A Different Kind of Holy Week

Last time I attended Mass in person, nearly a month ago, my hand froze over the empty holy water font. It took a moment to realize it had been drained to prevent the spread of a virus that was just starting to hit the area. But I crossed myself with dry fingers and went to my usual pew, as if everything were normal.

That empty font was as unsettling as it is on Good Friday, when no one quite knows what to do without it. As a result, these last few weeks have felt like one long fast. Now that Good Friday is actually upon us, there’s an odd sense of relief. Tomorrow, we’ll still be Livestreaming Mass. We’ll still be wearing masks and gloves, six feet away from our neighbors. But Jesus will be alive.

During one virtual visio divina, we learned the etymology of the word quarantine: it derives from the Latin quadraginta, which means “forty.” In fact, its first dictionary definition is “a period of 40 days.” We have truly mimicked Jesus’s retreat into the desert. It’s not quite the same—with all the comforts of modern living, and food in the fridge—but the emotional and mental strain has been a challenge unto itself.

This Holy Week isn’t what I had planned. I’d taken vacation time this week, scheduling a two-day silent retreat to start it off. I’d planned a day of hiking (weather permitting), and perhaps a visit to the spa (a little self-indulgence). I was to clear my mind of the world’s worries and refocus on Jesus. Bonus that this week is also my two-year Catholic anniversary!

None of that happened. I even ended up working through Thursday, since I’d be be home anyway. But despite our isolation, we’ve done more to connect with one another—there are Livestreams and virtual prayer; religious companies are offering free materials; homes have branches in their windows rather than the customary palms. We’re feeling the absence of a church community, and definitely the absence of the Eucharist. But as the Spiritual Communion prayer states, “Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.” There’s certainly no shortage of heart right now.

I’ll be sad to miss the glory of the Easter Vigil (again—let’s not forget what happened last year). I’ll be virtually seeing my family rather than crowding us all into one house. But it’s still a celebration, because it’s still Easter. And like Jesus’s temptation in the desert, this quarantine, too, will one day be over.

Ash Wednesday: A Chronicle

6:00 a.m.
The only Mass I could attend today is the 6:45 a.m., because Wednesdays are my busiest days. So I’m awake an hour earlier than usual, half-asleep as I brush my teeth. Eric wanted to attend Mass, too, though I don’t understand why he didn’t back out when I told him the time. Regardless, I’m ready early and have some time before he picks me up.

Earlier in the week, I created a little reading corner in my home office. It’s not much—a basket beside my chair, packed with books, journals, and a rosary; there’s a blanket, too, in the unlikely event that room is cold (I have no control over the radiator). So I did some reading. The sun hasn’t risen yet, though I’m not sure it will today. It’s been dreary lately, and it smells like rain. But the quiet is nice.

6:45 a.m.
Eric is half-asleep in the pew beside me. We arrived early, because I’d expected the first Mass to be the most crowded. I often see ashy foreheads on my morning commute, so I assumed all those commuters came now. But we were of the first people to arrive, before even the organist. There aren’t as many people as I expected, so maybe the busiest service is actually the 8:00.

There are some Sundays that I attend Mass before breakfast, and I’m starving. But each time, when I receive the Host, the hunger subsides a little. I doubt it’s because it has any nutritional value. Today, as I prayed following the Eucharist, I understood that it is sustaining. I haven’t eaten breakfast, but I’m not hungry. Actually, I feel pretty okay.

Now, I’m marked as a sinner and ready to start my 40 days of penance.

11:30 a.m.
I forget about the ashes until I see my reflection. I haven’t seen anyone marked at work yet to commiserate with. For a second I was going to rummage through my desk for a snack, until I remembered I’m fasting.

My co-worker sent me the Catholic Guide to Ashes, a meme I’ve seen several times but it always makes me giggle (this year, I’m the Rorschach). It’s funny how people attend services in droves today to get a smudge of dirt on their heads, some of whom don’t bother with Mass the rest of the year. This is pious, I guess. But I’m not very outward with my beliefs. For me, walking around with the ashes feels like carrying a “Repent and Believe” sign through Times Square. For some, Ash Wednesday is a chance to show everyone how faithful they are. For me, it forces me to be both brave and humble. I don’t feel either right now, but maybe that’s the point.

2:30 p.m.
I have a headache, so I’m on my third cup of herbal tea today.
I didn’t have a lot of time for a lunch break, but found an empty spot in the office to read a few minutes. I recently started Fr. James Martin’s Jesus, where he journeys to Israel to retrace His steps. It makes me want to go back. One day I will.

Overlooking Nazareth

4:30 p.m.
I just stared at my fingernails, wondering where the black could’ve come from. Then I remembered the itch on my forehead. Now, I’m more “The Blob.”

I’m not starving, but I am greatly looking forward to dinner. (We’ll see if that tofu I made last night is any good.)

6:30 p.m.
I was a little loopy walking to the train after work, but I’ve made it home. I’m not sure if this tofu is actually good, or if my body is just excited to absorb its energy.

Fasting is a deceptively simple thing, and maybe one day I’ll stop being nervous going into it. My body is temperamental. Most days, I need to eat every 3–4 hours or I’ll get lightheaded. But today, I was fine. Maybe I actually stayed in-tune with God. Maybe I actually drew on His strength, rather than depend on the comparative lack of mine. Right now, I’m too grateful for this meal to try understanding it. So even though I wasn’t doubled over in hunger like I usually am, this is a good start to the Lenten season. Maybe this year, I’m not supposed to learn how to trust Him—we all know I can do that already, even if I sometimes forget how. Maybe He’s trying to teach me something else.

I have 40 days to figure that out. But for now, I’m really going to enjoy this tofu and veggies.

“What Are You Giving Up?”

I forget about “giving up” something for Lent every year. (“Every year,” she says, in the two years she’s been here.) Maybe because the date of Ash Wednesday changes, so it’s a last-minute surprise. More likely, giving something up seems the easy way out. I can swear off common vices like chocolate or coffee, and it doesn’t change anything (I don’t even like coffee). I could not drink tea for 40 days, but that wouldn’t reveal much about Jesus’s sacrifice.

Last year I “added” rather than subtracted, which is a step in the right direction. While it was good and productive, I’m not sure “productive” is what we’re going for, either. So maybe this year, rather than cramming in extra Masses or studies or a mountain of books, I’ll do… nothing. But I’m not giving up on “giving up.”

A common theme for my previous Lenten sacrifices was allowing time for meditation. Attend Mass; complete a prayer study; read books. These are good, and things I should be doing anyway. But I’ve come to realize that the resulting peace was not because of the specific thing, but that I did something. I set aside a hectic life, and prayed. Maybe the answer isn’t to give everything up, or to have a daily spiritual planner. Maybe it’s simply being still. That could be something active like journaling or reading, or quiet like wrapping myself in a prayer shawl. It’s the same theme I always have to learn—listen. Maybe God doesn’t want me to read that Tuesday night. Maybe He’s trying to speak as I’m distractedly plowing through a study. I just have to shut up and listen.

I recently saw WALL-E for the first time. I’ll admit, I was distracted at first. The first twenty minutes is this junky little robot cleaning up a mess of planet Earth, and I was bored. There’s no hint of real lifeforms. It’s like humanity gave up and went elsewhere, which is exactly what happened—when you finally see a human, they’re on a space cruise. “Relaxation” is a lifestyle, and they’ve forgotten about Earth and responsibilities.

It’s a charming tale of robots in love, but I was thinking of the humans. It’s not too far off from reality. We’re attached to our screens, inundated with entertainment. We’re busy, filling our days with so much stuff that we don’t see each other, even though we’re constantly connected. We need to detach. Turn off the screen and look up at the stars. For a while, I was shutting down the phone by nine p.m. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was nothing telling me what to do, think, or pay attention to. But over time, I started to look forward to the gap in my schedule. The while noise of a constant multitasker was starting to quiet down. And in that quiet, God was there. He hadn’t gone away, but I’d been too busy to notice Him.

That peace is what I strive for during Lent. Not to cut corners by giving up social media, or scheduling reading time, or making a checklist of prayer services to attend. I crave that quiet. It doesn’t have to always be at the same time. I’ll shut off the phone at nine o’clock again, but remain conscious of what He’s saying during the day, too. A parish near the office says the rosary during lunch time, which I can attend any given day. I may wake up early and read the Gospels. It could be something as simple as taking a walk around the block during the day. I don’t need to schedule God time, because it should all be God time. I can make all the Lenten plans in the world, but in the end, He’s in control. I just have to listen.