriages, back to my wife and my kids, my own domestic day-to-day that, in contrast with all the burnt-out cases I’m holding, looks astonishingly healthy right now. Back to wondering whether or not all the beauty and ceremony and high-sounding words of Sunday morning mean a damn thing for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, whether Jesus is really around, whether he cares enough or if he’s strong enough to help and whether or not I could ever be attentive enough to recognize him when he does.