Pope Francis has observed: “The Church is a field hospital. Heal the wounded, heal the wounded, heal the wounded.”
Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan head up an online community called Sick Pilgrim that takes the command seriously. Their Patheos blog and Wonder podcast explore “the edge of faith, reason and doubt,” and have attracted legions of followers who might otherwise feel themselves on the outskirts of the Church.
The Sick Pilgrim Facebook page lists interests such as, “Catholicism, art, publishing, media, culture, music, saints, sinners, pilgrims.”
Jessica is the author of four books, a nationwide speaker on faith and the arts and a stupendously gifted writer, both literary and Catholic in the widest sense of the word: deeply human, deeply funny. I first came across her work in “Love and Salt” (Loyola Press, 2013), a book of letters exchanged with a friend when they were both pregnant in prose that has been called “raw and intimate, humorous and poetic.”
A native of New Orleans whose mother died young of cancer, Jessica felt shunned by the people of her parish as a teenager, as if tragedy had tainted her. She and her sister tried to commune with their mother’s spirit through Ouija boards, call-in psychics and mirror divination.
Jessica dyed her hair purple, got a nose ring and listened to Pearl Jam in her bedroom, weeping and praying that Eddie Vedder would save her. She suffered panic attacks at parties. Her “holy roller” father tried to commit her to a mental institution.
Fast forward: At 25, she was living in Pittsburgh with her fiancé Dave (they’re now married with two kids), working toward an MFA in creative writing and researching a thesis about the women who worked with Andy Warhol. She obsessed about losing the people she loves.
She was no longer a practicing Catholic, but neither could she quite turn her back on religion. She “drifted in and out of various houses of worship, always sitting in the back, always ready to bolt.”
One first Friday of Lent, she was walking past Sacred Heart Church on her way to work and decided to go in. The schoolchildren were singing the “Stabat Mater.”
At the cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.”
“I hadn’t prayed the stations of the cross in 15 years, and those little voices singing the grief of the world — the inevitable procession toward heartbreak and loss — hit me like a wave hits when you’re not ready to dive in and ride it. It knocked the breath out of me, and I sat and hid my face. …
“‘This is why I’m a writer,’ I thought. It’s not because of Warholian detachment and irony; it’s because I see the symbols and metaphors and poetry — and yes, death — everywhere. It’s because I learned to love the rhythm of words when I memorized those prayers and hymns and when I dipped my head and bent my knees to the kneeler.
“This was the day I became a practicing Catholic.”
Even as a kid, Jonathan was troubled by the fact that his father put UFOs and God in separate categories. His Midwest, charismatic Catholic family eventually became evangelical Protestants. Jonathan himself went to seminary, was ordained a Presbyterian pastor and served as a campus minister for many years.
But something was missing. His Protestant friends were appalled by his plan to rejoin the Catholic Church. The Mary worship! Those distastefully bloody statues! Why can’t you just stay ... normal?
But as Jonathan knew, the statues, the reverence for Mary and, above all, the Eucharist — “the time-tested powers of ritual and repetition” — are exactly the point.
“Mystery messes up our tidy categories,” he observed. We become “ready for the holy to come rushing in and burn us up in a holy fire. It’s all over the Bible, people being unnerved. Angels have to tell people not to be afraid. … St. John the Revelator stands, gob-smacked, as the real nature of the world is revealed to him in startling images of many-headed angels with tons of eyes, beasts rising out of the sea and the talking bleeding Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Jonathan came into the Church, found his vocation as a writer and lost his marriage. He now lives in South Bend, Indiana, speaks widely, is an editor at Ave Maria Press and writes award-winning paranormal thrillers that have been compared to the darker fiction of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.
Jonathan and Jessica met when she came to Notre Dame to pitch a book. They ended up talking instead about the depression in which she was mired at the time. They stumbled upon their shared love of stories of ghosts, exorcisms and horror movies — their shared fascination that is, with the thin line between the seen and the unseen, with the tiny light that shines in a sea of darkness.
A community was born — and the pilgrimage continues.
As Jonathan so beautifully sums it up: “Nothing fit me except the weirdness of Catholicism; it contained the mystery I’d been searching for my whole life. It brought all the pieces together.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.