Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I spent yesterday morning at the dentist. My recent checkup revealed some extra work that needed to be done, and the only time they could get me in was Holy Thursday, which seemed somehow appropriate. No worries of not doing enough penance that day!
The appointment began with my dentist uttering one of the most ominous phrases known to mankind: "Let's try this without anesthetic." She thought there was a good chance that we could get through the procedure sans medication. We would know if her assumption was incorrect, she explained, if I felt a sudden explosion of searing, mind-melting pain that electrified every molecule of my being with pure agony as her metal tools ground deep into my tooth (I'm paraphrasing, but that's how I heard it).
This is not the kind of situation I handle well. Not that I react to other life challenges with the grace of St. John of the Cross, but this kind of thing really brings out the worst in me. I hate uncertainty and I hate physical pain, so when the two are combined I sink to levels of spiritual immaturity that occasionally leave seasoned confessors asking, "You seriously thought that?"
As I sat there in the chair, the smell of burnt enamel mixing with a sound like a turbo-charged chainsaw and a foreboding feeling of pressure on my tooth, I realized that I should at least try to turn to God. The problem was that I didn't know how. I attempted to recall all the books I'd read on the theology of suffering, but nothing came to mind. I couldn't come up with a single Bible verse or quote from the Catechism to comfort myself with. One hundred percent of my mental energy was dedicated to fixating on the fact that at any minute, that tool that seemed to be some combination of a jackhammer and an ice pick could be stabbed into a raw bundle of nerves within my tooth.
I closed my eyes in an effort to stave off a panic attack, and when I did I noticed that there was a song playing. A speaker in the ceiling above my chair poured out Mazzy Star's ethereal hit, Fade into You. Most of it was drowned out by the grinding and buzzing, but the chorus was loud enough that every few minutes I could hear lead singer Hope Sandoval's dreamy voice say, "Fade into you," the first two words sung slowly and carefully, their notes held for seconds.
Fade into you. It was like an answered prayer; if God speaks through 1990s alternative rock classics, maybe it was an answered prayer. I had been trying to run myself through a masters-level seminar on the theology of suffering, and, naturally, it turned out to be impossible with all the distractions of the dentist's tools. I had no brain cycles to spare for analysis, no energy available for recalling data. But what I could do was let my fears, my discomfort, even myself, fade away. I could put at the front of my mind Christ crucified. Not the concept; not what I had read about the meaning of Christ crucified; simply Christ, the person, nailed to two pieces of wood. And I could let go of everything else, simply let it all disappear into him.
The visceral anxiety was still there. Evidently there is an alarm in my brain that gets set off when powerful electric instruments come within two millimeters of exposed nerves, and it's pretty hard to silence. But the more I focused on unity with Christ, the more my racing thoughts stilled. I became awestruck by truths that I'd overlooked too many times before: That our Faith is founded not on a collection of spiritual insights, but on a living God. And this is not just a God, but a God who humbled himself to become a person; not just a God who became a person, but a God who became a person who knows what it is to suffer.
With the '90s anthem still drifting from the speaker above, I let myself fade not into Christ the concept, but into Christ the person. And though my surface-level discomfort may have still been there, I became acutely aware that I was no longer suffering alone.