On The Blood of Orlando and of Christ

St. Catherine of Sienna

I awake, my body already tense, my mind scrambling to make sense of things. The little red digits of the hotel alarm clock next to me read: 3:47am. A man is yelling. A woman is screaming. Crashes. Bumping against the wall. It’s the room across from me. Her voice again, pleading “No, no, no.” Whimpering. Crying. Silence.

I lay awake praying the Hail Mary and crying into my pillow. Ten minutes later, I stumble into the bathroom, nauseated, retching but dry as I hover over the toilet. And then I lie back down, and imagine myself breaking the neck of the abuser to ensure he never abuses again.

And then a question interrupts my violent fantasy: and after his body goes limp, then what? It’s a question my body cannot answer. After your body, hands twisting, pulling, cracking, and his body, contorting, snapping, breaking — what comes next? My body can’t tell me that.

But my body can tell me a lot. My body told me just by sound that there was violence and pain, that someone else’s body was in danger, that someone was using — or threatening to use — his body to hurt another body. I say my body told me because I remember what it did: the tension, the racing heartbeat, the curled fists, the rapid fire neurons keeping my brain alert: the feeling (how do I explain this materialistically?) of dread at menace that made the surface pores of my skin tingle, not with ecstatic pleasure or excruciating pain but with fear.

The body speaks in primal ways. I could use the language of Jungian psychology, or evolutionary “reptile brain” theory, or even Christian mysticism, to explain this principality. And it’s not always bad: the woman who *knows* things during her pregnancy, the boy with the *knowing* eyes of encouragement. But sometimes it feels like the time that the white skinhead biker at the gas station looked at me as if I was prey and my body suddenly revealed, in ways that defy reason, the archetypal scars of bearing the weight of a black body in the lynching South.

In his book Between The World And Me, black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes it this way:

But all our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.

His words hold true for all forms of embodied violence against all kinds of people throughout all of history. I think of violence against women, violence against Native Americans, violence against gay, lesbian, transgender people. And his challenge is profound, difficult, and embodied: do not look away.

The gun violence in that gay nightclub in Orlando, the shooting-to-death of innocent people, is embodied horror. But the grace of people responding in love has also been embodied. What else could we say about bodies in line to donate blood from their bodies to bodies that have lost blood and need blood.

Violence. Compassion. Bloodied bodies, bodies giving blood.

Deafening booms, the ears ring. Searing pain, the shrapnel embedded in the side. Pools of blood beside lifeless bodies lying prone on the floor. The horror of broken bodies. But then, more bodies: seated, stationary, a needle poking through, blood slowly draining out, out into the tube. Gloved hands prodding, comforting voices reassuring.

I’m not a materialist. I don’t believe that the physical body — with its cells and skin and beating heartbeat — is all there is to the human person. But the body is important and, as a Catholic, I know that the body is also where grace resides and where it is given. To quote T.S. Eliot, each time I go to Mass I eat the “bloody flesh” that is “our only food” and drink the “dripping blood” that is “our only drink.” The flesh of Christ upon my tongue, swallowed in my mouth. The blood of Christ, red upon my lips, flowing down into my gut.

It’s a poignant reminder, when I look upon the Crucifix during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to be reminded that my sustenance is not just body, but a body marred by violence, and not just blood, but blood that was spilled for me when a crown of thorns pierced through the skin of our Blessed Savior and came dribbling down his sweat-soaked face.

Tolkien captures the paradox: “”By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste — or foretaste — of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.”

The stigmata. A mystical and miraculous sharing in the sufferings of Christ. The saints, some of them, suddenly afflicted with bloody holes in hands, feet, and side, just like Christ.

I’ve always been wary of stigmata miracles. Not because I find them hard to believe: after all, this is a religion that says a virgin conceived and a man came back from the dead before rising into the clouds and on those days when I’m able to believe that, well, weird wounds appearing at odd times is much easier to swallow. But I’ve been wary because, well, what’s the point? It’s bad enough having a crucifix to remind me that Christ suffered in the flesh: I’m a privileged American who hates pain and death and prefers an empty Cross: the empty Cross is appealing: “well yes He suffered, but the important thing is He’s ALIVE NOW NOT SUFFERING SO STOP TALKING ABOUT SUFFERING.”

The stigmata, Christians who are not Christ somehow suffering in the flesh too? Terrible.

But here’s the thing about the stigmata: St. Paul clearly articulates that the reason we are to rejoice in our suffering and to bear each other’s sufferings is not just because we are somehow abstractly and metaphorically one body as in the sense of one of humanity. No, St. Paul says we suffer to fulfill what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body (Col. 1:24.) Now, without going total theology-nerd, the end goal for each human is to be joined in union with God which means when we suffer, we do so in part as participation in the redemption of humanity, that is, each human who is body and soul.

When I hear, see, or read about violence against bodies, such as the heart-rending violence in Orlando, my body tells me certain things. My body tells me that pain is bad, that suffering should be avoided at all costs. My body tells me I have three choices if I’m ever in that kind of situation: flight-fight-freeze. My body tells me that it can pull a trigger, or thrust a knife, or lunge forward with palm strike to immobilize the threat.

But my body can’t tell me what happens after the assailant’s body is limp on the ground. My body can’t tell me what happens after I launch bombs in the Middle East. My body can’t even tell me what will happen to me when I have breathed my last and die.

My Catholic faith doesn’t require me to ignore my primal instincts and desires or to attempt to disembody myself. Actually, on the contrary, I am invited to kneel, and wash, and bow, and eat. But my faith does require my eyes to turn upward, to behold the bloody flesh of our Redeemer, and outward, to behold the bloody flesh of my fellow human siblings who are victims of violence.

I imagine that St. Catherine of Sienna, who experienced the mysterious joy of the Stigmata, can intercede on behalf of the living and dead of Orlando better than I can. I know that the Savior who was whipped, pierced, crucified, bore suffering on and in His body on behalf of all those in Orlando, and all who have ever lived and died in this world.

Catholics talk about solidarity: more than just an intellectual understanding of another’s suffering or empathetic concern, solidarity refers to the intimate, mystical way in which we share the sufferings of others, turning sorrow into joy, darkness into light. I don’t know what solidarity means for me living here in PA today as I reflect on the events in Orlando: but I imagine it involves my body, and His, and conscious love, so I’ll make the sign of the Cross, and pray that Love heals all.