In late March, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, my church, closed to live worship and began streaming various services. I tried listening/watching my Sunday 9:30 mass. First of all, I felt sad for the celebrant, alone at the altar, even though I grant he felt the presence of his God. Then I felt sad not to be in my regular pew with my pew mate and amidst a little clutch of us who came early to chat before the service began. After a couple more attempts at watching the streamed service, I gave up because I realized that “church” for me is more than the words. I wanted the gorgeous stained glass windows whose blues and reds change depending on whether the sun is shining or not. I wanted the heavy incense that I know is hard for folks with breathing problems or scent issues. I wanted the candles at the altar, all around the choir loft, in all the side chapels one of which was where I always lighted a five-day candle into which I’d put names of friendscopoing with difficult moments. I wanted the eighty-person choir singing their hearts out, often in Latin or another language, always moving me to tears even as their sounds took me out of my self. So sitting in my living room in front of a little computer screen just didn’t do it for me. I began spending the time I wanted to be in church out in my back yard watching cardinals or gold finches or just sitting quietly and praying for my world that seemed to be becoming more and more uncertain.
Now it’s late July and the Basilica has just begun having weekday masses at noon. One registers on line and, if accepted, arrives at a little blue tent outside one side entryway to be checked off a list, have one’s temperature taken, and answer a few questions about how we are feeling and if we have been around anyone with covid symptoms. After a lot of serious discernment, I decided to apply, since the church can seat 1,200 people and my contact there said the first week of masses had between five and fifteen people. The staff advised anyone over 65 or having a prior condition not to attend. I am well over that age and have a cow membrane in my chest replacing a badly damaged aorta. But the accumulated months of not being in that special space has taken its toll on me, so I decided to risk it. A good friend who is super cautious around covid said “You’re safer at the Basilica than at your hardware store where you keep going.” But I did add a sentence to my health care directive stipulating that were I to be hospitalized with the virus, I did not want a ventilator for obvious reasons.
So yesterday I dressed for church, arrived fifteen minutes early, passed the tests under the blue tent, and was ushered to my seat. No one was anywhere remotely near me and there were thirteen of us in that cavernous space. Just sitting there was healing, as I’d hoped it might be. There were only two tiny candles at either end of the altar, but someone had put a small vase of white flowers at a powerful sculpture of Jesus on the cross with his mother and John looking up at him dolorously. One young woman sang the psalm and led us at a couple of points in the eucharistic preparation section of the mass. Since we were both few and far between each other and speaking through masks, I couldn’t hear anyone but myself, but I knew the others were saying what I was saying and there was comfort in that.
It all felt like a scene in miniature: only one lesson rather than the usual two, and that one was shorter than usual; the gospel was also short though it felt like a special gift to me because yesterday is the Feast of Mary Magdalene who has been named by Pope Francis “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Our pastor spoke for maybe four minutes as his homily, again focusing on Mary’s contribution to Christianity. The little tiny tasteless wafer was not given at the usual place but rather after all the preparatory words had been spoken and we had said the final “Thanks be to God.” Then we left our pews and went to the central aisle where there were lovely circles pasted on the floor at six-foot intervals. On each was the logo for the Basilica found on many of its publications, so that felt not quite so medicinal. Someone on the staff clearly had thought about how they could make the marks for where we were to stand not just be an “X.” I said a little “thank you.” We sanitized our hands just as we got to the person distributing the wafers, and then stood distant from her with fully extended arms to receive the host. Once we had it, we were to step to the side, lower or remove our masks long enough to place the little sliver on our tongues. They we were to leave.
Outside near that exit is a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a small, well-kept garden, so I went over onto the grass and stood looking at her as I let the moment sink in. Then I got in my car and came home, not listening to MPR but letting myself feel how it was to have just done what I’d just done. As I said, it felt like church in miniature and certainly did not have components like those listed earlier as part of what makes going there most meaningful for me. But it was a profound gift to my lagging spirit. A long time ago, Marshal McLuhan coined a motto a lot of us spouted often: “The medium is the message.” Well, he and it came to me as I drove up Hennepin Avenue to my house. A building cannot be everything, but some spaces do carry meaning by their very existence. For me at this point in the pandemic, that big marble edifice at the edge of downtown Minneapolis carries meaning in and of itself. So I will focus on what I did get from my twenty-seven minutes there and let that be enough for now.