A year ago, with my two small granddaughters in tow, I visited a friend in an assisted living facility. Before her stroke, Terri was a daily communicant in my Catholic parish. Now she watches Mass on television. As she listed for my granddaughters the different programs she enjoys—Masses on EWTN, rosaries, and so on—I could sense five-year-old Nora’s confusion. When eventually Terri crossed the room in her wheelchair to lay her hands on a book, Nora placed a small hand on my arm, furrowed her brow, and said softly, “But Grandmama, what about the Body and Blood?”
In the ongoing saga of the novel coronavirus, as the consolations of human companionship continue to be sacrificed in an effort to slow the virus’s spread, many Christians endured a deeper deprivation. Where the virus is concerned, the world draws no distinctions between churches. Churches are places where human beings congregate; therefore church services were cancelled. For religious congregations of every kind, this was hardship enough. But for Catholics, and for other Christians who believe, as Catholics do, that Christ is really present in their sacraments—that he substantially resides in their tabernacles and can be consumed by themselves—what was lost when Masses were suspended was not only the physical company of like-minded believers, but also intimate, bodily contact with Christ himself.
For the record, ordinary Catholics understand perfectly well what well-meaning individuals attempted to explain to us—that we do not need to go to church to pray. Catholics have always subscribed to a great variety of private devotions without confusing them with the goods that only a priest can confer. “I came for the food,” a priest convert confessed, meaning not only the food but the reliability of the food, the daily provision of the Eucharistic table. “You can bear anything for the twenty-four hours,” I remember confiding to a friend shortly after my own conversion, “and then there’s another Mass.” Like the daily manna that foreshadowed it, or the Lord’s mercies that are renewed every morning, the Eucharist for a minority of contemporary Catholics has never been an occasional dessert or an exceptional feast, but daily bread, food for ordinary time, food one can live on, day in and day out, as some saints did in fact live on it, to the exclusion of other nourishment.
Human beings crave security, and for those of us who came to the Church from congregations that literally broke up under our feet, the Church’s liturgies and sacraments seemed a miracle of reliability and stability, objective Presence and uninterrupted gift. Irrespective of our talents and merits, regardless of how we felt on any given day, or didn’t feel, the sacrament of confession was available, and the Eucharist was there, “untoiled-for . . . and conforming to every taste.” Entering a church, we always entered in medias res. Participating in the Mass, we never had to start from scratch, or create something out of nothing, with the result that the availability of the sacraments began to seem synonymous with the perdurance of the Church itself, with the house built on rock, and with Christ’s promise that he would remain with us to the end of the age, all of which identifications have to be reexamined in the light of the coronavirus.
In my parish in New Haven, which remained open for private prayer, I would come and sit for an hour every day, around noon, the same time as the Mass I ordinarily attended. In a priory across town, Dominicans were livestreaming a Mass on Facebook, but I could not bring myself to watch Mass on a computer screen. God is real, and has always found real ways of spending time with us: in the historical presence of the Jewish people; in a human life in Palestine; in the physical company of other Christians; in bread and wine consecrated by a priest. Spiritual communions are all very well. Uniting oneself to Jesus interiorly has been a Catholic practice from the beginning, but to defend spiritual communions on the grounds that sacramental communions, too, are essentially spiritual transactions seems to me dangerously etherealizing. Even while Masses were suspended, so long as there was one consecrated host in a tabernacle in an unlocked church, I continued to be invited to an encounter as real as any face-to-face meeting with a friend.
There was another reason, too, for my coming to church every day. In the weeks leading up to Lent, before the virus began streaming, I had received inspirations in prayer that I should spend Lent this way: not worrying so much about daily Mass, but making time for a daily visit to the tabernacle. The reasons God might have asked this of me were not far to seek. The downside of an “objective” Church is the danger of taking it for granted, outsourcing one’s spiritual life, and allowing a positive receptivity to degenerate into a negative passivity. Routinized attendance; perfunctory confessions; automatic, distracted, or even sacrilegious Communions are ever-present dangers for Catholics. Mindful of my personal culpability, I tried to change my routines, and then everything changed, and unworthy Communions—indeed, sacramental communions of every kind—were abruptly a thing of the past.
Most days, when I visited, I was alone in the church. Sometimes another person was there, sometimes two or three, but however many of us there were, we always sat far apart from one another in the pews, as people routinely do at daily Mass. Long before the coronavirus, people practiced social distancing at Catholic Masses. When my friend Terri was well, we sat on opposite sides of the nave, not to short-circuit a virus but in order to set aside, for the duration of the Mass, the disordered behaviors that infect even the closest friendships.
So it was like being at daily Mass, only more so: more silence, more anonymity. No talk at all, not even from a priest. That a priest had been there I knew from the unlocked doors and the sanctuary light. Sometimes an image had been set up near the altar, or a statue, relevant to a saint’s day or a liturgical feast. Lay people, too, left homegrown flowers and burning candles, but apart from these traces of devotions left behind in the sanctuary, we were mostly invisible to one another. The whole horizontal life of the Church was temporarily in eclipse, and what remained was the vertical relationship, ourselves and Christ, in a silence unbroken by idle chatter or erupting phones.
Ordinarily, in the Church’s tradition, Christ’s presence in the tabernacle is understood to be a continuation of his time of vulnerability on earth, when he surrendered himself into the hands of ungrateful men. One day, our faith tells us, he will return in power, but in the meantime, in the tabernacle, he continues to be present in weakness: overlooked, unappreciated, sometimes actively abused. But in the removal the virus occasioned, something new was in play. In the events that placed him temporarily beyond our reach, it was not vulnerability that was being communicated in the sanctuary but impassability, not weakness but a latent, disconcerting power.
In a time of uncertainty and loss, there was speculation about chastisements, about whether abusive priests were to blame for what had happened, or indifferent laity, Vatican II, pornography, or abortion. Clearly, if blame was the point of the exercise, there was more than enough blame to go around. As always in human affairs, the law of sin and death was continuing to work itself out, but the more time I spent in front of the tabernacle, the more certain I became that chastisement was not the real issue: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This was not power looking to punish, in other words, but authority encouraging us to attend. It was not a withdrawal in anger, but an intermediate stage in an unfolding design; not a rebuke but an advance, and a silent invitation to—listen?—compared with which the option for laypeople of watching Mass on a computer screen seemed almost like an exercise in nostalgia.
God is not nostalgic. Since the beginning of salvation history he has warred against this temptation in man, this preference of ours for what is safe and familiar, even at the price of slavery. Ever since Egypt, he has dragged us, kicking and complaining, out of our accustomed routines. He is a leader with an unimaginably ambitious plan for us, a goal for us greater than all of our goals for ourselves. Resistant and fearful, we make our own plans, but his remain. “Our God does what he wills / In heaven, on earth, in the seas.”
In his physical life in Palestine, Jesus embodied this same relentless urgency as his Father. “I came to cast fire on the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” Even as Emmanuel, he was always ahead of the disciples—conceptually, in everything he was trying to teach them (“Do you still not understand?” “Do you still not have faith?”), and physically, too, as he “passed through the midst of them” and disappeared into the mountains to pray. Not for him the sentimental shelters Peter wished to set up on Mount Tabor. Nomadic and homeless, he never seemed to settle anywhere, or really rest. The image of him teaching from a boat on the water while the crowd listens from the land is an image of this great difference between him and us. “The sea is forever quivering,” a poem by my grandfather begins, “The shore forever still.” We are earthbound and subject to all of earth’s gravitational pulls. He is life itself, and subject to earth only by his own free choice.
The contemplative, too, experiences this same dynamic in his relationship with Jesus Christ, as he seems to lose Christ continually, only to realize that Christ has gone ahead of him in prayer, and is waiting for him, somewhere further on. The rhetorical question asked by God in the garden—“Where are you?”—is man’s real question of God down the ages, and the Church’s answer to the question is not only in her liturgies and sacraments but also in all of the events that make up our daily lives. This is the uncompromising understanding of providence demanded by monotheism and subscribed to by all the saints, according to which everything that happens to us, including every seeming setback and devastating loss, is the means by which God accomplishes his ends.
The greatest apparent loss in salvation history to this point is the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. However urgently and patiently Jesus tried to prepare the disciples beforehand—“it is to your advantage that I go”; “a little while, and you will see me”; “you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice”—they were shattered when his Passion came to pass. What they had known and loved—Jesus according to the flesh—was gone, and what would compensate them in the future was still in the process of being born. The analogy to a woman in labor is the analogy chosen by Christ himself, and is not here, incidentally, an image of punishment or blame, but one of necessity, inevitability, and eventual joy. Which is not to deny the painful challenges of labor. If, according to Aquinas, the life of Christ has passed into his sacraments, for those who were alive and having to navigate the passage in real time, the transition was neither seamless nor easily understood. Nor was it swift. As one dispensation broke up and gave way to another, the grief-stricken, disoriented disciples had to learn to let go of the past (“Do not hold on to me”) and begin to recognize Jesus in new forms: in the garden near the tomb; on a beach at dawn (“It is the Lord!”); and at Emmaus, in the breaking of the bread.
While the events at Emmaus are part of a larger learning curve—one that stretches from the spilling of Christ’s blood and water on Calvary to the sending of the Spirit into the disciples—they are also a kind of précis, or compressed miniature of the whole, one characterized by a pivotal simultaneity. At the very moment in the story that the charismatic stranger hands the disciples the bread he has blessed, he vanishes, and they realize it was Jesus. Loss and gain are inseparable here; an ending and a beginning. The visible Christ vanishes, the bread of the Sacrament remains. If the inn in the parable of the Good Samaritan has been called an image of the Church, how much more so is this unspecified domicile in Emmaus! The disciples urge Christ to stay, and he does stay: Paradigmatically, in the sacraments of the Church, he has stayed with us for over two thousand years.
But this time of the sacraments is not the end of the story. Just before the disciples make their request, and Jesus accedes to it, there is this mysterious line: “It seemed he was going further.” Like the image of Christ on the water, the line is a reminder of Christ’s always greater life, his ongoing, all-encompassing plans. He not only exists from the beginning; his plans extend to eternity. The time of the Church Militant—the time of the sacramental, ministerial Church—is embedded in a larger narrative. More has to happen. Another transition is coming, one Jesus also described in terms of labor, which will shake the present world to its foundations.
In the recent withdrawal of the sacraments, we have been given a taste of the future, a reminder of the Church’s eschatological destiny. At a minimum, we have been given to understand how rapidly societies everywhere might collapse, and churches embedded in secular societies along with them. If we were complacent before, we can hardly be complacent now. Did we suppose, for example, that the cataclysms of the end would be confined to nature, or far-off countries? If we imagined a global pandemic, did we think through the implications for the sacraments, including the kinds of fears that would begin to be associated with their reception? Did we assume, albeit unconsciously, that we would pass more or less seamlessly from receiving sacraments at Mass to witnessing Christ’s return to glory?
Shortly before public Masses were shuttered in the West, Ignatius Press published a book by Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah called From the Depths of Our Hearts. In the book, Cardinal Sarah recalls his years as a young priest in remote regions of Guinea, bringing sacraments to villagers who had not seen a priest in ten years. Absent their priests, the villagers continued to grow in their faith, catechizing their children, reciting the rosary, and gathering on Sundays to listen together to the Word of God.
To this timely reminder that the Church can survive without sacraments—even for generations in some cases, as happened in Japan—we can add that the Church in her history has often been a persecuted Church, an underground Church, a small Church, and a poor Church. But will reminders like these be enough to keep hope alive in the days to come? If Romano Guardini was right that by the end of the age it will appear that everything has been lost—not only in mission fields and behind iron curtains, but everywhere in the world Christians will be scattered, sacraments scarce, priests in hiding, and faith grown cold—then the only catastrophe comparable to a catastrophe of this magnitude will be the catastrophe of Christ’s death on the Cross. To survive such an ending, the Christian will need to go back to the beginning. Specifically, he will need to remember that in the first harrowing transition, after Jesus died, when everything also seemed lost, it was Jesus himself who saw the disciples through.
As Easter 2020 approached, and I finally accepted that there really would be no celebrations or sacraments, like Peter when he threw up his hands and went fishing, I, too, returned to my former life. Picking up a project that involved air conditioning in my upstairs, a project contingent on a carpenter enlarging the scuttle hole to my attic, I telephoned a company that had given me a bid months before, and asked if they remembered how much larger the opening needed to be.
“I don’t suppose Mr. Viglione’s going to people’s houses,” I said doubtfully to his secretary, thinking about the virus.
“Oh, he’s going everywhere,” she said briskly, and scheduled a time for him to revisit my home.
It was Wednesday of Holy Week when he came, without a mask or gloves—a peaceful widower in his late seventies, famously generous both to his customers and employees. Chivalrously refusing my help, he carried my stepladder upstairs, climbed it unsteadily, peered into my attic and took measurements, which I wrote down.
Afterwards, on my driveway, he wished me a happy Easter.
“No sacraments,” I said sadly.
He was quiet for a moment, as if considering the situation, and then, looking into the distance, he said, “Well, I have a priest living in my house.”
A retired priest, he went on to explain, had been living with him since his wife died, and celebrated Mass for his extended family every Sunday.
So I received the Eucharist after all. I gave Mr. Viglione a pyx—a small container for the host—and he said he would bring me the Sacrament on Easter, although as it turned out, he brought it to me the day before. On Holy Saturday—the great caesura in salvation history, the dreamy hiatus between one age and the next—I was vacuuming downstairs when my heart began to race suddenly, and my adrenaline surged. Turning off the vacuum, I stood for a moment in confusion, and then the telephone rang, and Mr. Viglione said he was on his way, in his car, with the Sacrament.
And for the hour that I spent with Jesus, alone with him in my dining room, while the sun beat on the windows and the house creaked in the wind, it wasn’t so much the prospect of receiving him as the miracle of his being there at all that transported me. In a time of pestilence and prohibitions, mandatory isolation and fear, he walked through my walls, spoke peace to me, and showed me his hands and his side.
People talk a great deal these days about wanting things to go back to the way they were, an understandable but also regrettable human sentiment. Meanwhile, as always, our real happiness lies ahead of us, on the other side of our own deaths, or the death throes of the age in which we live. For those individuals predestined to be alive at the end, the last and greatest challenge will be to recognize Jesus, not in his resurrected body or in a small host in a pyx, but in the very events that seem to be taking everything away. “When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your salvation is drawing near.”
As I write this, in June, there are demonstrations across the country, protesting the all-too-familiar murder of George Floyd. Yesterday, driving home, I was sent on a long detour around the New Haven Green, where a large crowd was gathering, and toward which police cars were careening from all directions. As I waited at a stoplight, I saw a small Hispanic woman trudging toward the Green, carrying a sign that said in large letters, Cristo Viene Pronto. Not venga, the imperative, but viene, a statement of fact. Christ is coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.