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River of Tears

I was living in rural Montana when the Holy Spirit first touched me in a real way. Growing up, I did not have emotional experiences in church. Church was like being in the center of a flower press — gradually being made thinner by traditions I didn’t understand and roles that didn’t fit me until I was dried out and cataloged between the pages of a church directory.

But, this church and this service were different. Maybe it was the communion bread, baked by hand each Sunday morning from the wheat grown by local farmers. Or maybe it was the way that people looked into your eyes when they shook your hand.

I was at a Lenten confession ceremony — a tradition in Catholic churches. I knelt on the soft, cushioned vinyl of the kneeling bar and listened to the priest give a reflection. Let’s see, what will I tell the priest? I haven’t cussed much lately because everyone is so laid-back around here. And I can’t tell him I was speeding on a road where there’s no speed limit. I was cataloging my civic violations rather than confronting my separation from God.

Until then, I had enjoyed watching other people confess from a distance. They shuffle forward in line, heads hung, shoulders slumped like cattle being herded to slaughter. But coming out they step brightly, smiling, often wiping tears of relief from their eyes. I did not yet understand why.

For some reason, the Holy Spirit began to move in me. Rather than a catalog of the rules that I had broken, it was as if I felt an internal mirror reflecting back the distance between my heart and my God. In the span of one breath, I was reminded of the many times I had been given the chance to show love, but had turned away — times I had been given the chance to forgive, but had withheld it.

I moved forward slowly into the line waiting to confess as if wearing a lead shawl and shackles. I do not know what I told the priest. Nor do I recall what he said to me. If he gave me a penance, a traditional set of prayers to atone for my sins, I did not say them.

As he placed his hand on my forehead to pronounce my sins absolved, I felt a warm, river of glowing light move through my body like beams from oncoming traffic. A pulsating electric current reverberated from my head through to my feet. I was washed with a warm electricity. I had deposited the weight of my sins and picked up a God so real that He could be tasted.

But it wasn’t just an experience, like the euphoria of a rock concert that I could file away in my memories when it was over. It changed me.

The first thing I noticed were tears — lots of tears. They were not always sad tears. I had a visceral sensitivity to things that before were unnoticed. A newspaper article about women trampled in Pakistan to get to a food truck brought me to tears. Old people holding hands on a bench made me cry. It was like being eternally three-months pregnant but without a physical child.

I started crying in church. People around me sat neatly, hands folded, feeding Cheerios one at a time to their toddlers, while tears streamed down my face. Catholic services are known for reverence, not passion or emotion. I struggled with the embarrassment of my outbursts. So, I started planning. I intentionally checked out mentally and emotionally.

For some reason, I selected the word “strawberries” — a word that is neither particularly holy nor especially sinful, but remarkably pedestrian. Whenever I felt the rawness of the Holy Spirit swelling in me, I would block it out by repeating the word “strawberries” over and over in my head until it passed.

There were a few times — like when I listened to the account of Christ’s crucifixion, that I was unable to shut it out and it swelled over me. But most times I succeeded in sitting quietly with my hands neatly folded, doing what I thought I was supposed to do in church. Over the next six years, I blocked out the Holy Spirit and dove into being a “good Christian.”

Several years after joining Common Ground, I was in a prayer ministry training class. The facilitator talked about how she felt tears when the Holy Spirit was nearby and wanting to speak to her, and I realized that these embarrassing tears that I intentionally pushed back by repeating “strawberries” over and over in my head were actually a sign that I was in the presence of God.

Since that day, my experiences with the Holy Spirit ebb and flow. Sometimes I welcome the warm tremor of the oncoming tears. Sometimes all I do is notice the uncertainty of the Spirit’s whispers and hunches. And sometimes when I am buried in the distractions of life, the Spirit is nearly unrecognizable. But today, I finally understand that if I want to be closer and live with the Spirit, I will probably get embarrassed— something I am learning to get used to.

Post by Monica Tatera (CG Midtown). Want to connect with us about our blog? Send us an  email.