I’m not the sort of person who uses the words miracle and piss in the same post. I’m not the sort of person who uses the word miracle, but that’s what you’re getting today.
A few Sundays ago I took the train down from St. Andrews to Edinburgh with friends to visit a church as part of a class assignment, to consider architecture and a liturgical community’s interaction with space. We got into the city around 9 that morning and broke off to our respective churches. I misread the church I was supposed to go to and walked fourteen blocks down to the arts district holding a cold cortado and my iPhone listlessly, and between the galleries and the paint supply store I realised I had gone the wrong way. Or, really, I had no idea where I was supposed to be going.
Defeated, I searched Google Maps with the vague descriptor Episcopal, because it was last August I had felt at home in a church and had yet to do so in Scotland and this day was, irrationally, the day that I most needed it to work, for church to happen, be felt, be known.
Well, for Him to be. He was silent those days. (Is still, though that’s another story.) I read my Bible. I prayed. I wound the clock. Nothing. I thought I had dealt with this, had reached the place of accepting His silence with some sense of sophistication, but I hadn’t, I was pissed and tired and over it and I needed Him to show up. I told Him as much, there between the gallery and the paint supply store.
I chose St. John’s because Joan Didion’s church in New York was St. John the Divine. It was twenty minutes away on foot and I hastily began the walk back out of the arts district toward the other side of downtown.
I don’t know why you need to know this: Didion, New York, twenty minutes, but there is something that feels necessary about the remnant details, that in a post where I shall speak of miracle I’d better be sure I also speak of ordinary.
It turns out that St. John’s was the church I was supposed to go to all along and, as is the way with Providence, I arrived four minutes before the service was to begin.
I sat in the back, making the old, familiar genuflect toward the altar, sliding quietly into my pew and stilling, willing to hear the icons whisper to one another, to remind me of that old Story I forgot so often.
Two women behind me chattered away. Without charity I wished them to be quiet. I wished for a moment of true stillness, true reverence.
Why do we think reverence is a state of silence? Awe a moment of quiet? Again, stray thoughts concerning the ordinary.
Just as it is ordinary to say that in this downtown church, a homeless man nearing seventy lumbered in, reeking of piss, and sat down in the pew behind me, beside those chattering women.
The stench was so strong I nearly gagged. I nearly moved away. But something held me. Something, perhaps a capital S Something fixed me.
The two women beside him excused themselves. I heard a deaconess take their place. “Hello,” she whispered to him kindly, “May I sit with you?”
And I felt church again. Not God, but church. For the first time in months. I felt church in the space of that question, in the stench of that piss.
In 1987, the American photographer and controversial artist Andres Serrano unveiled a photograph called Piss Christ.
The image depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in what was alleged to be the artist’s own urine.
Backlash. Uproar. People called it offensive. And it was.
But shouldn’t it be?
When we put crosses around our necks, when we glibly hang a cross, do we remember that it’s similar to if we were now hanging electric chair talismans about our throats?
We have scrubbed the cross of its horror. We have scrubbed the cross of its pain.
Perhaps we have scrubbed our Gospel, too.
Maybe submerging the crucifix in piss shocks us back to seeing, shocks us back to the pain of the reality that He died.
Artist intent or not, maybe it’s bringing us back to that painful mount, that crooked tree where Word made flesh died, where the Gospel is not free of the stench of death, the stench of piss.
I had to make a decision, early on in the service, that I would pass the peace to the homeless man.
When it came time to reach over my hand, to say The peace of Christ! I would do so, I would not cringe.
The homily was about justice and, as an aside—again, the concern with the ordinary—it was the first homily I have ever heard systemic misogyny used correctly and applied rightly. The creed that followed was not Nicea, not the Apostle’s, but Philippians 2. As a congregation, we professed our faith in the One Lord, Jesus Christ, by reciting
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men …
When I shook the man’s hand, I met his eyes. They were grey and blue, touched with a few speckles of brown. I blessed him with the peace of Jesus and he blessed me with the same. I could smell piss like a cloud around me when I took my hand away. I could taste it in my mouth, feel it burn my lungs. I felt nauseous for a moment but stole myself, settling back into the pew as the offering began.
The woman sitting beside me had taken the man’s hand as well. She leaned over to me, smiling like she knew that old Story too, “There is nothing more true than freely given Love.”
And I nod, because this is the thing you do when someone hands you truth and you presume they capitalise that L in Love and your hands smells of piss and the room smells of incense and the choir is singing again and again, Glory. Glory. Glory.
I’m sure I could have written this entire post with the word urine, but I didn’t.
Piss gets at the baseness of this whole thing, at the baseness of us. We are creatures who piss and s— and f— and I am using all of those words for a reason, because they are powerful and harsh and to be honest they better get at what sin is than the cute little euphemisms that spray a cheap air freshener on our tangled messes and false hope for the best.
This is a post in which the most honest word to use is piss. So I used it. Irrationally, I hope you understand that perhaps most of all.
When I went forward to receive the Eucharist, I could still smell the piss on my hand.
It followed me, a cloud of witness, lingering in my lungs and prophesying to my dry bones.
(This is where things change. This is the part where I tell you that the choir sung something particularly well or that the atmosphere was so charged. Or perhaps I say how ordinary it was, I write about the sound of the wooden floor and the tentative movement of my steps, because if I write of loud then miraculous makes sense or if I write of ordinary than miraculous, again, makes a kind of sense.)
I don’t know what to tell you other than things as they so happened.
I so happened to kneel at the altar rail. I so happened to have Body placed into my hand. I so happened to smell that piss linger still. I so happened to dip that Body into the Blood and so happened to respond to The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation with a determined, Amen only to have it resounded back to me with a jubilant thunder, Amen! And I so happened to consume the Blood drenched Body as my hand lingered in front of my face.
My hand that no longer smelled of piss.
I blinked a few times. I crossed myself. I went back to my pew. What else was I supposed to do?
I sniffed my hand every few second on my way back to my pew. My hand didn’t smell of flowers. It didn’t smell of anything, really. It simply no longer smelled of piss.
And then the epiphany, quick and hasty, from Him or within me through Him: this is what the Eucharist is about. This is what all of this is about. That cross is death. That cross is death and disgusting and dripping shame. My sin, my ache, my tangled heart is like a piss-drenched vagabond stumbling into the backs of churches wondering if anyone will offer me peace. And then the Eucharist, Christ our Lord, making all things new, making all things beautiful in their time.
So I call this miracle.
Writing it out, it does not seem so fantastic, that a hand should no longer smell of piss.
But I suppose that’s the way of these things.
In my commitment to the ordinary details, I need to add this—
Over cookies and tea after the service, I chatted with the man for a time and learned that the church had been keeping watch over him, had made it possible for him to work. When it came time for me to leave, I realised that our conversation had taken up so quickly, so naturally, I hadn’t asked his name.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t ask your name.”
I shook my head softly. “Thank you, Gabriel.”
When I passed the icon of the Trinity on my way out, I lingered for a moment, made a gesture as if to say, Of course You’d do it this way, before heading back out into the midday sun, into His silence, or whatever this is, washed clean of that stench of piss, washed into whatever is this now.