Exiting the spiritual desert

As what some might term a “cradle Catholic,” I did not spend much of my younger years thinking about the Eucharist. Sure, I attended parish religious education, bought the white dress at the tender age of 7, got my ears pierced at the mall, and had the party complete with a magician (did I mention that I am an Italian from New Jersey?) – but the Eucharist itself never occupied much of my thoughts. As I grew, studied theology twice over, and became a liturgist and pastoral minister, I deepened in my love for the Eucharist through the beautiful writings of the Second Vatican Council and my own experience of evangelization and catechesis. Suffice to say that I thought I had a handle on the Mass and the Eucharist and its role in my life – and then a pandemic hit the United States.

Suddenly, the Church (both globally and in this nation) found itself in uncharted territory. Parishes suspended public worship; dioceses developed plans and guidance; even the Vatican had to critically examine its norms and parameters. Amongst the chaos of protecting human life, the absence of the reception of Communion yawned ever greater.

As both an employee of the institutional Church and an arguably faithful Catholic, I was prepared to “enter into the desert” to protect my own health, and to avoid being a carrier to others. I passionately debated with friends and colleagues on the benefit of tight restrictions and graciously accepted the freedom returned to my Sunday mornings. My husband and I attempted diligence in “attending” virtual Mass each weekend; the great blessing we found was the ability to “visit” parishes we normally could not, and “hear” the homilies of many priests whose friendships we cherish. As enthusiastically as our presbyterate worked to provide a sacred liturgical experience through virtual means, it was simply not the same, and over time we found ourselves faltering in our commitment to the practice. At first, I missed the Eucharist desperately, but over time, the anxieties of the pandemic and the growing unrest in our nation forced that longing into a backseat in my mind.

And yet, when the opportunity arose to attend an outdoor Sunday liturgy, with processes and restrictions in place to ensure maximal safety, my husband and I were grateful to take advantage of the opportunity. We signed up for a 12 pm liturgy on a sunny, breezy June Sunday (exactly 3 months to the day since we last attended Mass in person – aptly, Trinity Sunday!), returning to the parish where we were married with our lawn chairs, hand sanitizer, and masks. We thought it would be a “nice” experience, with admittedly simple parameters of justification: the priests in residence are our close friends, the music is spectacular, and the spacing in the parking lot would be ample. However, I found myself profoundly, inconsolably moved from the first note of the entrance hymn until the Prayer to Saint Michael. (Gratefully, masks are both a necessary protective measure in preventing the spread of COVID-19 AND an effective way to hide my messy tears!) I knew I would be emotional, but I was unprepared for the opening of the floodgates.

Simply put: no study in theology prepared me for how truly hungry I was for the Eucharist. While I cherish my theological education for too many reasons to name, it can sometimes serve as a barrier to the fullness of a spiritual experience; it is easier to put up a wall of mental analysis of the historical Jesus than it is to simply be open to encountering Christ in the breaking of the bread. When we put aside all the divisiveness in the Church and in our nation, when we forget for a moment that we are anything other than one body, the profound nourishment we can receive is more than we knew we ever needed.

Secondary to that Eucharistic hunger was the deep yearning I didn’t even know I felt for the experience of worship. As a bit of a liturgical nerd, you would think I would have been more attuned to that desire! I found myself totally swept up in the magnificence of the music, hanging on each word of every prayer and more vociferous in my responses than usual (shocking for those who have had the misfortune of sitting next to me at Mass). While the laundry list of what sets us as Roman Catholics apart from our siblings in the Christian faith is lengthy, one that resonates with me is the sense of community. You cannot simply have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – and nothing else. It is our sacramental experience of community, bringing the joys and sorrows of the whole body into worship and prayer, which adds such richness to our faith. Although it was not in my preferred seating in the nave of the church (right-hand side, near the front, thank you), I found myself more connected to communal worship than ever.

Finally, the impact of the return to Mass has reverberated in my home ever since. My husband and I have adamantly agreed on the desire to continue to worship outside for the sake of safety, but we are no longer content with the occasional skipping of Mass due to “a busy schedule.” Having walked through the spiritual desert for 3 months to the day, this Mass was no “obligation” in the secular sense, but a filling of our own wells of spiritual nourishment for the week to come – and isn’t that what Mass should be for us all?

By: Nicole Perone