“How did we get here?” I thought as I entered the empty sanctuary of my home Church. I barely recognized it. The doors were flanked by sanitizing stations, the holy water fonts long dry. The pews were vacant with many rows taped off by yellow plastic reading “Caution”. Bright post-its were left where people had touched so others would not; a flag for disinfection.
I cleaned my hands & grabbed a post-it on the way in but I didn’t sit. Instead I went as close to the tabernacle as I could without stepping onto the altar. I dropped to my knees, genuflecting. Then taking a moment to stare at the small, glistening doors and the flickering candle reminding me of Jesus’ presence therein. I began to pray and before I knew it I was laying flat out on the floor. I put my hands on my forearms, tucked my face into the crook of my bent elbow & tried my best not to think about viral shedding.
At that moment, I handed everything to the Lord. All of my anxiety, all of my pain, all of my uncertainty and my deepest longings. For healing, for light, for change but most of all for Him.
It had been months of social distancing and stay at home orders. Masses were still being celebrated but, without the congregation. Though I tried my best to make it special, Sundays in the living room just weren’t the same. The sanctuary where I lay prostrate, the one that held so many memories, was only open for private reflection. I missed the smell of the incense, the music, the echo of a house full of prayer, even the fussy babies but the comfort of Jesus’ true presence was what I needed. I ached to receive Him again in that most intimate way- through the Blessed Sacrament. “How much longer, Lord?” I asked though silent tears.
A while later, I peeled myself off of the ground. I thanked my King and left the bright pink post-it on the floor where I had laid. Reluctantly, I walked down the aisle I once strolled as a bride, past the empty pews, once filled with friendly faces and turned to bow in reverence. As I stood up, I locked eyes with the Divine Mercy image. Before I could pray my soul cried out, “Jesus, I trust in you!”
I had come quite a way the past few years in living a more sacramental life and the quarantine threw a wrench right into it. As the weeks & months drug on with no end in sight, God met me where I was. I leaned into our domestic church, spiritual communion, vocal prayer and meditation. I delighted in the little things and tried to live the Little Way. I found a renewed hope for the future thanks to the tenacity and inventiveness of the mystical body of believers here on Earth to worship God regardless.
Though I accepted the penance of the wait and tried my best to make it special, streaming the sacraments just wasn’t the same. There was still an empty space in my heart that could only be filled by his true presence. The weeks rolled by without change. I watched the news and checked parish websites, waiting eagerly for permission to go back to my Father’s house. Then one morning a text popped up on my phone from our Church. It said that Mass would resume and that I should make a reservation and wear a mask when I go.
Well I was so relieved and excited I didn’t know what to do! Knowing that I could receive the most blessed sacrament again, I resolved to make a really good confession that Saturday afternoon.
Cut to Saturday: I am working on the house, in the thick of cleaning and Momming when it hits me: “Confession!” I gasped. I threw on my shoes, secured the little kids with my teen and dashed out of the house. By the time I got to our parish across town it was too late. Confessions had been heard and there was no one around. So I went to a neighboring parish. They were having Mass for everyone who reserved but reconciliation was over there too.
I was crushed. I resigned myself to the fact that, though it would surely rip my heart in two, I would have to go to mass without receiving. That is until the holy spirit whispered “Our Lady’s” across my heart. It was then that I remembered the friary. I knew about it because it is only a block or two from my husband’s work. The kids and I often meet him for lunch during the week and every time we’re near we pop into the chapel. We all love going there to light candles, pray with the friars, take in the sacred art and join in the perpetual adoration of Jesus.
Of course, due to Corona, we hadn’t been in a while, but I knew that someone would be there, they always are! The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate: modern-day saints living in poverty and silence in the midst of the bustling city. So, I called my oldest to check on the littles before leaving the sticks and heading downtown.
I parked, fed the meter with the change in my cup holder and hurried down the sidewalk. My heart leapt when I saw the doors of the chapel. A Marian statue watched over the street below, tucked between the police station and the shouts of “Black Lives Matter!”.
I entered the Church silently, still on the surface but anxious within. I bent my knee at the doors and took in the image of a priest kneeling before the altar. “In the name of the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit” he said, as he began to pray the Franciscan Crown Rosary of the Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I joined the prayer, forcing myself to focus. I had never felt such hunger and longing as I squirmed in my seat and begged for intercession. I scanned the dim sanctuary and spotted a friar sitting in a pew in the back but I dared not interrupt. So I prayed and waited, growing more distracted and anxious with each passing mystery, until I resigned to the drawing out that was occurring. My heart changed in an instant as I saw the beauty of the merit that this and all my waiting was affording me.
I refocused with an unexpected joy and prayed fervently along with the priest who spoke slow and steady and clear. Two decades longer than my usual daily devotion, it felt as if the exquisite agony of that moment could go on forever. It was simultaneously the most touching and most difficult rosary of my entire life.
We concluded the prayers and I swallowed my pride to approach the friar in the back. Because people were still meditating in the chapel, I whispered “Will you hear my confession?” He said yes, of course and we headed to the confessional. Once I drew the heavy velvet curtain on my side and said my opening prayer, I unloaded like I had in the sanctuary days before. I confessed my sin, my longing, my despair. I explained my absent mindedness, my running around and my want to receive worthily with tears in my eyes. At one point I actually heard myself say “I’m starving.”
The priest apologized to me, saying that the separation from the sacraments had been a real disservice to the faithful. He absolved me and said “You don’t need to wait until tomorrow. Follow me to the sacristy.” And so we went.
He lit candles around the crucifix just for me, donned a vestment just for me, read the readings and prayed the mass, just for me. He placed the sacrament on my tongue and said “Sit in the chapel and pray. He is with you for about 20 minutes. Come where you are fed.” he said, “Come here.”
He went out of bounds for me that day in a way I had never really experienced. By showing me the Franciscan way of love: Commitment to shepherding the faithful, feeling the plight of the poor (and poor in spirit) and ministering to all people.
The experience healed a brokenness in me I didn’t know I had by revealing the unique love God has just for me. Reuniting with him in a way so profound and unexpected seemed tailor made to enrapture my soul. It’s been two months since but the impact that day and the simple, holy lives of the friars had on me has been felt ever since. I go there regularly now to receive the sacraments and the more traditional and reverent style of worship suits me, challenges me, and nourishes my hungry heart.
Our hometown Church is open for Mass again with limited attendance. I look forward to the day that I can return with my whole family to recall the beautiful memories and smile at the friendly faces, but until that day — and forevermore, I am blessed to go where I am fed.