Claiming a Fast in Pandemic Time: On How We Carry What We Miss

Before the pandemic, the scent of warm, yeasty bread would have filled the chapel. Someone from our school’s café would have walked down in the hour or so before the service to leave a fresh-baked loaf wrapped in a white towel on the table. We’d have smelled it through all the prayers, music, and spoken word, reminded in each moment of a service of word and table. 

However, on the day of our very first in-person service since the pandemic began, I smelled nothing. The bread was missing.To be fair, I sometimes focus on bits and pieces when the bigger picture feels too big to handle in any given moment. I suspect I focused on the bread because it felt like the least painful absence on which to muse. Early in the service, one of the leaders shared the names of two community members who’d passed away recently. I could still see their faces so clearly that I could hardly believe them gone. Tears welled up in my eyes. The thought of our two missing colleagues blended in my heart with all the other people who, for one reason or another, no longer sat in the pews with us.

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss. Even those who have not lost people to death have had to let go of so much in the last couple of years. Rituals and routines, gatherings and goals, all sorts of plans and hopes and dreams—almost all the corners of our lives have required changes and, sometimes, endings. 

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss, and I feel in some ways as if I’ve not gotten very far at all in metabolizing it. I’m not keeping up with the rush to return to normalcy. What does a person do with her deep sense of not-rightness that remains? How do we carry all the absence, all the awareness of people and things missing from our days, other than to carry it around like holes inside of us? 

I lost track of much of the service that day. I mused on these things until a few words near the end caught my attention. The liturgist asked us to join in the “Call to Eucharistic Fast for the Neighbor.”

“God is with you,” the presider said.  

“And also with you,” I joined in the printed response. 

“Open your hearts.”  

“We open our hearts to God.” 

“Let us give thanks to God.” 

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.” 

“It is indeed right,” the presider affirmed. “In this time of pandemic—a pandemic of illness, a pandemic of injustice, a pandemic of loss in so many ways—to call to mind our unshakeable connection through the body of Christ. It is also, indeed, right and painful to fast from the Eucharist in these days for the sake of the most vulnerable among us . . .” 

I used a sleeve to dab at tears before too many had fallen into my mask. I’d never heard of a liturgy of “eucharistic fast” before. Apparently, we were declaring that we would not share bread or wine again just yet and would instead claim this fast.   

I let the liturgical words wash over me, welcoming their echo of how “off” life still felt. Yes, some of us sat together again in a chapel, but how many remained at home, too vulnerable to risk indoor gatherings? How many of us had found the capacity for “normal” functioning again? I, for one, had not.  

I’d forgotten how beautifully the sacred language in our traditions could help us articulate a “there” that we haven’t reached yet. Here now, still in pandemic time, we were going to wait. Even the Eucharist would wait. It would wait with us. 

“Right and painful,” the presider had said.  

I remembered his words a week later when I woke up congested, feeling my body do that tired, aching thing that bodies do when getting sick. On the one hand, I didn’t think I had Covid-19. On the other hand, my workplace’s policy said that my symptoms warranted isolation. It had been right a week ago to withhold from sharing bread and wine, and it was right now to stay home, withholding myself from others for all our sakes.  

I began contacting people to cancel things the next couple of days. 

“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” my mother asked when I called her to explain why I wouldn’t be visiting that weekend to bake cookies as we’d planned. 

“I hate isolation,” I said. 

I hated it, and as I felt my disappointment mounting at all I’d be missing that week, the new language of “eucharistic fast” returned. I wondered what it would mean to offer these days as a sort of fast. 

This would be no 40-day Lenten fast, choosing to set aside certain meals or foods for the sake of self-reflection, penitence, and reconciliation. Pandemic time has already spanned two Lenten seasons and bled across entire church calendar years. It has called us to give up more than bread. In so many ways, we’ve given up contact with each other. The liturgy of eucharistic fast described a much less defined timeframe requiring a much deeper kind of patience. It pointed us outward, asking our reflection and sacrifice for the sake of those more vulnerable around us.  

Those who are absent from us these days may be gone with an absence from which they will not return to us in this life. If I claimed a grief-time fast from expecting certain kinds of comfort or seeking to return to life as I knew it with those I’d lost, that fast might need to last a long time. What we miss dearly from pre-pandemic days may remain far from us, or at least available only intermittently, for a while. Were we to fast from our moves to return to “normal,” that fast might need to last a very long time. I seem to recall that the biblical tradition of forty days represented something to the effect of “a very long time.”  

To carry our losses as a fast, our grieving as an act undertaken for God and one another, might honor those experiences as more than merely holes inside of us. These opened-up spaces might feel raw, confused, or grief-filled, but they likely feel that way because of the precious relationships, gifts, and other blessings that once filled them. What if we gave up our expectations that our lives to return to “normal”? What if we fasted from assuming comfort would feel the way it used to feel? If we let go of expectations and assumptions that separate us from God and one another, could our losses become spaces in which we behold divine and human presence in new ways? 

“Sustain us in these days,” the presider at that chapel service had prayed, “until by your grace we are brought together to the table again.” 

The smell of bread remained absent, but the liturgy held me, filled me. It seemed to remind us of how much larger life is than bread alone. The God who made us continued to sustain us and had not left. 

I’ve continued to whisper, “Amen.” 

This essay originally appeared in the October 21, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

On Mountain Biking and Trying Again

I remember lying on my back, looking up through tree branches. Leaves crunched under me, and my new mountain bike lay on top of me. It was not a promising beginning. In fact, it was a broken rib.

Painful as the injury felt, I actually found it a bit comforting. This fracture gave me a perfectly understandable reason for hurting. I had a broken place to which I could point. Unlike the pain of a divorce earlier that year, I could easily explain my bike hitting a tree. For my divorce I didn’t have many words, not for others or even for myself. You might say that was why I climbed onto a mountain bike in the first place.

When I’d moved, newly single, I’d expected to return to the stack of books always waiting for me, but they didn’t hold my attention. That felt odd. I wondered what people did with themselves who didn’t turn to words.  

I borrowed a mountain bike one day wondering if it could hold my attention. I hadn’t been on a bike in years, but I rode up a hill and found myself soaring down into the woods at a speed I could barely control. I felt scared, but not so scared that I shut down. I became alert. Flowing through the breeze and grinding musty leaves under my tires felt exhilarating.

I bought a bike and took it as often as I could to the trail. I’d make my way over tree roots, up and down hills, and around tight curves, surprised by each new thing I found I could do. 

My mind got space to roam, too. It was spacious enough out there to wonder about love and what happens to it, about hurt and what allows trust to return. Throwing myself into this new thing felt life-giving. Even if I wasn’t trying a relationship, the sheer trying of something new reassured me that I hadn’t come to an end of my possibilities. I spoke to myself about such things out there and, while I was at it, found myself speaking to the trees and to the God I believed to be listening. It felt like prayer.

One day I spoke with a hiker who’d stopped at the top of a root-covered hill.

“Look,” he said when I paused. He pointed to a birch whose white bark stood out against a dark, distant tree line. “See the bald eagle in the upper branches?” 

I saw it. A huge head glowed as white as the birch bark. We gazed a long while before I turned back and found the hiker grinning at me. I didn’t know which felt more amazing: to see a bald eagle in the wild or awe in a human face. 

I could still share wonder with another human being – I’d needed that. Divorce is one of many things can shut us down and make us doubt ourselves with others, so it felt good to notice how easily my heart warmed up. I even looked forward to seeing the creatures on the trail, like blue herons by the creek and snakes that sunned themselves by the prairie grass. They reminded me I wasn’t alone.

Then I broke my rib. Then the pandemic came.

I craved the chance to get out of my lockdown isolation, but even after the rib healed and I could have ventured further, my chest would tighten at the thought of returning to the trail.

“I can’t handle any more pain right now,” I thought. “I can’t justify that risk.”

Near-constant pain in my ribcage, recalling the feel of a marriage falling apart, now masking up in COVID-era fear of human nearness – all these visceral memories blurred into one big overwhelm. Yet, I missed my critters and hikers. I missed the conversations with myself, and trees, and God. I’d begun to suspect that falls – off a bike, out of a marriage, into a pandemic – will happen sometimes and are less dangerous than the fear afterwards.

I finally emailed someone from church who’d been mountain biking for years. I worried that we didn’t know each other well enough to ask in-person favors during a pandemic, but I wrote anyway. I asked if he’d meet me at the trail one day and – socially distanced – give me some pointers. I explained that I hadn’t ridden since a rib injury months before and needed help trying again. 

Bless William. He showed up at the trail one morning with Jon, who was also learning to ride. We chatted about technique, and then Jon rode towards the trailhead. William gestured that I go next.

“No,” I said. “I’m slow. You go next.”

 “Go,” he said. “I’ll give you space.”

I went. My shoulders tensed when tree roots twisted across the path. When I saw the place I’d fallen, I stopped abruptly. William stopped, too. I turned back and called:

“Please go ahead so you can enjoy your ride.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “You’ll be more confident knowing someone’s back here to scoop you up if you fall.” 

I noticed his reassurance didn’t say I wouldn’t fall. He seemed to assume that trusting I’d have help would make the difference. I wasn’t so sure, but I went on. 

Slowly, I did begin enjoying the trail’s flow again, relishing some speed and noticing lines through obstacles. In the parking lot afterwards, we stretched and talked of favorite moments on the ride. I felt amused that we’d never chatted this easily during “fellowship time” after worship. 

I may not have had words for my deeper pain, but this time together with things we enjoyed touched me deeply, too. Christian tradition offers a table with bread and wine as a place where we meet, where the broken belong. These communion “elements” are everyday things we turn to – together – for nourishment, things held and blessed by God. The table is a place where we receive what we need – together – to go give life another try.

A divorce had pushed me into trying new ways of being with myself and others. The pandemic had kept us three outside our church building to notice elsewhere the wondrous presence of God and one another. After this morning’s communion on the trail, I couldn’t help but think that many of us might find ourselves bolder and braver at the end of our pandemic and chaotic times, resilient with experiencing these wounded places as exactly the places where we – and life – become new.


Originally published in the January 26, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.