This pandemic has shone light on countless things, people, places, and activities which I had taken for granted before. Before the social isolation, before the panic-induced hoarding by the masses, before the diminished traffic and before outings with only a mandatory agenda. Coming to the forefront of my mind after ten weeks of social distancing is the mass.
I miss church. I miss the mass. I miss celebrating Our Lord with my friends and family, being able to receive the Eucharist, jostling children into pews, even the frustration that comes from the diaper changes and tantrums that bring me away from the altar. I have been so lost lately. The postpartum depression blurring my vision and yielding sloth-like habits, these habits seeming to grow roots as week after week there have barely been any restrictions lifted. An extrovert by nature, I thrive from a full social calendar. And this pandemic took my declining postpartum mental health and shot it down the steepest water slide at full speed. So I’ve been drifting, spending days in my bathrobe, days without showering, weeks eating junk food, and weeks neglecting my prayer life.
I can’t say I’ve been completely neglectful. I have been streaming daily mass pretty regularly since Holy Week in April. And while streaming mass is a beautiful gift to be able to have at my fingertips, it is no replacement for being in a physical church and receiving the Eucharist (and it’s not meant to be). Add that to the fact that my children do not understand that while we watch mass, we should behave as if we’re in church, and as you can imagine, most of my viewings are interrupted with crashing toy cars, a toddler falling off the couch, multiple diaper changes and screaming that makes me wonder if my weak attempts at piety are completely null and void.
But our church is open. While our local parish is still not holding masses for the public, the priests have kept the doors of the church open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm daily so that people may visit and pray. At the height of the pandemic, I went nowhere. My husband did all the shopping in the outside world, and I cloistered in place with the children as if looking at my neighbor the wrong way would fester a deathly illness when really all it festered was unnecessary anxiety. But as the anxiety lifted a bit and there became more normalcy with wearing masks and keeping distance, I slowly became a bit more comfortable with this new world (I say a bit, I hope this never becomes the normal).
And so a few weeks ago, I ventured to the church alone. I went equipped with my rosary, ready to pray about all of it, vent to God and have a little heart to heart. But when I got to the altar, I found I had no words to say. My mind went completely blank. I didn’t even take the rosary from its case. I sat there staring at the altar dumbfounded, listening to the creaks of the building around me as the wind shifted and hearing the cars roll by outside the front doors. Everything was so quiet as I sat in the stillness, the only soul in the pews. And that was what I needed then. I needed to merely soak in His presence, to be in the place that had become my home every Sunday, every Holy Day and on the baptisms of my children and our friends’ children. I merely had to sit to feel that peace. I merely had to look up at the banners behind the altar that professed, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, He who believes in me will live” (John 11:25) to know that everything would be okay.
And that was fine… for a little while. But I’ve found myself searching yet again, feeling lost, wondering just what it is I am supposed to be doing right now during this chaotic time, wondering exactly what it is I need to moor my rocking lifeboat to the shore. And just like that, I heard a homily from our parish priest that knocked me upside the head. He reminded me that what we all need right now is faith. What we need right now is to go back to Jesus. What we need right now is not material things, not worldly distractions. What we need right now is to dive into Scripture. What we need right now is God.
I was literally in the middle of airing my grievances to my husband when our priest came on and started speaking. I stopped mid-sentence, mouth open as we both looked at the television. My husband smiled and said, “I’m just going to walk away.” And with that, Father handed me my answer on a silver platter. Don’t say the Lord doesn’t show up because He does. It’s not always with a mallet to the temple or brandished in gold sparkling letters, but He gives you your answer (and hint: it’s usually not the one you’re looking for).
And so I went to church again. J was napping, M was screaming on the changing table at my husband. But I went to go be with Jesus. I walked in the side door with my mask on, past a small rosary group praying before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and let my eyes take in the darkened church. There was only one other person there praying, and so I hustled to my “regular pew,” definitely more than six feet away (I hate that my mind calculates that ill-fated distance now) and knelt down.
I began saying the rosary. Now, saying the rosary has always been a difficult practice for me. I get distracted, my mind wanders, sometimes I forget the words to the simplest prayers and meld them into others as I fail to pay attention to the task at hand. But lately, I’ve been saying it every night before bed. I hold the beads in my hand, try to think of intentions, but mostly just letting the words flow through my consciousness. I usually don’t finish the whole thing because I’m asleep before I can even make it to the final decade.
So there I knelt in church, counting off the beads, taking in the altar and the icons that I hadn’t consciously realized I’d missed. The other woman left as I was finishing the first decade and so I continued in the silence of the church, selfishly giddy to have the place all to myself. I listened to the cracks and creaks, and watched as the colors from the stained glass windows bled onto the pews, a melting pot of rays shifting ever so slightly as time wore on.
I find myself distracted by the colors, wishing to be inside the light, wishing I had moved a row over, wondering if I could find the perfect light to take a photo to remind me of this time. (It should be noted that I do not take pictures in church except maybe during a baptism or wedding because I believe that our time in mass should be solely focused on God. But I am hoping that I can be forgiven for my proclivity to do so during this pandemic because of the strangeness of these times and the lack of physical mass). And so I knelt, fidgeting, sliding my fingers down the smooth wooden beads. My legs were shaking from the effort as I remained staunchly upright in my pose, ashamed that after two months I could barely remain kneeling for these twenty minutes of prayer.
When I finished praying, I kissed the cross hanging from my rosary and sat back in the pew. My knees were sore from the effort and I noted that the marks on the red plastic kneeler did not fade despite my weight no longer being present upon it. And I sat in that pew wondering if I should move when I realized that I no longer had to seek the light. The light had found me.
The dappled blues, deep-hued scarlets and bright white light were not only playing across the pews beside me, but had crept to the carpet at my feet, to the end of the pew on which I was sitting, to the pew directly in front of me. And I smiled marveling that as I had stayed still in prayer, the light had found me. He had found me. In the midst of the chaos, in the midst of my darkness, all I had to do was ask and He came. I didn’t have to move, I didn’t have to change, I just had to be and He found me.
I was filled with an overwhelming sense of no longer being abandoned. And the message that repeated itself in my heart was, “Do not fear.” Do not fear these times. Do not fear uncertainty. Do not fear death. Do not fear disease. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)
Everything was so clear to me in my time there, I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to return to the outside world. I didn’t want to don my mask again. I didn’t even want to return to the chaos of my family because I wanted this peace to continue. But I knew I had to return. I knew I had to attend to an infant who was probably still screaming. I knew I had to return to a toddler who would be waking up from his nap at any moment. And I knew I had to return to my husband who probably needed time to seek his own peace.
And so I walked up to the altar and knelt down in front of it, bowing as low as I have ever bowed. And I gazed at the crucifix and prayed I would be gazing at it during Sunday mass in weeks to come. I took the time to look at the pictures and icons as I left the church, slowly taking in the face of the Virgin Mary statue as I passed her, gazing on the Divine Mercy image, looking up to Our Lady of Guadalupe, realizing as I studied these images that I never thought I would have to memorize their faces as it would be uncertain when I would return.
I left the church, waving to the rosary group as I breathed the fresh air. I sat in my car soaking in the silence trying to remember everything about my visit. And I managed to nurture the peace I had found for about a solid hour until the chaos seeped back in on the backs of screaming children, hungry bellies, and mundane household chores. But I have vowed to try to go back to my daily readings, to continue watching mass, to try to say my rosary, and perhaps most importantly, to turn to Scripture. Because when I needed the light, it found me. “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:22)