Over the years, I’ve heard many new parents say they were going to start going back to church “for the children.” As a life-long churchgoer, I’ve never really understood how people thought regular time with a worshipping community would do for their children what it had not, apparently, done for them. If they thought church would be good for their children, why did they stop going themselves? When I had children of my own, I realized how much I had been missing the point. I’m now convinced that people take their babies to church at least in part to process their own huge feelings.
One late summer afternoon, I stood in the living room of my mother-in-law’s house in the country, Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite “Ubi Caritas” wafting beatifically from the stereo. My baby girl looked out from my arms through the picture window as the gently falling, golden leaves of the walnut trees made the slanting afternoon sunlight dance, and my heart became so full, I thought it would burst. Suddenly, I caught a faint aroma of the love of God, and even that fleeting incense made me know, for a certainty if only for a moment, how crazy God is about us. It was all true. Get it down out of the stained glass windows and breathe life into it, and it’s all true. If I hadn’t already been a churchgoer, I would have started being one then.
Amy said a similar thing about her own return to public worship, though in her case, the environment toward which she went was so different from the one she had left, that “return” might not be exactly the right word.
“At the time, I kind of framed it as for the sake of my children,” she says. “Looking back, I realize that was also important for the sake of my own self, too. And seeing the girls and how much trust they put in the people there, and how loved they are--it's just so foreign to me, especially because they're kind of outsiders, you know? They weren’t born into the church. The girls don't profess that they’re Christians at all; they’re really mouthy about it, actually. My older two are like, ‘I don’t believe that Jesus shit!’ And everyone there is like, ‘All right! That’s cool. You can ask whatever questions you want.’ And it’s just such a bizarre experience for me to see that—that it's such a safe space for them, and they actually have the freedom to ask questions. It’s really amazing.”
You Can Make Me Clean (Matthew 8:2)
That could be a perfectly satisfactory ending to a story of healing; the girls have opened up to an unprecedented degree in response to all the love and acceptance they were shown, and the inner brick wall around Amy’s heart has begun to crumble. Definite progress in a healthy direction. But as it turns out, the Big Healing was yet to occur. Amy hadn’t had her vision yet.
“So that night, or, I guess, the next morning, I had this--I think I categorize it as a vision, looking back and having some time apart from it, because it just didn't feel dreamlike in any way, shape, or form. I’ve had some really crazy dreams--I dream a lot, and I keep track of my dreams--but it was so set apart from anything I had ever experienced.
“So I had this vision that I was on an altar. I was naked, but clothed in light, if that makes sense. I was aware of being naked but it felt like I was clothed because I wasn't embarrassed or vulnerable about it, because I felt covered by Light.
“And Jesus was there, in a white space with an altar, and I’m laid out on the altar like an offering. And Jesus has this sword in hand. And I should mention that when I grew up, it was also the time when a lot of the Left Behind stuff was coming out, and so there was a lot of emphasis on the end of times, and Jesus with the sword, and so that imagery has always been deeply triggering for me. It’s very troubling. I do not like any violent religious imagery at all, because it's really upsetting for me.”
TheLeft Behind books are a series of novels by Tim LaHayeand Jerry B. Jenkins, set during the end-times. The first book in the series appeared in 1990. All the books draw heavily on apocalyptic biblical imagery—particularly the Book of Revelation, which was written to encourage followers of Jesus during a time of hideous persecution under the Roman Emperor Domitian.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Rev. 19:11-16)
The author of the Book of Revelation was undoubtedly familiar with similar language and imagery from the Hebrew Bible—referring originally to an earthly king, but later interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Christ.
Strap your sword upon your thigh, O mighty warrior,
in your pride and in your majesty.
Ride out and conquer in the cause of truth
and for the sake of justice. (Psalm 45:3-4)
This is the sort of imagery Amy found so troubling.
“So this is really interesting, for Jesus-with-the-sword to be there--and I didn't feel fear, which is, like, wacky. And I'm aware of this, that Jesus-with-the-sword is here, and I feel ready, and not terrified--not at all. I'm just on the altar, a plain white slab in a white space. I’m not bound--I'm very freely there, I'm very aware that I have the choice to be there, and I am absolutely making that choice. I'm ready. In fact, I'm really ready; I’m waiting for it.
“And so Jesus takes the sword, and cuts me open-- just slices from here”—indicating a point just above her navel—“down to here”--indicating her perineum. “Sliced open, as if having a massive surgery, and I'm looking down at what looked like my very anatomically correct organs and blood and guts and everything, and I'm not feeling afraid at all.
“And then Jesus takes the sword, and takes my heart, and marks the Cross on my heart. And Jesus doesn’t actually say anything, but I can hear in my mind this sentiment: This is so you know that I am yours and you are Mine, forever. And then Jesus takes the sword and cuts the Cross into my uterus, then cuts the Cross on each ovary, and says, Your illness is over; it’s done, it’s Mine. Just give it to Me, and it’s Mine. Then Jesus cuts the cross into my forehead, and again I can hear the words, though Jesus’s mouth isn’t moving: I am claiming your mind. You can give over the fears and anxiety; you don't have to be running away constantly. You’re sealed.And then He marked my hands, which was for healing others, and then my feet so that I would walk on the earth with peace.”
Fearing that Jesus was done with his bloody ministrations, vision-Amy called him back. “And then I begged, ‘Wait, Jesus! Can you do my neck? Because it’s really been bothering me!’” She laughs at the memory of her audacity. “I have an old injury from years ago, and ever since then I’d had pain in my neck constantly. So I begged Jesus to mark my neck, too! So Jesus turns my head gently—and each time, there’s blood; it's not just superficial, it’s bleeding, He actually cuts into it. And I'm so grateful, and completely overwhelmed by this; I'm not frightened or terrified or anything. It's like the sword is for me, not against me. It’s for healing, not for division.
“When the vision ended, I felt as if they were glowing hot, these marks on my body--and that sensation continued for probably about a week and half after. I was constantly aware of that sensation of these glowing marks on my body.
“Also, I had this sense of just being released from years--a lifetime--of anger and fear and grasping in the dark. Especially because in the seven years prior I had really been in this dark-night-of-the-soul space, where I just felt so helpless. I never stopped seeking, but it felt in my heart like I had given up, because I’d never be released from the shame and anger, the pain, the sickness, that comes wrapped around with all this stuff from growing up. And the vision just shifted me.
“Since then I haven't had any symptoms of my autoimmune disorder at all. They did follow-up bloodwork, and everything was clear. No more inflammation in my body, which is crazy, unbelievable. No hives no issues, no problems--totally normal cycles.”
She says that before the experience, she had always been more jittery than her ‘Type A Jersey personality’ could account for.
“There's always been this low-level hum of anxiety in my body all the time. That's gone--and that, probably even more so than the illness, has been the biggest relief.
“I’m still a complete neurotic New Jersey Type A; that's a part of my personality in some ways. But it's that sensation of the Damocles sword of God hanging over my head”—the sword that was ‘against her’—“that's been replaced with healing, and I feel peace and safety, instead of the feeling that I was going to be smited at any moment from the Lord above. So that that sense of peace has really been huge, as has just being capable of being in church and not being triggered, especially by certain songs or certain phrases that used to send me literally running out of church in tears. I just don't feel that.
“I don’t mean to say that I’m now some magic Jesus drone--you know, everything Jesus all the time!I still have questions, I still have issues with the church at large and with Christianity, and I still am grappling and wrestling and everything, but there's a sense of steadiness in all of it, whereas before there was a sense of like freefalling in the dark. And that's a much, much nicer place to be.
A Castle to Keep Me Safe (Psalm 31:3)
So far, the nicer place has proven durable.
“It still is still very real for me; I've never experienced anything like it, and it changed me forever. Or maybe restored; maybe that's a better word. Redeemed. The reason I've always been seeking, the place I've always been looking for--it rebuilt the temple that had kind of fallen internally, or that I had with my own devices smashed into pieces. It was rebuilt, and now I have this gorgeous palace to live in and enjoy and be at peace, because I know I'm safe.”
A sense of personal safety makes it easier to give generously of oneself, without fear being depleted.
“That brick wall of anger I felt, that these kids were constantly asking for nurturing when I never got any, has just fallen, and instead I just constantly want to give them more, even though it's exhausting. This space that’s opened up internally for me—it feels endless.
“My husband was totally supportive of the vision,” Amy continues. “He definitely can't relate, as he does not have a mystical bone in his body, but he could see that it absolutely shook me to my core. I think he was really happy for me because as he has walked with me on this journey, it's been really hard for him to see me struggle so deeply with my faith.”
“He is Not a Tame Lion”
One thing that made the visionary experience so powerful, and its effects so lasting, is the vast difference between the Jesus Amy had previously imagined and the Jesus she encountered in the vision.
“I've always experienced either a very legalistic God, in which he is, like, in a suit behind a lawyer’s desk, writing rules-- or the God that I sought after: the hippy Jesus with flowers in guns and rainbows and a unicorn horn. Those were the two gods that I had experience with. And then this experience just blew all of that out of the water, into this ancient space where this is not the God that I thought existed.”
I mention that this God reminds me of Aslan, the Christ figure in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. The one who, the Narnians are always pointing out, “is not a tame lion.” In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first time the visiting human children, who have entered Narnia by magic, hear about the lion, they immediately ask whether he is “safe.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
“Yes!” says, Amy. “Exactly! This is a totally wild, untamable force of love and fury and so many different things all wrapped into one. The whole thing felt like an encounter with a God that is so ancient--felt so brutal and wild--it was unlike anything I’ve ever imagined.” She pauses, searching for words, then shrugs.
“It’s hard to put those thoughts into words because it's kind of outside of thought.”
Jeremie Begbie, a Cambridge-trained theologian who now teaches at Duke Divinity School, points out that in most stories, we expect the ending to come at the end. In the Christian story, however, the ending—or, at least, the beginning of the end, of the consummation of everything—comes in the middle, with the Resurrection of Jesus. I ask if Amy feels as though the end of her story has been transplanted to the middle. She nods.
“It was a middle chapter,” she says thoughtfully. “It was my thirty-third year of life, and I got spring out of jail.”
Afterword: What “Really” Happened?
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” --J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Marianne Williamson, the apostle of A Course in Miracles,once said that her friends had been telling her the Devil was all in her head.
“Oh, my God,” she answered; “that is the worst place he could possibly be! That is notgood news! If he were out stalking the earth somewhere, or between your ears,where would you rather he be?”
Amy’s illness, if we accept her belief about its origins, was psychosomatic, meaning that her mind made her body sick. When people hear “psychosomatic illness,” the generally conclude that the disease is “all in the head.” But Amy’s disease was in her body, debilitating and even potentially fatal. Psychosomatic illness has its origin in the mind, but it is real, physical illness.
There are a number of ways in which to “explain” Amy’s experience. They might include:
- During the healing service at the church, in which she encountered a loving, accepting Christianity radically different from that of her own experience, Amy’s unconscious mind concluded that she no longer needed her illness to protect her from the demands of her church. That night, it conjured up a healing vision as a symbolic way of letting the illness go and embracing wholeness.
- Jesus of Nazareth came to Amy in a vision and healed her disease.
To my mind, these apparently opposed explanations really represent a distinction without a difference. To dismiss the generation and remission of a serious illness by saying it was “only her mind” is to say that the mind is not miraculous, which I am not prepared to say. As C.S. Lewis said of the body, our minds are “vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds.”[i]If Christians are, as the Church teaches, the collective Body of Christ, where else should Jesus be than in our minds?
To object that Amy does not identify as a Christian is, I think, immaterial here. None of the people Jesus healed in the Gospels was a Christian, either. Amy was raised to believe that Jesus heals, and it is apparent that, at least at some level, she still believed that at the time of her healing. As Jesus himself said, “You might not believe in me, but you should believe in the things I do.” (John 10:38)
However we parse her experience, Amy herself is at peace with it.
“At first I really wondered--was it a dream, was it a vision, was it allegorical, was a real? And as I’ve gotten more space away from it, I honestly have just kind of taken it at face value for what it was: a genuine vision that forever changed my life.”
Afterword: Streams of Living Water (John 7:38)
I touched base with Amy about a year after our initial interview, to see how things have developed since her vision. It is Lent—the penitential season that precedes Easter.
“It's funny,” she muses. “I've actually been thinking about that vision a lot lately. It’s Lent, and the process of repentance brings up for me Jesus-With-The-Sword, and the use of that sword to cut away all attachments that keep us from divine unification.
“A few weeks ago I was really struggling with forgiving myself for something that had happened years ago, and mentioned it in passing to my priest. He asked me to come to him for confession (I had no idea the Episcopal Church practiced confession!) as he thought it would be healing. It was a heart-wrenching, but indeed healing, process, and it had a feeling that was resonant with the vision: meeting with Christ-with-the-sword, cutting open, and then away, the things that bound me.
“I keep meeting that Christ and it shakes me to my core every time. The ripples from that vision have touched every corner of my life and have fundamentally changed me in every way.”
I wondered how a person could have an experience as radical as she had and still not identify as a Christian.
“I consider myself a Christian now. Ultimately, the vision and the process afterwards made a convert of me. It astonishes me how powerful that vision was and I am so grateful for it. It saved me in so many ways.”
I ask about her physical health.
“I still, to this day, have not had a recurrence of the autoimmune disorder,” she replies. “Like, miraculous.”
Miracles seldom appear in so dramatic a shape as Amy’s visionary encounter-- though if we are alert, we may find the fingerprints of the miraculous all over our lives. Having children, I believe, sharpens our sense of the miraculous.
“The girls have a lot of spiritual questions and struggles,” she adds, “but have actually come around to Christianity. I cannot tell you how profoundly the healing of Christ in my life and in the lives of my daughters touched me every day."
Before the Counter-Reformation, the Resurrected Christ was typically depicted nude, because, since He had triumphed over sin and restored humanity’s original innocence, there was no longer any shame attached to the body.
[i]Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Geoffrey Bies, 1942.