If a miracle happened to you, wouldn't you tell everyone? What if they thought you were crazy?
Poor in health but rich in faith, Gina Merritt—a young, broke, African-American single mother—sits in a pew on Ash Wednesday and has a holy vision. When it fades, her palms are bleeding. Anthony Priest, the junkie sitting beside her, instinctively touches her when she cries out, but Gina flees in shock and pain. A prize-winning journalist before drugs destroyed his career, Anthony is flooded with a sense of well-being and knows he is cured of his addiction. Without understanding why, Anthony follows Gina home to find some answers. Together they search for an answer to this miraculous event and along the way they cross paths with a skeptical evangelical pastor, a gentle Catholic priest, a certifiable religious zealot, and an oversized transvestite drug dealer, all of whom lend their opinion. It's a quest for truth, sanity, and grace . and an unexpected love story.
|Publisher:||David C Cook|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Claudia Mair Burney is the author of the novel Zora and Nicky: A Novel in Black and White, as well as the Amanda Bell Brown Mysteries and the Exorsista series for teens. Her work has appeared in Discipleship Journal magazine, The One Year Life Verse Devotional Bible, and Justice in the Burbs. She lives in Michigan with her husband, five of their seven children, and a quirky dwarf rabbit.
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a love story
By Claudia Mair Burney
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Claudia Mair Burney
All rights reserved.
REGINA DOLORES MERRITT
I was sitting in church at the Vineyard when Christ first wounded me. Minutes earlier Mike had fingered a cross of ashes onto my forehead.
Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
Sounds like a plan. I shuffled away from him.
Throbbing pain in my knees heavied my steps—that, and the grim mood of my fellow pilgrims. You'd have thought Mike had forced us to peer inside our own caskets.
We trudged back to our seats like mourners in a funeral procession, our footfalls a solemn largo on the red-flecked carpet.
For the heck of it, I pictured my tombstone:
Here lies Regina Dolores Merritt.
The world's oldest twenty-four-year-old.
Mother of Zoe.
To torment myself I filled the blank space after Zoe's name with all of the people I didn't have to love me. That made me want to throw down a punch bowl like Florida Evans did on Good Times when her husband died. I imagined shaking my fists to the heavens, shouting, "Dang! Dang! Dang!"
She didn't say dang, but I don't cuss.
That was my darkest moment during the whole service, and it had more to do with my life. Death would be an upgrade.
We didn't do somber much at the Vineyard West. Not that we were shallow, but let's face it, joy themes garner more enthusiasm. On Ash Wednesday, however, we cloaked ourselves in sorrow and wore our ashes like nuns wear habits.
When I arrived back at my seat in the near-empty balcony, I thought of how our Ash Wednesday service made me happy deep down in my ragamuffin soul. I could practically hear the dulcet sounds of Donny Hathaway's crooning coursing through my soul with the slow ease of an opiate.
"Take it from me, someday we'll all be free."
One day I'd lay my pain-filled body down, along with my bipolar brain that stuttered between dancing and lying in sackcloth and ashes. I'd take off the cheap polyester dress of corruption and put on glittering incorruptible couture. Best of all, I'd be with Jesus face-to-face. That's all I wanted—all I wanted in the whole wide world.
Now seated, I closed my eyes to press the mute button on my senses and surrendered to the sweet delights of silent contemplation—if you can call our worship band softly playing Hillsong praise ditties silent. But I could contemplate with that. Mike had already darkened the sanctuary so we could focus on an image of James Caviezel hanging on the cross. The audio-visual team had projected him onto a giant screen hovering above the worship band.
I definitely wanted to avoid looking at stills from The Passion of the Christ. Personally, I found Caviezel way too good-looking to play Jesus, especially when he smiled—which I have to admit he didn't get to do much in the movie. And there was the fact that he was James Caviezel. Period. I mean, come on. He played J. Lo's boyfriend in Angel Eyes. I couldn't get that out of my mind. If I looked at him, I'd never get my holy groove on.
So, having avoided movie magic, I did what old black charismatic folks sing about; I kept my mind stayed on Jesus. Hallelu ... Hallelu ... Halleluuuuuujah.
God's peace enveloped me. I hugged my arms, wrapping myself in His tranquility. It covered me like a soft, consoling blanket. Jesus hadn't healed me yet, but He always soothed my fibromyalgia-broken body. I exhaled and burrowed deep inside the solace of the Man of Sorrows. He was my true comfort. The only reason I was still alive.
Unlike the other crosses in my life, the marking on my forehead—that ironically looked like a plus sign—caused me no discomfort. The migraine headache clawing its way up the base of my neck, however, raged like the great tribulation. My limbs burned like they'd been injected with liquid fire. The way my poor knees thumped in agony you'd think they were a couple of talking drums.
I had a hard time driving to church, my hands hurt so much; an itch that felt like hives tickled my palms. I assumed it would eventually pass, or some other searing pain would draw my attention elsewhere. My fibro was so severe by then it ignored the eighteen points of pain that distinguished it from, say, lupus or arthritis. Pain showed up with no regard to protocol. And I was sensitive to all things: perfume, fabric dye, strong odors—not so strong ones. Nothing helped.
I didn't use drugs, not even prescription ones. None of them—and I do mean none—worked once the "honeymoon" period passed. On occasion I popped a homeopathic remedy under my tongue or slathered my aches in arnica gel. Mostly a few simple words kept me sane in chronic pain, if you could call a bipolar sistah with fibro who took prayer over Percocet sane.
My prayer? Share with me, Jesus. A breath prayer I'd come up with as homework when Mike decided to do a series on the Spanish mystics Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. I dug my little prayer because it was my way of asking Jesus to bear my cross, while at the same time opening my hands to receive a portion of His.
I loved Him.
Without a doubt I didn't believe I could truly take on the suffering of Jesus, but if even the desire to give Him a modicum of relief from the agony of the cross pleased Him, oh yeah. Share with me, Jesus.
Once again I opened my eyes to see if the image on the big screen had changed. Nope. James Caviezel still looked like ground chuck. I squeezed my eyes shut again, my thoughts flying back to the real Jesus.
You could have pulled rank, being God and all, and busted up out of there, leaving the cross far behind You, but You didn't. You knew nobody would take care of our sin problem like You would. And there You hung, naked and nailed through Your hands and feet. Your side pierced by a sword. And though none could see it, except maybe Your mama, Your very heart had been impaled for the love of us.
Oh, my precious, magnificent God.
Share with me, Jesus.
I could understand what happened if there had been something special about my worship, but I didn't do anything different or spectacular. Yet luxuriant peace spread through me so profusely that I opened my eyes from the shock of it, and found Jesus, not James Caviezel, right in front of me.
Tears filled my eyes. I blinked to shy away from the blinding light of His radiance. All the colors of the prism danced within His body. I heard music, unlike anything I'd heard before. My heart stilled, and my breathing ceased. The tangled thoughts that filled my mind unraveled like a knot of thread and fell away as I found the Center of centering prayer. Awareness of anything else vanished.
Angels must have frozen and watched in stunned silence.
The Son of God Himself knelt before unworthy me. He picked up my hand and His mouth descended. Then Jesus, with the gentleness of an ardent lover, kissed me, leaving a perfect red rose in my hand.
I only went to the Vineyard that morning because my red-faced, type-A editor, Larry, threatened to fire me. Again. I'd planned to leave work to get medicated then show up later with a church bulletin and a testimony. If he thought the peace and goodwill I'd returned with came from God, I wouldn't correct him.
And I went for Veronica, my mother. If I didn't show up between now and Holy Week that woman would drive me bat crazy. She was holding out for an Easter Sunday appearance, but Easter was hard for me. The holiday conjured Nana in a way her nearly empty duplex didn't anymore.
Let's say I owed Veronica: my life and three hundred and fifty-two dollars. I'd stolen a few bills from her to buy some smack during a dark night of my sin. I'd noticed my body craved heroin whether or not it was pay week.
Not that I'm making excuses to justify my behavior. I should have said no to my impulse, but I rarely said no. Okay, I never said no. Not then. I had every intention of giving the money back, even though I never gave anything to anybody, in retribution or otherwise.
She said she didn't want money and called me a few foul names. After that she went pious on me and said I needed to come to church since I was going to hell in a handbasket. The handbasket was a nice touch. I could picture an actual handle on it. And it would be Veronica, not God, rushing me to my fiery eternal destination.
I hadn't been to church in over two years—not since the fiasco at the tabernacle of the holy and badly dressed women. Veronica dragged me to that torture chamber when she was in her scrubbed-face-and-skirts-to-the-ankles-for-Jesus phase. Those people inflicted all sorts of psychic trauma on me. They forced me into an on-the-spot baptism, just because I said I'd accept Jesus as my personal Savior.
I'm Catholic! I believed in one baptism for the remission of sins, and Nana made sure that had been taken care of when I was an infant. When I mentioned it, they cast a Catholic demon out of me. I went along with it. I had amassed a multitude of mortals and venials since my infant days. Perhaps in my dour reasoning I'd hoped a second baptism would pacify Veronica and make her pastor, a poor man's Billy Graham, stop yelling in my ear. The man showered me with spittle and tongues of fire to deliver me from satanic bondage. The experience may have damaged my hearing. It certainly made me grateful for breath mints.
If only he had used some.
And just so you know, the sound of "tongues" with a country twang will sear your brain evermore.
Why would she leave the Catholic Church for that madness?
Thinking about the experience forced me to reassess my priorities. I decided to reverse the order of my Ash Wednesday activities. I hooked up with my pharmacist-slash-herbalist before I went to church.
Yes, I called my pusher a pharmacist and herbalist. Those titles sounded so much more benign than drug dealer. I needed as much help as I could get to blunt reality. Coke, heroin, cannabis, semantics. I did what it took to get me through the day. And the nights. The awful, God-forsaken nights. So sure, I called Fox, failed makeup artist and ordained minister from the ... what? Universal First Church of the Internet hacks? I couldn't remember. In not many minutes hence I stood behind my duplex—Nana's old place—while Fox watched me relish smoking a speedball for which I'd paid too much of the little money I scarcely earned.
The frigid February air numbed my bones, but I didn't want to go in the house of the Lord reeking of junk. Yes, I was concerned about how I smelled, until I wasn't concerned about anything anymore. Feeling mighty mellow, I drove the thirty miles or so to the Vineyard West in Ann Arbor and made my way inside the building.
It may not have been Easter, but the memory of Nana assaulted me at the first sign of ashes I saw on a forehead. I could almost smell the lingering scent of the Oil of Olay she'd slather on her face in the morning and at bedtime. The memory of her contralto voice as she prayed the rosary in halting Latin rushed to my ears. In my mind's eye I could see her fingers flying over the beads as she prayed in hushed, reverent tones:
Benedicta tu in mulieribus.
Blessed are you among women.
I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard her say those words, but in that moment the Vineyard had given me my grandmother back, and there she was, wearing her uniform of all black, with a lace mantilla covering her silver coronet. I could see her wrinkled face, white as porcelain in the glowing light of the vigil candles encased in red glass. She'd light two every time she went to Mass. Prayers flickered to heaven for Veronica and for me, her little Anthony. How I missed going to church with her, watching her august form poised in unflappable tranquility on a wooden pew. Years of osteoporosis and prayer rounded her shoulders, but she was perfect to me.
She taught me, a fat, awkward, and sullen kid, to befriend the saints. After Mass we'd share—saints and all—Sunday dinner with all the trimmings in her tiny, crowded duplex. We'd break our bread without Veronica. Oh, there'd be the longing for her, Nana's mother ache, and my little boy one. Together we'd partake of the unquestionable knowing that she'd fail us, once again. Nana's love tempered the penetrating sting of her absence.
Thank God my poor grandmother couldn't recognize me now.
Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.
Despite the fact that I'd blown into the church sky high off the potent blend of cocaine and heroin I smoked, I staggered over to Mike's line to receive ashes.
Remember that you are dust.
I'm not sure if self-importance or desperation drove me, but I couldn't resist going up. Perhaps the wounded kid deep down inside of me needed some sign of grace. I knew God could smite me for my arrogance, but I needed Him. Maybe I thought I'd find a hint of absolution.
It's possible that I asked for a miracle, or at the very least a sign. I don't remember. I hadn't yet been roused awake.
A black chick stood in front of me in line. If I hadn't shown up she'd have been the last one to get her cross. Thin, spiral-curled dreadlocks hung past her shoulder blades. She wore weird tree-hugger clothes, organic cotton or something completely lacking style. Black and green? Not a combo I saw much, but she didn't compel me enough to investigate further. Frankly, I didn't give a rat's tail about saving the planet. I needed to be saved! I'd noticed her. That's all.
I wasn't attracted to her. Much. I didn't even see her face until later. I noticed one or two other parts of her, but let's be honest, any male would notice those assets, even the church boys. If I had even the remote impression that she might be lovely I don't think I would have sat anywhere near her. No, white girl—the powdered kind—was my mistress. She robbed me of my need for a mere mortal woman.
Even when I was sober, I didn't tend to date the sistahs. I told myself if I sat by the black chick I wouldn't be distracted by too many dirty thoughts about her. When I thought about it, she'd be the perfect pick. She was inconspicuous enough that if, or rather when, racist Veronica spotted me, she wouldn't have thought I was on the make. With that occupying my muddled thoughts I determined to follow my black environmentalist to wheresoever she leadeth.
Even high I would have noticed if she smelled like roses.
Mike marked her forehead with ashes, then reminded me of my own mortality.
Remember that you are dust.
All of life is dust. At least my life is.
I tried to give myself a pep talk. You're a big boy now, pushing thirty, Anthony. Nana can't hold your hand anymore, not from that nursing home, and Veronica certainly won't.
The black dreadlocked sistah "dust" went all the way—bless her heart—to the balcony with me shadowing her like the ghost of a man I was. I parked a discreet distance from her.
We were the only two up there, and I wondered why she'd chosen isolation when she could have been on the main floor with the others.
Poor soul sistah. Stuck in the balcony with a junkie like me. She looked so lonely. I actually thought—for about half of a second—that if I had more dope I'd have offered her a hit.
Ah, but I smoked it all, soul sistah. Anthony Priest is an only child. I never learned to share.
The journalist in me wondered what kind of demons she had. If I weren't so self-absorbed at the time, I'd have created a story for her in my head. I use to do that, make up stories for people. Sometimes, I'd get their real story later and compare my version to theirs. Everybody had a story, and every story had worth. You could dive into a life deep enough to touch bottom, and bob back up to watch the ripples circle, achieving with the subject a type of union. Few things stirred compassion in me, but stories did. That's what made me good at what I did. Did being the operative word.
I looked down at the congregation. Like a mammoth icon, Jim Caviezel hung on the cross on a big screen over the stage. I turned my gaze away from the image and sighed. I'd rather watch soul sistah, and did for a moment.
As it turns out her face wasn't bad at all, a bit roundish for my taste, but it had an intriguing, light-amber honey color, and I found it surprisingly sensuous. Her high cheekbones hinted at Native American ancestry somewhere in the mix. The roots of her hair that hadn't dreadlocked yet and curled in waves maybe half an inch from her scalp. I liked her eyes, two big brown almonds, touched by sorrow.
Don't get me started on her mouth.
If Veronica had come into my head she'd have had a massive coronary.
But at least I'd have been rid of her.
God, that wasn't necessary. Sorry.
I turned my attention back to the big screen, though I found no solace in The Passion of the Christ images. Let's be serious. Jim Caviezel starred as some sociopath freak in High Crimes with a very hot Ashley Judd as his sweet thing. Mel Gibson should have known you have to hire an unknown actor to play Jesus, and then he can't be in any other movie again, ever. You can't get it on with Ashley Judd on the sofa in one movie, and then be the Lord on screen a couple of years later. And vice versa. You can't be the Lord, and later get hot and heavy with, say, Angelina Jolie. It's discombobulating.
And you know what the biggest affront to my sensibilities that movie image provided? That surely Veronica was somewhere on the main floor inconsolable, weeping at the celluloid image of an actor made up to look like the suffering Son of Man. And he'd get more sympathy than her real suffering son.
While I told myself, Get over your rotten childhood, Anthony, it happened.
The black chick screamed, piercing my drug-addled haze. An infusion of the scent of roses perfumed the air. Heavy crimson droplets fell from her hand onto her yoga pants.
Excerpted from WOUNDED by Claudia Mair Burney. Copyright © 2008 Claudia Mair Burney. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ,
The Sorrowful Passion of Mary Rose of Inkster,