I run my fingertips along the smooth edges of my nails. I trace their paths repeatedly until my fingertips are sore. My body temperature rises, and I draw in a shaky breath, unable to fill my lungs to capacity. The professor at the front of the room doesn’t know, nor does anyone sitting in the plastic seats around me. They just think I’m quiet. Lies swirl around in my head, part of something I affectionately refer to as the thought tornado. Bits of debris ricochet across my mind and I hear horrible things: You are unlovable. You are alone. You should just kill yourself. “Make it stop,” I pray quickly. I pause, glancing down at my shaking hands. I add, “Why can’t I find you, Lord? I’m lost in all of these thoughts.” When we are finally released from class, I put my unsteady hands to work packing up my bag. My fight or flight response kicks in. I choose flight. I pull out my train pass and walk the route that will take me to my refuge in the city—the Art Institute.
I climb the flight of stairs, thighs burning, and head bowed. At the top I see a small wooden desk that reads “information.” An elderly volunteer sits behind it to direct everyone to the Impressionist wing.
“Hi. Oh, hi,” I stammer. “I was wondering what your favorite pieces in the museum are—or if there’s something really unique you like. I just like to, I guess, see what’s meaningful to different people.” I shrug at the woman behind the desk.
“Well, there is this reliquary in the medieval wing. I think it had the tooth of Saint John in it or something. Have you ever been to the medieval exhibit?” she asks. I shake my head.
“Oh! Well here.” She snatches a map and circles a room pictured on it several times.
“Thank you,” I reply, wandering off, glancing up and down between my map and the rooms I pass through.
I easily find the case holding the reliquary in the dark and lofty medieval gallery, but I ease my way through the exhibit slowly, hearing the distinguished wood floors creak under my shoes. I squint slightly at the art on the walls and cross my arms over my stomach. I remain solitary within the exhibit, apart from a docent who passes through every ten minutes or so. I am very affected by beautiful things, but today I my eyes flit from painting to painting. Nothing holds my attention. But I sniff the sense of something sacred.
On my way back out, an enormous altarpiece hanging to my left captures me. Royal blues and reds color the slightly unproportional medieval figures pictured within it. The altar is laid out in scenes depicting the life of Christ. After reading the information card next to the painting, like you’re supposed to at museums, I land on the expansive wooden bench sitting just in front of it. “Do you think my blood stops short of your feet?” I hear a voice ask.
My eye travels down the rows of scenes and lands on Jesus after the Ascension. He sits above the clouds and looks down on his disciples. He holds one of his hands over his heart. His eyes are gentle and his hand rests softly upon his heart. I can see the love on his face. Seeing Jesus there in front of me undoes me.
“Do you think my salvation is not powerful enough for you?” he asks quietly.
“Are you the one I couldn’t save?”
“No, Lord,” I gasp out. I breathe in and bow my head, shaking.
“I’m sorry that I haven’t valued my life. Everything hurts, though. It hurts so much.”
“Dear heart,” he calls me repeatedly. “Can’t you see the way I’ve gifted you? I gave you a deep, compassionate, feeling heart. You can dance. You have hair of gold. You have a strong and beautiful body. You create. I see you and I know you and I love you.”
My heart ponders joyfully as I walk out of the room and back down the stairs. He hears me and answers me. He loves me. I am pierced. Usually I present an image, a fine-ness, to those around me. Yet his image has ravaged the wall of false protection placed around my heart so that I could feel his love. I almost don’t want to leave that moment where God enters the secret, sacred space of my mind—the place where I push the thought tornado when visitors come over. Somehow, this dark antechamber is the very place where I felt His love. Now, looking at the people milling around the museum, I seem to see the words beloved of God emblazoned in burning letters on every forehead. With his image in front of me, I know that I can endure every suffering if I can just have a larger portion of him.