A Force of Love and Fury

 
“So Jesus takes the sword, and cuts me open … and I’m looking down at … organs and blood and guts and everything, and I’m not feeling afraid at all.”

Amy has four adopted daughters with traumatic pasts, and they have a lot of needs.

“The amount of nurturing they need exceeded the amount of nurturing that I had to give,” she confesses, “especially because it triggered some stuff from my childhood–not getting any sort of nurturing, because my mom was too depressed and my dad was too angry. So I felt like the kids kept coming against a brick wall inside me, and I was really struggling with that.

“And I was sick,” she adds.

Amy is a small-boned, slender, birdlike young woman in her mid-thirties; as she perches on the edge of the chair, her quick, wide smile and surprisingly deep voice belie her almost fragile appearance.

In practice since 2007, Amy is a Holistic Therapist, employing nutrition, meditation, and spirituality, as well as cognitive psychology, to help her patients—exclusively women and adolescent girls–find healing “not as a collection of symptoms and issues, but rather a whole being.”

Amy got her start as a therapist early and informally, serving as a sort of wise-woman to her peers at her evangelical Christian university—peers who, it turned out, had had many of the same harrowing experiences she had growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household.

“Because I was so vocal about my feelings and the things I had been through, a lot of girls in my cohort started coming to me and asking the same questions. And as I was working through my own stuff, I realized that there was this huge need out there for someone who understood what it was like to be a woman and be oppressed in a spiritual space.”

The forces buffeting Amy were set in motion long before she was born.

“My parents met at a fundamentalist evangelical college in New Jersey; even listening to the radio was not okay. So they both came into their marriage with a really intense fundamentalist background, and we ended up going to more and more extreme churches.

“I started off in a fairly typical evangelical church, then moved to an extremely conservative and intense Baptist church, and then, finally, to a very fundamentalist evangelical free church. And that church is where I spent most of my time.”

“But there were expectations on your every thought, breath, action,” she recalls, “and everything was constantly focused on the evangelism of others and the submission of yourself. And it wasn’t like, ‘We want to share Jesus because we love Jesus, and we think other people will find peace in Jesus,’ it was, ‘We share Jesus because that’s what Jesus has commanded and everyone else is going to hell, and we have to save them.”

“Unfortunately, it was very clear from the beginning that I was a free thinker–and that was a huge problem, because I asked questions.”

The answers dispensed in Amy’s church did not come in response to questions, but directly from the doctrinal and scriptural sources that were, to the church’s way of thinking, divinely inspired, literally true, and not open to question.

“We had to take a confirmation class, where we read evangelical classics, and then the pastor would just brutally browbeat into us what our message was supposed to be, and how we were supposed to spread it. And I was constantly asking questions, like, what’s the point of the Trinity, why does that make any sense? Just basic theological questions I think any person would be wise to ask. But that was never okay; the pastor got extremely defensive and start pushing back on me.”

The church even gave the kids evangelism homework assignments.

“We had to evangelize 20 people a week, and we had to keep a journal of all of our ‘conquests.’ So I just made up every single one of them. I’d come up with these fantastical conversion stories, where my friend was kneeling in the middle of the cafeteria, with the light of heaven shining down, and the pastor must have read this and known that I was completely BS-ing, and that was a problem.”

“So at that point,” she continues, “the attempts at saving my soul began. For the church, that looked like berating me and separating me out from other people.”

I Would Fly Away and Be at Rest (Psalm 55:6)

As the state of Amy’s soul became increasingly suspect, so did the state of her mother’s. But the woman and the girl responded to this scrutiny in markedly different ways.

“I think she started to pull away,” Amy says, “and it was really sad. I could sense that she was struggling, and there was no room to struggle (at the church.) So my mom started falling into a deep depression, and I fell into anger.”

As adolescence set in, the tension between the authoritarianism of her church and Amy’s questioning mind—and what she calls her “mouthiness”–intensified. By the time she was in middle school, Amy was chronically angry.

Over time, she began to realize that her anger was rooted in resentment of having to be afraid all the time. Her family and church, fearful for her soul, had used fear of punishment, both temporal and eternal, to drive her onto the “narrow way” that leads to salvation–“to manipulate me into being saved in any way possible.”

The fear-fueled scrutiny planted the seeds of an anxiety that would last well into Amy’s adulthood.

“(I developed) this sensation of constant fear in the back of my mind that the punisher God was going to smite me at any moment–and I developed anger that I had to live with that on a daily basis. And it reached into every corner of my life; I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it without doing everything wrong.”

Because of Your Anger, There is No Health in My Body (Psalm 38:3)

The illness Amy was to develop in young adulthood had its roots in this culture of divine retribution. Her budding adolescent sexuality, in particular, plagued her with fear and shame.

“My sexuality was probably the biggest casualty,” she recalls. “The kind of message we received is that every time you touch yourself you’re nailing a nail into Jesus’s hands, or piercing his side. So you can imagine, as a 16-year-old girl who has sexual feelings, every time I even had a sexual thought I would literally burst into tears and sob in my bed, crying to God to save me from having sexual thoughts, because every time I was murdering the Jesus I was supposed to love. It was awful; it was just awful. And that was my life every day– just living in fear and anger and regret and shame.”

This radical demand for sexual purity exacted a high price from the young women toward whom its message was primarily directed. Besides policing their own sexual feelings, they were made to feel responsible for whatever lustful desires their bodies might stir up in teenaged boys. The combined effort often leads to feelings of shame, fear, emotional problems and difficulty with sexuality and intimacy.[i]

“By my last year of high school,” Amy recalls, “I was desperate to escape. My parents told me the only way they would pay for college was if I went to a Christian school. I didn’t want to take all the debt upon myself, so I set out to find the most liberal Christian school I could find!” She laughs as she recalls the subterfuge.

As often happens, it was a seemingly chance encounter that made her path clear.
“I had one other Christian friend, and she was really conservative–though her father ended up being gay, and now she’s a huge gay rights advocate. But at the time she was talking to colleges, and she said, ‘I heard that at Eastern University, apparently, there’s a big gay underground, so there’s no way I’m going there.’ And that clinched it; that was the moment I knew I was going to Eastern. I didn’t care what that school offered or anything; I just knew I might have some measure of safety there–that I could explore and ask questions. That was the first, kind of, ‘awakening’ period for me.” [1]

In college, though Amy began to interrogate her received faith with ever-increasing determination, she found it impossible to break out of the mold into which she’d been cast.

“I was able to start to grapple with some of the spiritual abuse that I had been through,” she explains, “but I continued to maintain, theologically and emotionally, a connection to the punisher God, and was just incapable of breaking free of that. It didn’t matter how much I tried, how many progressive books on theology I read, how many professors I talked to, how much I prayed; it had a vice grip around me.”

Her stint as a sounding board for her college peers ultimately led her to pursue a degree in counseling at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Chestnut Hill College emphasizes spirituality and women’s studies in a way that seems made on purpose to equip young women like Amy to practice Holistic Therapy aimed at the whole person: mind, body and soul. Many women, Amy has observed, have tried to excise parts of themselves that are causing them pain and holding them back from experiencing a full, normal life and spiritual growth.

“This is something I’ve become really aware of in other women, too,” Amy says, “the extreme shaming of my body, as a woman, really forced me to shut off from that part of myself.

Amy began to identify her own femininity as sinful, and to reject it both emotionally and, what was in some ways even more dangerous, physically.

“Between being constantly asked questions in front of the church and in youth group about how pure I was being,” she remembers, “and seeing the women in my church being trampled over because they were trying to live out the submission theology, I just wanted nothing to do with being female.”

The dual demands of sexual purity and feminine submission exerted such force as to make Amy feel as though she were being “spiritually raped.”

“I know that’s an aggressive term,” she says, “but it really felt that way. And I just didn’t want any part of that. So I really shut that whole part of myself off, emotionally.”

The word “psychosomatic” comes from the Greek words for “soul” and “body.” And just as Amy’s soul shut down against the onslaught of shame and scrutiny, so her body, too, armored itself against its own femaleness.

“I think physically that shut-off happened literally in my uterus, my ovaries–I just clamped down, so not to have any part of being female. And it ended up literally manifesting itself into an illness that has to do with my progesterone.”

The Body Keeps the Score[2]

Autoimmune Progesterone Dermatitis, in which a woman’s body reacts adversely to her own progesterone, is very rare. In its more serious forms, it is called Autoimmune Progesterone Dermatitis and Anaphylaxis, which is extremely rare. Since 1921, there have been as few as fifty published cases of APD, of which as few as 9 attained the status of full-blown APDA.[ii]

APD often presents as some combination of eczema, skin lesions and hives, inflammation of the hair follicles, oral inflammation with ulcers or blisters, and skin edema.

Additional symptoms that may indicate anaphylaxis include fever, shortness of breath, vomiting, internal bleeding, and the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity or the chest cavity.

APD can often be treated topically, or with injected steroids or progesterone-suppressing hormones. [iii] (It has not been shown to respond to conventional treatments such as antihistamines.)[iv] APDA can only be resolved with a hysterectomy and ovary removal.[v]

In Amy’s case, the disease did not manifest in its full severity all at once.

“It took a while to get there,” she recalls. “I had been getting sicker and sicker, and I was losing weight, and every time I would ovulate, seven days after I ovulated I’d be covered in hives the size of a fist all over my body. And then, as that progressed, I would start vomiting; I would lay in bed and waves of nausea would literally wake me out of a dead sleep, (and) I would just have to get out of bed and throw up. So I was just brutally ill.

“It took a long time to figure it out,” Amy says. “But eventually we connected the dots that it was cyclical and we did a simple test. They inject progesterone under your skin. And within five minutes, I had hives racing down my arms and my hands, and I was wheezing. And that’s a clear diagnosis.”

Once they knew what they were dealing with, and that it carried the risk of a sudden, fatal flare-up, the doctors prescribed a syringe of emergency allergy-counteracting adrenaline called an Epi-pen.

“I had to carry around an Epi-pen all the time, because it can eventually stop your breathing because of the hives. It had fortunately never happened to me, but I had to carry it around just in case. Progesterone rises and falls, and it is pretty clear when it does, so I usually knew when I was in the danger zone. But yes, sometimes it would just randomly surge and I would get hives all over the place.”

It seemed Amy’s unconscious mind had come to the defense of her femininity, protecting it from the onslaught it endured at her church even at the expense of causing a dangerous illness—a sort of scorched earth gambit in which the territory under attack was damaged so as to keep it out of the enemy’s hands. And the unconscious knew exactly where to work its sabotage: on the hormone that controls much of her body’s expression of its femaleness.

“Progesterone is what makes breasts grow,” Amy says, her smile breaking through at the irony of it all. “It’s what gives you cycles, and it’s what helps babies grow, and I literally became allergic to it. It’s so literal—I mean, Freud would laugh, you know? I shut myself off from my own pain and shame and suffering, and it came back as this physical manifestation, in my body.”

Amy heard from many of her friends about the problems with sex and intimacy they had acquired as a result of purity-oriented teaching.

“What’s really interesting is I had this discussion with, I think, almost every one of my Christian friends, or at least who grew up Christian, and not one of them has had an easy transition into being able to just be sexual. To this day they all still struggle with that with their partners.

“I went into a marriage having all of these problems with my body and my sexuality, and then I was supposed to suddenly be sexual! Oh my God, how you even function like that? It was so damaging. And it’s stuff I am genuinely still sorting through with my husband.”

“I Know There is Freedom”

Amy has not allowed her experiences to shut her off from her thirst for knowledge, or her search for an authentic spirituality.

“I never give up,” she proclaims. “I know that there’s this place internally that’s free of all of the shit that’s been heaped on it. I know–I know–that there is freedom and I never, ever, for one second, stop searching for it.”

Eventually, her search took her, with two of her four adopted children, to—of all places—a church.

“Because I am a seeker and I will always seek, I attended a ‘healing weekend’ at the Episcopal church that my husband had been attending.

“I like anything healing; I’m always game for that sort of stuff. It never works,” she adds, laughing, “so I tend to come away more sarcastic than I came in. I’m always on the alert for charlatans.

“Actually, it’s like an anthropological study for me; I like to go because I like studying what happens. I’m fascinated to see all of the different ways that people find healing, and what that process looks like for them.”

In very short order, however, Amy’s trip to church became far more than a participant-observer academic exercise.

“That Sunday, the whole church had this healing service, and the priest had asked everyone to join hands and pray together for healing. And so this lady I had never met–I don’t really attend the church at all–came across the aisle. She grabbed my hand and I just stood there watching everyone like I always do. And after the prayer she grabbed both of my hands, turned me to her and said, ‘I just have to tell you that Mary is here with you; she’s holding you in her lap–she knows that you have been given a mother’s heart recently, and she wants you to know that she is continuing to open your mother’s heart.’

“It was obviously very timely, because I had just adopted four children, and was struggling mightily. And I very uncharacteristically, especially in a church–because that is not a safe please for me at all–burst into tears. I was just very taken aback by it.”
Part of the shock was due to the fact that the woman was nothing at all like the women of Amy’s childhood church.

“She was so motherly,” she says wonderingly. “The women in the church I grew up with were seemed so distant. I think they were very shut down, now that I look back at it, and I had never received nurturing at the church. Never! I had no idea what that looked like—for a church to be nurturing. That’s not their job! Their job is to kick you in the ass and get you away from hell! And so this very motherly, nurturing woman, she embraces me, and she was rubbing my back and squeezing my hand as a mother would. It was very rattling for me.

“So after communion they asked each family to go find a prayer team; they had these prayer teams stationed, and you’d wait, and the next one that opened up, you’d go to.

“I don’t normally do communion, because that’s reserved for Christians, and I don’t consider myself one. But my girls do. I only had two of my girls, my younger two at that time, because the other two had stayed home with my husband. So I went up, and the girls took communion, and we waited, and sure enough, in the prayer station that opens up is this lady who had held my hand. So she motions us over, and we go over.”

Amy has asked me not to tell too much of her girls’ story, because that story is theirs to tell, not ours. So we agreed to say only that the girls don’t know where their biological mother is, or if she is OK.

“Now, the girls, especially the older one that I brought over, had never, ever, ever talked about the loss of her mom, or what she had been through; she’s really shut down about it. And when the woman asked what we could pray for, little Maria looked up and was like, ‘I just want to pray for my mommy–that she’s okay.’ And of course I’m already starting to bawl my eyes out, because my baby is talking about, or even just mentioning, her mom, which is a big deal.” Amy is visibly emotional as she tells this part of her story.

“So this woman immediately motions for a couple other older women to come over, and they scoop both of my children up, and are just rocking them; they’re not even praying, they’re just like, ‘It’s okay; Jesus has your mommy, it’ll be all right.’ I get choked up just thinking about it. And my girls are sobbing their eyes out, and I could see a moment of healing, especially for Maria, in that moment, because she hadn’t even acknowledged her mom, and the loss of her mom. And I know she has to struggle with it; I mean, what a horrible thing, they’ve been through hell and back, these kids. And these women are just, like, saviors; they’re coming in and nurturing and loving on these girls. They’re not telling them what they need to do—they didn’t even pray! They were just wiping her tears away like, ‘we understand, it’s okay, you can be sad, you’re being held.’ It was just so healing for them, and it was very healing for me in that moment, too.”

When Amy said a second time that the women didn’t pray, I asked her what she meant by “prayer.” She answered, “I guess I mean ‘pray’ in a traditional sense, like saying ‘Jesus please heal these girls’ or anything. Instead, they just kept telling the girls that they were safe, that God is holding their mother, and they are loved.”

“I felt like in that moment this fissure happened in that brick wall inside me. It was very eye-opening, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was very disturbed by it, because I had kind of banked my whole life on knowing exactly what church people are, because I hadn’t met any different ones. So that was really amazing.’

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. 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.[3]

“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,[4] 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.”

The Left Behind books are a series of novels by Tim LaHaye and 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 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 sternum—“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, 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, 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–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 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 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.”

So 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

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 objective, physical illness.

There are a number of ways in which to “explain” Amy’s experience. They might include:

1) During the healing service at the church, in which she encountered a loving, accepting Christianity radically different from that of her prior 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.

2) 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.”[vi] 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 did not identify as a Christian at the time 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.”

[1] Full disclosure: Amy was one of my students at Eastern University.
[2] This is the title of a book by Bessel van der Kolk.
[3] 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] Ibid.
[ii] Snyder, Joy L., MD and Krishnaswamy, Guha, MD. “Autoimmune progesterone dermatitis and its manifestation as anaphylaxis: a case study and literature review.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Vol. 90, May 2003.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] “Autoimmune Progesterone Anaphylaxis.” Bemanian, Mohammad Hassan, et al. Iranian Journal of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. June 2007; 6(2): 97-99
[v] Snyder
[vi] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Geoffrey Bies, 1942.

Review & Commentary