One-Liner Wednesday: power

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/08/18/one-liner-wednesday-cinnamon/

SoCS: ups and (mostly) downs

When I saw that Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week was “up/down”, I knew that I needed to write a follow-up to last week’s SoCS in which I talked about my father (Paco) and his recent fall, hospitalization, and move to a rehab facility.

When I wrote last Saturday, it seemed that, though there was a long way to go, things were trending up.

Everything changed on Sunday when new complications arose. For various reasons, I will not even attempt to elaborate.

Let’s just say it has been a very “down” week.

We are working hard at untangling a mass of symptoms and trying to keep him safe and comfortable, but it’s an uphill battle. I know he is 96 and so, very vulnerable and prone to complicating factors but it is still so hard to deal with.

And to watch.

I know intellectually that I am doing all that is possible for me to help him and his care team, but my heart aches because I can’t make it better.

We have no idea what the outcome will be. It’s not just one day at a time, which is Paco’s favorite saying. It’s one hour at a time. One moment. One more early morning phone call telling me that he fell again during the night.

There are up moments here and there. When Paco easily remembers my name. When he gets to enjoy a slice of blueberry pie for dessert at lunch. When he manages to make a little joke with his aides.

I had planned to go to vigil mass today at a friend’s church, but was too tired to make the drive, so I went to a nearby church instead. I was blessed to see Sister A. there. She had been one of the stalwart visitors during my mother’s final illness, a span that stretched over two years. Because of the pandemic and other circumstances, I had not seen her in months. I was able to fill her in on Paco’s condition and she assured me that she has been lifting him up in prayer.

After such a “down” week, that assurance was a much-needed balm.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/06/25/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-26-2021/

Trinity Sunday 2021

Today is the Sunday after Pentecost which is celebrated in the Roman Catholic tradition as Trinity Sunday. It is also the name day of a close family member, so it holds additional significance for me.

While I had attended mass in person a few times during Lent and Holy Week after I was fully vaccinated, I had not attended since because space was so limited and advance reservations were required. Now, though, with the new guidance from the CDC and our diocese, fully vaccinated people may attend unmasked and capacity restrictions have been eased, so I decided to attend to celebrate Trinity Sunday in person instead of via broadcast.

We still had temperature checks as we entered, but the ropes that had blocked every other pew have been removed. People still maintained some distance from each other, especially important for families with children too young to be vaccinated or teens who haven’t had time to complete their vaccination series yet. Some adults were masked because they haven’t yet been fully vaccinated or because they chose to wear masks because they are medically vulnerable or feel safer masked while indoors in close quarters. People are also masked when fulfilling certain roles in the liturgy, such as distributing communion. It was nice to see the octet able to stand unmasked in pairs singing the same voice part, rather than scattered about by household as they had to be under full pandemic protocol.

This week, we still used the pandemic protocol of distributing communion after the concluding rite, so that people were distanced as they exited immediately after receiving, avoiding large crowds in the gathering space. Next week, though, when we celebrate Corpus Christi, communion will be distributed at the normal time before the concluding rite, so we will get to have a proper closing hymn again. Our bishop has also rescinded the dispensation of the obligation to attend mass in person as of next week, although, as always, people who are too frail or medically vulnerable are exempt.

I’m not sure what will happen. Many churches, including the one I attend, cut back on the number of masses each weekend due to cleaning protocols. Will there now be too many people trying to fit into fewer masses? Will some people who have been accustomed to participating virtually continue to do so because it feels safer or easier or more convenient?

I admit that, for me, being back in person is difficult and saddening. Perhaps, it will be less so as we are able to resume talking to other congregants; it’s lonelier to me being in the midst of people with whom I can’t interact than being alone participating in mass via television. The bigger problem, though, is my discomfort with many of the clergy and bishops in the United States over the last several years. Too many of them are mired in clericalism that fails to acknowledge the decades/centuries of abuse, misogyny, racism, and injustice in which the hierarchy was either perpetrating or complicit. Too many of them are more enamored with their personal power over others than with following the servant-leadership of Christ. Somehow, for me, it feels safer with a priest on a screen than a priest in the same room, even a large room like a church.

I was just looking back at this post, which I wrote after my first Lenten mass in person. At the end of it, I write about the struggles of living through a lot of pain to remain in the church and questioning if I can go back to being confronted with that every week.

The answer may well become evident in the coming weeks.

Postscript: One of the online resources that I use is catholicwomenpreach.org. Their Trinity Sunday 2021 homily is powerful. If this was the preaching I heard in person at mass, it would be a cause for joy rather than pain.

One-Liner Wednesday: pain

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
~~~ Richard Rohr

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/05/12/one-liner-wednesday-maybe-i-just-wish-it-was-warmer/

One-Liner Wednesday: hope

Intellect does not function in opposition to mystery; tolerance is not more pragmatic than love; and cynicism is not more reasonable than hope.

Krista Tippett, from Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, p. 236

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/04/21/one-liner-wednesday-random/

Triduum

This year, for the first time in a while, I actually made it to all three main liturgies of the Triduum, which, in Catholic parlance, is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Back in the days when I served on liturgy committee and I and my daughters served in music ministry, I would be at all the Holy Week liturgies plus the children’s liturgy on Easter morning, but, after my long-time parish disintegrated in 2005, I couldn’t bring myself to attend all the services. The situation got even more complicated when my elder care responsibilities grew.

Then came 2020 and the pandemic and no one could attend services in person for Holy Week.

I didn’t attend mass in person for over a year. I wrote here about my first time back a dew weeks ago. I noted in that post that I wouldn’t try to attend every week yet due to space constraints at church. I was able to get a reservation to attend Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and decided to attend on Holy Thursday evening and Good Friday afternoon because the church made those open without reservations, although we did have to sign in and leave contact information in case a COVID case was verified and they needed to do tracing. We also had temperature checks and single-use programs so there were no hymnals or prayer books that subsequent worshippers would be touching.

Holy Thursday had long been my favorite liturgy of the year. Its focus is the Eucharist, as it commemorates the Last Supper. In an ordinary year, there would be significant involvement from the laity. The priest would wash the feet of twelve parish members and another group of people, often a family, would dress the altar. There would be a large choir to lead the congregation in sung prayer. Because of the pandemic, everything had to be pared down. Footwashing was eliminated globally to reduce risk. There were two lay lectors, appropriately distanced from the clergy in the sanctuary, but they were both men, so there were no women’s voices in any of the spoken prayers, which added to the sense of distance for me.

The music was beautiful, though. The music director put together an octet from the music ministry, which included some married couples so that the spacing would work as they could stand right next to each other instead of having to be feet apart. With masks, spacing, and good choral microphones, they were able to lead the sung prayer very meaningfully.

Because so much of the Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around a meal, there are many references to food. Because we are living in a time of increased hunger in the United States, these passages were particularly meaningful to me this year. For example, the gathering song was “Table of Plenty” by Dan Schutte, which contains the lyrics, “O come and eat without money; come to drink without price.” and “My bread will ever sustain you through days of sorrow and woe.” Those familiar lines resonated differently knowing that many people do not have enough to eat.

The service on Good Friday afternoon is, by its nature, quite stark. It’s the one day of the church year when there is no mass with Eucharist. Instead, there is a liturgy of the word, veneration of the cross, and distribution of communion with previously consecrated hosts. Without having the liturgy of the Eucharist, the emphasis shifts to the liturgy of the word, which includes reading the passion narrative from the gospel of John.

Paradoxically, Good Friday felt less stark to me than the Lenten and Holy Thursday masses I attended. I think this was due, at least in part, to the fact that there were more lay voices and, in particular, women’s voices included. The first reading, the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, was proclaimed as a choral reading, alternating between a woman lector and the music ministers. The gospel is presented with different people reading narration, the voice of Christ, and the voice of others in dialogue, with the congregation participating as the crowd. Even though we are assigned to proclaim a lot of challenging verses – we have to say, “Crucify him!” multiple times – it is good to feel that we have a part in telling the story.

Another element of the liturgy of the word that gets more emphasis on Good Friday is the intercessions that follow the homily. They were chanted by two cantors, a woman and a man, who alternated between them, with a sung response from the congregation and a prayer by the priest after each. This year, there was an added petition specifically for the pandemic, which was both moving and sobering to hear.

The veneration of the cross was much simpler than in usual years. It’s been the custom for each person to come forward in procession to kiss the cross but that isn’t possible under pandemic protocol. Instead, the assembly knelt and venerated the cross from our places in the pews. In truth, I preferred this to the processing and kissing because it felt more solemn.

For the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we begin in a mostly darkened church. The time is set to be after sundown so it will be dark so that the first part of the mass, the service of light, begins in darkness. Usually, a new fire is lit and blessed outside the church, the new Paschal candle is blessed and embedded with incense, then lit and carried through the church in procession with music and sung responses, as each person holds a candle which is lit and passed to the next until the church is filled with candlelight for the singing of the the Exsultet (Easter Proclamation).

However, this was rather drastically abbreviated this year. We heard the blessing of the fire and the Paschal candle was brought into the church but the congregation had no candles of their own and most of the lights remained off in the body of the church. The Exsultet was chanted by a cantor whom I have had the privilege to hear sing for many years; it was very moving and brought back memories of hearing the priest chant this prayer when I was the teenage organist in my childhood church.

The liturgy of the word that follows the service of light begins with three readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each followed by a psalm and prayer. Unfortunately, the lights in the body of the church were still off, which made it a bit difficult for the assembly to sing the psalm responses which were printed in our programs. I happened to know the pieces fairly well so I could sing, but I could tell that some others were not familiar enough with them to join in. Admittedly, it was dramatic to have the lights turned on as we were singing the Gloria, but I missed the growing candlelight followed by the lights being turned on as we extinguished our candles and began the liturgy of the word.

I admit that I struggled with the homily. While it was meant to be a unifying message, the way it was conveyed reminded me too much of how many instances of division there are within our society and the church. It saddened me.

The Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when new adult members enter the church, so there are often baptisms, professions of faith, confirmations, and first Eucharists included. This year, though, there was just one candidate for confirmation, most likely because the pandemic prevented the usual series of liturgies and classes for new members that take place in the months leading up to Easter.

The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolded in almost normal fashion. I was again very appreciative of my organist-friend and the octet she had assembled. The mass that we sang is one that I know well and that we had used often. In my mind, I was adding in the sound of the handbell accompaniment and larger choir that we used on festive occasions like Easter. I wonder when or even if such large and close gatherings will again be possible.

Perhaps I should say that the liturgy of the Eucharist proceeded in pandemic-normal. There is no sharing of a sign of peace, although people do wave or nod to others across the empty pews between occupied-but-spaced ones. We also do the formal dismissal before communion is distributed, so that people receive the host and then exit, all while keeping their distance.

I was just re-reading this post to edit and I’m sure, if you have made it this far, that you realize I’m a bit of a Catholic liturgy wonk. I want to convey my wishes for Easter blessings to those celebrating and my universal wishes for peace, love, respect, and care to all.

back to church

Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I attended mass in person.

If you had told me prior to the pandemic that I would ever go a year without going to church, I would not have believed it. I grew up Catholic and going to mass for Sundays and holydays was an important part of our faith practice. I was in church as a teen more than most because I became our small country church’s only organist in my second year of high school. I spent many years in music and liturgical ministries and, although I hadn’t been active in them in recent years, I still considered taking part in mass and receiving the Eucharist a vital part of my faith life.

Last March, when the severity of COVID was first becoming apparent, I decided not to go to mass for fear of exposing my father, one week before New York State went into lockdown and the churches temporarily closed. I began participating via televised mass as my mother had done when she was ill. Over time, churches here resumed services, first outdoors or broadcast to congregants in their cars in the parking lot. Later, indoor services were permitted with distancing, masking, temperature checks, pre-registration, and other measures in place, although the bishops have kept the dispensation from in-person attendance in place.

Because being part of a large group of people who are speaking and singing is inherently more risky than being at home or in a grocery store, I had made a personal decision not to attend mass in person until I was fully vaccinated. Last week, two weeks after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I called the church to make a reservation to attend the Saturday vigil mass yesterday.

I arrived early, knowing that there would be a check-in process and that we would need to maintain spacing. I was masked, of course, and gave my name to the volunteer at a table, who found my name and contact information on her list. They keep the information on file so they can call if a positive test is reported. There was a temperature check and the distribution of a leaflet with the day’s music. I was allowed to choose my own seat among the pews, although every other row was blocked off by purple cords draped around the end. I sat near the music ministers, so that I could watch my friend play the organ and see the cantor who would be leading the singing.

If I had to choose one word for the experience, it would be stark. This is partly a function of it being Lent, which is a penitential season. There are no flowers and the sanctuary is kept as simple as possible. What was striking to me, though, was the space between all the ministers. The priest, deacon, two lectors, and single altar server were in chairs scattered around the altar and ambo, which is necessary for viral reasons. It amplified my sense of separation from them and from the rest of the congregation. Only people from the same household can sit in a group, so many of us were sitting alone.

I felt most like I was part of the assembly when we were praying aloud together. Although we were masked and there were far fewer of us than our pre-pandemic numbers, our voices carried well and we could hear one another, ironically helped by the acoustics of the space without so many bodies to absorb the sound. This was, however, a double-edged sword. During the prelude, I was annoyed by a couple behind me discussing home improvement projects, no doubt unaware how well their masked voices carried in the space.

As often happens, there were emotional moments for me during the liturgy, although not when I had expected them. As part of the prelude, my friend improvised on the Irish hymn tune St. Columba, which is often used with the text “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”. It is one of my favorite tunes. Back in the days when I could play the organ and was practicing, it was one of the hymns I would sing as a personal prayer. I was very grateful to hear it yesterday.

When we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I was particularly drawn to the last phrase, “deliver us from evil.” I am still pondering the full implications of being drawn to that at this time. Like most Christians, I have prayed this prayer thousands of times. It is a testament to its strength that it reveals different aspects of faith as our circumstances change.

The third moment was that I choked up as we started to sing the Lamb of God. This simple text, which is placed in the liturgy shortly before communion, has long been my favorite prayer of the mass ordinary. Long ago, I set it in a choral anthem paired with a text from Isaiah. Again, a prayer that I have recited or sung thousands of times but that was somehow connecting with me in a new way.

Strangely, the thing that I expected to be very emotional was not and perhaps goes back to my feeling of starkness. In order to maintain distancing, communion was not distributed at the usual time. Instead, we prayed the concluding rite and then received communion. The priest and the deacon went to positions at the end of the far aisles and the congregants, keeping six feet of distance between them, filed up to receive the host, step away, briefly lower their mask to consume the host, then immediately process to the doors by a different route and exit, all while the communion hymn was being sung. Because I was near the front of the church, that meant exiting during the hymn without an opportunity to join in that prayer. Intellectually and from the public health viewpoint, this procedure for communion makes perfect sense. It keeps people from congregating in the building or around the exits and minimizes the chance of spreading the virus. From a liturgical perspective, though, it feels stark. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and the word communion has the same roots as the word community; this more isolating experience feels counter to that. As someone who has study music and liturgy, it also was very difficult for me to leave while there was still sung prayer ongoing.

I was grateful to be able to attend in person but I don’t think that I will try to do it every week yet. Due to the cleaning protocols involved, there are only two masses per weekend; with fewer masses and reduced capacity, I don’t want to deprive other people from being there by taking up space myself on a regular basis. I do hope to go once during Holy Week, Easter Vigil if possible or Holy Thursday if the Vigil is in high demand.

Otherwise, I will continue to participate from home until our area progresses to the point where we can gather safely in large numbers again, when we can exchange a sign of peace, when things will not be so stark.

When we do get to that point, there will be another, more complex decision to make, which is how much of the politics and abuses of power in the church itself I can continue to tolerate. The clergy of the church continue to grapple with its own history and legacy of crimes, abuse, and sin, or worse, some grapple and some continue to deny. Meanwhile, lay people are not given the opportunity to fully use their gifts in service to the people and the church.

It’s exhausting.

The pandemic has blunted the effect of having this struggle before me every week. I haven’t decided yet if I can take it on so consistently again. I used to go to mass every week, even when I cried because of the pain. I did it because I couldn’t imagine being separated from the Eucharist. Because of the pandemic, I now know that spiritual communion is a reality, that I can feel close to Christ and to creation and all people, even when I’m not able to attend mass in person.

I don’t know what I will choose to do.

Another aspect of life in which I dwell in mystery.

Grim milestone

It has just been announced that the United States has reached 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

A half a million deaths among the 28 million confirmed cases. About 30% of those infected continue to have symptoms for weeks/months.

All of this in about a year’s time.

I had been watching a recording of mass for the first Sunday of Lent. When it finished, I tuned to a news channel. One of the frequent medical contributors, herself a physician, was speaking about the deaths and was struggling to keep from crying. The host noted how appropriate it was to react emotionally, as she herself was.

Such enormous loss. So much suffering. A reminder that, despite medical advances, we are nearing the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic.

My eyes are filling with tears as I write this, both from the huge losses in our country and the world and from the losses of each one. Just recently added to the list a friend of my sister’s, the father of B’s co-worker, a resident in the apartments of Paco’s senior community.

Even with the vaccines becoming available, there will be many more illnesses and deaths. There will be uncertainty from the new variants’ effects, how long immunity will last after infection or vaccination, how people will behave as recommendations and policies change.

But today is overwhelmingly sad.

Again.

On pandemic church attendance

Back in the days of the anti-fracking battle in New York State, I wrote tons of comments to articles in the press. I still occasionally write a comment on a topic of interest. The following is a comment I submitted to an op-ed by Wilton Cardinal Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, DC, in The Washington Post, entitled “Praying apart isn’t the same as praying together. That’s why we sued D.C.” Because the article is behind a paywall, I will synopsize. Cardinal Gregory had sued the city of Washington, DC “to protect the free exercise of religion in the nation’s capital.” There had been a limit of fifty people in religious services, (which was subsequently eased by Mayor Muriel Bowser on December 16th). He pointed out that more than fifty people were allowed in stores and other venues.

My comment:
I am Catholic and someone who spent years in liturgical service as a musician and a liturgy planner. I was consistently attending mass on weekends and holy days, but I have not attended in person mass since mid-March, choosing instead to participate via televised or online services for safety’s sake.

I don’t think that restrictions on number of people in church attendance is at all an attempt to limit free exercise of religion. Being in church for a service is not like being in a store. In stores, people are mostly  silent, not near the same people for any length of time, and spending shorter amounts of time in an enclosed space. In churches, people are in one spot for an extended period, usually about an hour. They are speaking and singing; singing in particular is known to spread droplets much further than six feet. Masks do help prevent virus spread, but they do not do so 100%, so singing presents an additional risk.

Church attendance is more closely analogous to going to an indoor movie or concert. In my state, neither of those activities are allowed at all. Places of worship are allowed with restrictions on numbers in attendance. I think that rather than being overly restrictive, governments have been trying to help faith communities gather in person rather than being totally virtual in worship, while trying to keep risk relatively low.

The virus does not care whether people are in a store or a church or a home or a restaurant. It’s up to all of us to protect ourselves to the extent possible. When government officials are following science in their rules, we should accept that and not think that they are infringing on our rights rather than protecting public health.

another day

So, as I write this, it is December 25th which we celebrate as Christmas, but 2020 is very different.

I haven’t been able to post much this month, in large part because we have been dealing with some health difficulties with my father, known here as Paco. He spent five days in the hospital and, earlier this week, was admitted to the skilled nursing and rehabilitation unit in the senior community where he lives.

Because of COVID restrictions, no visitors are allowed but we have been in touch by phone. Before he went to rehab, we did have a family early-Christmas celebration, but we sent a couple of small gifts to his room so he would have something to open today.

We hope to videochat with daughter E and family in London UK this afternoon, which will be evening there. They have already posted photos of granddaughters ABC and JG in their holiday attire. Last night, we were able to watch the Christmas Eve mass from their church. While it is sad that we were not able to see them at all in 2020, technology does help.

Spouse B, daughter T, and I are spending the day at home with scaled-back gift exchange and lots of our family favorite foods, fresh-baked date nut and cranberry breads for breakfast and lasagna from Nana’s recipe with homemade braided herb bread for dinner and apple-blackberry and an outrageously good brown-sugar and maple pecan pie for dessert. B enjoys cooking and baking special meals, so he is taking the lead with all this while I act assitant. It’s nice to have familiar things in such a topsy-turvy year.

Unfortunately, the huge snowstorm we had last week that dropped forty inches (one meter) of snow on us has set us up for flood warnings today. We got about three inches (8 cm) of rain yesterday and overnight, which, coupled with at least another couple of inches from snowmelt, has led to flooding. The Susquehanna is expected to crest tonight at major flood stage level in our town. While our home should be okay, we are concerned for our neighbors who live closer to the river.

I know for many Christians around the world, this Christmas is very different than the usual celebrations, but the underlying message of peace and good will to all is still there to bring comfort to us in these troubled times. I share wishes for peace and good will, for good health and love with all of you; whatever your personal faith or philosophy might be, these gifts are universal.