Sacraments in the Time of Cholera

Our kwanzan cherry has started to shed its exuberant blossoms. The hues inhabit the world that exists in my mind between purple and pink. The tree can only hold those flowers aloft for a few days, maybe a week. A splash of love and color, and then they are gone. I’m standing on the park strip in front of our house, in a black-and-white mask my middle daughter bought from her favorite leotard company early in the pandemic.

I’ve grown accustomed to masks by now. At first they gave me a tightness in my chest that reminded me that I sometimes imagine I’ve got mild asthma (the alternative is that I’m anxious, so asthma it is). But now the masks reassure me that when I am at work I will not spread virus to the people around me. The sight of a mask on the face of another tells me that they are protecting me. These thin sheets across my mouth and nose have become a comforting misery seven weeks into the US pandemic.

I stand on the park strip now because I’m working clinically at the hospital, looking after patients. I’m not even working in the COVID ICU, but the risk is higher than we will tolerate for my wife’s safety. So I’ve moved to my friend’s “mother-in-law” apartment. I come home from work, shower, change clothes, and then drive over to the house where my family lives. I’m too busy and tired to be lonely right now, but I can tell that something deep inside me aches anyway. Aches with the sadness of worlds turned upside down and bodies newly abandoned to the grave, with the fact that I have not touched my wife in two months.

Today is Sunday; evening has come. I am weary, but I am home, for twenty awkward minutes as I shift from foot to foot on the grass beside my wife’s deep blue Jeep. My mind nervously collates the tasks that remain before I can sleep. I can’t focus on the tasks at hand.

My family has been waiting patiently for me to visit so that they can partake of the sacrament, our Latter-day Saint experience of the Eucharist that Jesus drew out of the Passover meal. We are devout folk. These devotions and the world they open up to our view are the dominant rhythms of our life together. We’ve had a month or so to practice home church, weeks when my exposure to the hospital was limited enough that I could live out my quarantine in the basement of our own home. Those early home sacraments weren’t smooth. I kept saying “wine” instead of “water” during the second prayer, and I’d have to pull the text of the prayers up on my phone or computer to remember them. In this desperate time of waging scientific battle with contagion, I spend too much time with those electronic devices already. I am prone to fall back into reviewing emails or reading research studies when I should be opening my heart to God instead.

In response, my youngest daughter wrote the prayers by hand on small note cards with a filigreed edge. The wine now reads water, and no screen is required. Today they have deposited them on the sidewalk and backed away. My mask on, I grab the cards and retreat back to the idle Jeep, covered in pollen and blossom fragments. It’s the same way they serve me dinner each night. As I stand 20 feet from the four of them, bereft and yet awash in grace, I realize that it is 2020. Thirty years ago, I read the prayer on the wine-turned-to-water in our chapel in Kaysville, Utah. I’ve told the story so many times that the telling has blurred into the actual events. But that prayer jolted me from one life to another. Eighteen years old, I wept my way through the prayer over the blood of Christ, filled with the love of God. Words and tears took turns for several minutes as I worked through the prayer. My adolescent atheism had come to an end.

For three decades now I have been a God-believer, an aspiring child of covenant. I date this belief to that sacred experience with the emblems of Christ’s divine body made human and then made dead. That first great baptismal prayer was uttered with my brother and friends by my side and a congregation of women and men who had helped raise me, even if some did so begrudgingly. There was personal transformation and community love in that encounter with the sacrament in 1990. These have brought me to this present day of pandemic and my resistance to it. These have brought me to this current life full of grace.

This time around, I am coordinating the words of the sacramental prayer with the movement of the neighbors, none inclined to wear a mask, happily chatting along the sidewalks. I do not want to embarrass us or them as we enact this private devotion in full view because I do not now belong inside my house. I am speaking through a mask—the bunched-up fabric catches uncomfortably in my teeth.

I do not experience that love and peace we call the Spirit. I feel instead that I am tired. That there is more work to do, hours more, and I am already spent. I read those beloved prayers, so simple and potent. I feel love for my family, but little else. I don’t partake of the emblems that they set out on the sidewalk between us because I don’t want them too close to me. The whole point of this distance is to protect them. I will not place them in harm’s way.

I’m too tired even to feel the bathos of my self-pity on this sidewalk today. I am healthy, I am employed, I am doing the science that I love at a break-neck speed, and my family is alive and well. I am allowed to speak the prayers aloud and thereby bind these emblems and this family into the many millions of times these prayers have been spoken over these emblems honoring that first Easter and the bitter days leading up to it. Even in the throes of this pandemic, I am blessed beyond measure.

Many in the body of Christ are suffering far more than I am. Too many are falling into the grave. Others are forever scarred by the illness that stretched them physically between earth and heaven. Others are alone and afraid, locked in their homes for safety. This terrible virus preys on all that is good in humanity and much that is bad.

I wanted this sacrament to be simple and powerful, like the one thirty years ago. I wanted this to be perfect. Because spiritual life should be, and I want to touch my family again, and this awful pandemic so often feels like it is too much. God should come when and where we ask. God should be a snuggling puppy or a warm sweater.

But life and God and the world and eternity are more than our choreography. They are wildly and beautifully and graciously beyond our easy manipulation. But they are not beyond our communion; they are yoked to us in covenant. I will continue to think through this experience for weeks: the kwanzan blossoms, the lilt of my wife’s salt-and-pepper curls, the urgent intelligence of my daughter’s script, the ballerina’s protection in the form of this strange mask, the sourdough loaf made from our family starter, the ache in my neck from constant straining at computers. I will turn these images and their history over in my mind. I’m doing it now. I will think those moments that Sunday into something beautiful, however empty I felt at that moment. And I will carry the sad poignancy of the Spirit that did not fill my heart this time as I read those ancient prayers. I will carry in my heart the sadness of my friends and neighbors at this terrible time, where I will mix their grief with the love of a God remembered in a meal of broken bread. I will bask in the sanctity and beauty of this world being remade. The grief and the grace will commingle in my covenanted heart, in the presence of eternity.

Sam Brown is a friend of Times & Seasons and teaches pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

6 comments for “Sacraments in the Time of Cholera

  1. It sounds as though you are making great sacrifices for your fellows. Well done, appreciation extended!

  2. Thank you for sharing this. You capture so much of the ache I have been feeling with the bigness of all of this.

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