“Mom, mom!” a tense, tightly curled nine-year-old hissed from the pew in front of me. “Mom, the Lord is stuck in my retainer.” My own post-Eucharist prayer expanded, I considered the last time I, too, got stuck with the Lord.
One April morning three years ago, after sending children to school and husband to work, I cashed in my frequent flyer miles for a ticket that afternoon to Rome. En route to the airport, I answered an innocent call from husband Bill, who launched into suggestions for dinner with the four-star general whom — he forgot to mention — was visiting that evening. “Honey,” I finally interrupted, “there’s something I need to tell you . . .”
I arrived in Rome, rested, and then, at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, 2005, joined a line to do what I had come to do: pay my final respects to Pope John Paul II who was lying in state in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica. As I slid into position that bright, crisp Rome afternoon, I did not know that a 15-hour overnight vigil in the cold and the crowds lay between me and my purpose. I did not know that I was stuck with the Lord.
I passed the following slow hours as a pressed point in a mass of bodies — a particle in plywood. I came to know every detail of my elbow-to-elbow, rear-to-stomach neighbors — details that I really did not want to know. I heard them, I smelled them, I felt them with every inch of my tensed body. I suffered — gazing anxiously the first few hours for a shortcut or escape to accomplish my goal without these people. I lost my footing on a slimy spot I could not see. I choked on cigarette smoke that drifted up from a squatting smoker near my knees. I wept silently, and pushed aside an arm jammed into my lower back. I braced as the leaning crowd lunged and lurched in frightening, rushed bursts of painfully short distance.
At some graced moment I still cannot pinpoint, I gave up my struggle. Perhaps it was exhaustion, but as the night darkened and the remaining hours stretched, the crowd’s voice reached me. There was rejoicing, even shouting, in unity, when the line advanced eight feet instead of two. People shared bits of food, shifted weight to rest upon each other, and smiled without words. A man loomed over and guarded me when I lowered to sit for a rest. I took deeper notice of the youth who broke into song, laughed, and shouted “Papa” spontaneously into the sky.
This was, after all, why I had come. John Paul II was about life — everyone’s life, however small, frail, repulsive, impoverished, or even corrupt. He conveyed in a miraculous way the utterly un-modern concept that we all matter, equally and soundly, in the eternal sight of a loving Creator. It’s really not easy to love all this life of the Lord, but John Paul II did. He conveyed to the millions, “You, too, have worth and dignity.” There I was, pinned in the Body of Christ, so intimate, so close, so intense — like having the Lord stuck in your retainer.
In St. Peter’s, in the still dark hours of early morning, I passed by his body with my love and grief and awe pounding in my head. Everywhere, people knelt, wept, and hung their heads — longing with the love that marks Christ’s body. The same longing will be found in the lines waiting for Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States. With that visit, more people, I imagine, will find themselves with the Lord in their face — wondering how to extract themselves from uncomfortable intimacy. But there among the stink, shove, and press of people will be the Body of Christ in intensity.
It’s like having the Lord stuck in your retainer. Back in the present moment, I watched the little girl’s alarm rise as Jesus and her human hardware tangled — and yet her mother’s eyes encouraged calm. Reassured, the child paused, withdrew her retainer, untangled the Lord, and smiled as she slowly slipped Him back into her and bowed her head. Being stuck with Lord is, after all, our calling: “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful”(Col 3:15).