Guest Post: Swallowed Up #CopingWithCOVID19
It is only great upheaval that truly destabilizes the structures of power and allows that which was held by the few to be claimed instead by the many.
The act of taking, so unthinkable a week ago, is now the only reasonable course of action.
A week ago, I hurried through my morning routine to make it to my local chapel in time for the passing of the sacrament. If I was late, I knew, I’d have no chance to receive it for another week at least. These are the rules of the world, of the universe, of God: the sacrament of our Lord’s supper is something that must be given to me by a priesthood leader, and can be denied to me by that same leader.
And it has been denied, many times. When I became lost in the labyrinthine London transportation system and arrived at church too late to partake, I was denied. When I turned to the priesthood holders in my travel group and asked them to bless it for me, I was denied. I have been denied because of snow storms, conferences, exigencies of travel or of employment or of health. You cannot take the sacrament, Sister. I cannot, or I will not, or may not, bless it for you. Wait and try again. Patience.
All my patience has been swallowed in one gulp by the great upheaval that is an unthinkably small string of RNA code.
Meetings are cancelled around the world, the traditions of my entire life destabilized in a finger snap. I share lodgings with a woman who works in the pediatric ward of our local hospital—she, and all the microorganisms on her hands and in her mouth, travel each day between my home and rooms consecrated to four-year-old cancer patients. To allow a priesthood holder, and all his defiled exhalations, access to my home is a matter of life and death. I think of millstones and the depths of the sea, and refuse my ministering brother’s offer to bring the sacrament to me.
“What about Skype?” I ask, in a voice that suggests I am joking when I am not. “Can you bless it for me over Skype?”
He laughs. “I don’t have permission.”
I don’t have permission either. And for the first time in my life, I do not ask for it.
I change into clean, formal clothes, brush my quarantine-neglected hair, and perform that most precious and ubiquitous of ordinances: the washing of the hands. I lay out upon my kitchen table the ritual objects that have always been here, in guise of common household goods: a scrap of bread in a sauce bowl, a mouthful of water in my smallest glass, the leather-bound books that went with me across the ocean and came back again. I cover the emblems with my great-grandmother’s white handkerchief.
I sing the hymn that is stuck in my head, every verse, straining through the melody line though my voice wants the easy familiarity of the alto harmonies, the proper intervals braced against the voices above and below. Then I open my books, pull back my handkerchief, and bow my head.
“Oh, God . . .”
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. I speak blasphemies. I am committing heresy. I am defiled. I am blessing the sacrament with my woman’s mouth.
“The Eternal Father . . .”
My own father is far away. Everyone I love is far away. All that presses in close around me is the virus, the virus, the virus, the dread that sticks to my skin like drying blood. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
“We ask thee . . .”
God, I ask.
But I ask no one else.
And I swallow into myself the emblems I have blessed.