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.