Week 1: Disorientation
As the man wanders through the empty town, he grows increasingly agitated, searching for someone—anyone—to talk to. And all the while he can’t shake the disturbing feeling that he’s being watched. He fumbles his way through the abandoned streets, an empty police station, a vacant café. Trying to shake off the nightmare, he tells himself he’s got to wake up. Suddenly, church bells ring, resonating through the hollow town. He cries out in panicked desperation, “Where is everybody?!”
If this sounds like a scene from The Twilight Zone, it’s because it is.
And I know just how that lonely man felt.
This morning—a fine spring Sunday morning—my wife, Jolene, and I decided to go to Mass. Yes, we knew the services were cancelled, as they have been since mid-March, but we needed to reconnect. To experience some semblance of our faith.
You know, the old normal.
We drove into the empty lot and parked right in the middle of it. Ours was the only car to be seen. No one heading into the sanctuary, no one on the street. Even the birds were silent.
And then, as if on scripted cue, the church bells began to ring. I looked to Jolene and said, more than asked, “Where is everybody?”
I thought I’d wander over to the building to see if I could pick up a missal; perhaps it was open and I could grab one that we could read in the car. Instead I was greeted by a notice posted prominently on the locked door.
It reminded me of another time a notice was posted on a church door. But that was about an event that happened more than 500 years ago. And it was an act that called forth no small measure of fearlessness.
Back in the car, and without a missal, I pulled up the day’s readings on my phone and began to read aloud.
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? Yahweh is the fortress of my life, whom should I dread? One thing I ask of Yahweh, one thing I seek: to dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh, to seek out his temple. Yahweh, hear my voice as I cry, pity me, answer me! . . .”
. . . Where is everybody?
Week 2: Pentecost
Thunderstorms are unusual here in the Pacific Northwest—about as rare as sunshine in March, as they say. And yet this weekend we were treated to a spectacular one. This being Pentecost Sunday, I couldn’t help but make the connection to the Pentecost narrative: “And suddenly there came from the sky a noise…”
Which, on this particular Sunday, also brought to mind the old philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I wonder, because also on this particular Sunday morning, the rain-soaked church parking lot is again empty. Excepting our car.
We weren’t sure what to expect as we entered into our second week of “empty parking lot Mass.” But here we were, with catholic.org pulled up on my phone with the day’s readings.
The Gospel passage finds the disciples huddled in fear in a closed room, when Jesus suddenly appears, greeting them with the words, “Peace be with you.” Jesus then breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
As we paused to ponder this, a police cruiser entered the lot, circling our lone car and then coming to rest some distance away.
I am struck by the element of fear in the reading—fear that was instantly dispelled by the peace of Christ as he stood among the disciples gathered together in that place. I am so struck because there is no such dispelling of fear in this place. No gathering, either.
What I do see, however, is that last week’s door signage has been updated.
In accordance with the State’s coronavirus mandates, the notice informs me that no more than five persons are allowed in the church at any one time.
I believe there were more than five disciples gathered in that room with Jesus, so, doing the math, if this event were playing out today, they’d have to meet at the Safeway across the street, where there are no such restrictions, the store being an essential service.
But then I notice that in the window beside the church door is another new sign.
Now, if the big red stop sign was not sufficient to instill holy fear, surely this one would, particularly when amplified by the cognitive dissonance I experience between the imagery that suggests I must fear my neighbor and the tag line that instructs me to love my neighbor. But it doesn’t matter. There’s no one here anyway.
Week 3: More Signs of the Times
This morning as we again enter the empty parking lot for the Mass that isn’t, Jolene notices the church marquee.
More cognitive dissonance—this time amplified by the morning’s reading, which call us to, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
Now, it does seem that in the times of the early Church—the most dangerous in its history—there sure was a lot of gathering, kissing, and breathing going on.
The global response to the coronavirus pandemic has, and continues, to level massive collateral damage on an unprecedented scale. We are already seeing that the death toll, as a direct consequence of the Great Lockdown, is orders of magnitude greater than a coronavirus ever inflict.
The Great Lockdown, however, is likely to produce collateral damage of a spiritual nature that will prove far more devastating. Could the so-called “Eucharistic fast” be the inciting incident to the Great Flockdown?
Three weeks into this experience of empty parking lot Mass, with each week bringing progressively escalating danger signs, I wonder.
When fearless souls do eventually venture to darken the church doors again—assuming they’ll be allowed to do so—the spatially-challenged will be comforted by a sidewalk marked with the appropriate distancing indicators.
Just as we’re being told to accept a “new normal,” are we now also to embrace a new idea of “Love in Action?”
This prospect is heartbreaking. And yet, I also find myself heartened by the very different—dare I say, dissenting—responses of some archdioceses to the unreasonable burden of state mandates. The recent statement from Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda is an inspiring case in point.
Stressing the sacramental needs of the faithful, Archbishop Hebda—and emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist to our lives—declared his intent to “…move ahead and allow larger Masses even without support from public officials.”
This position is in stark contrast to that of our Seattle Archdiocese. Indeed, this tale of two churches sends up an illuminating flare over the territory that lies between submission and disagreement.
I take it as a positive sign.
Until next time, we’ll look for you in the parking lot.
Week 4: Dispensed
Today we are traveling, and away from our home parish parking lot. But we have found another in the town we are visiting. It, too, is empty, so we already feel right at home. And looking for signs.
We find one posted in the church window that reads, in part, “A general dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation will remain in place. Mass attendance is not required.”
We’ve not yet had breakfast, so we are a bit hungry.
I am reminded of the time we decided to stop feeding the squirrel that used to come begging at the back porch door, often with his little paws pressed against the glass, eager to catch our attention. He was clearly dismayed, even a little puzzled as he worked out this new development. Eventually the little guy realized that wouldn’t be fed here anymore and stopped coming around.
I identify with that squirrel now. My wife and I have long been coming around church to be fed. And we never went away disappointed.
That’s changed now. And though we know we won’t be fed here, at least for the time being, we keep returning anyway. Which brings us to today’s readings.
It turns out that the passage in Deuteronomy also speaks to feeling hunger, but also of being fed with manna, the combination culminating in the idea that human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh. And that Yahweh, our God, will guide us through this dreadful desert, in part, to test us, and to humble us so that our future might be a happier one.
The Gospel reading drives this home, but substituting a new form of manna. “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven,” Jesus declares. “Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world. . . . In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Jolene gasps at the weight of these words. And yet today, that life-imbuing food is somehow pronounced optional. We are… “dispensed.”
I find myself returning to the Washington Bishops letter on re-opening churches, which describes the plan for preparing parishes across the state for the eventual resumption of Masses. One sentence in particular catches my attention. “Parishes must create an environment that is not only safe, but is liturgically reverent.”
Liturgically reverent? What does that mean?
I’m thinking now of Father Francis Duffy of the Archdiocese of New York. He was responsible for boosting the morale of the trench soldiers during the First World War. He would say Mass in the trenches, bravely moving through them after an artillery bombardment to give last rites to the dying. I don’t think of the trenches as being particularly reverent, but that didn’t make the need for the sacraments any less urgent. If anything, such conditions made them more so.
When I am hungry, I don’t require a table set with linen, fine china, and crystal. If I were truly starving, I’d happily grovel in the dirt for any scrap of manna I might find. We’ve not yet been dispensed from hunger…
For now, though, in this empty parking lot in a strange town, we’ll have to imagine that our bellies are full and somehow content ourselves with the illusion.
Mr. Schroeter is also the editor of an illuminated edition of the Thomas à Kempis devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ (Sophia Institute Press)