I position my blue canvas chair on a patch of grass, eyeballing the layout to make sure I am at least six feet from my neighbors. Following the instructions of our liturgical director, we have formed our own pods — clusters of parents with their children, couples and singles like me.
Dusk is beginning to creep in, turning us worshippers into silhouettes on this balmy September evening. This is my first in-person Eucharist since the advent of the pandemic in mid-March. I’m not sure when my parish will deem indoor services safe. In the interim, there are Zoom Masses, and these open-air Eucharists.
We the faithful — no more than 50 of us — have gathered in this courtyard sandwiched between our 1950s era church of ochre sandstone and its offices. Like an ecclesial weathervane, an immense cross on the rooftop of our parish hall stretches skyward, reminding us to refocus our spiritual breath.
Our suburban Chicago congregation is used to adapting worship environments. Thirty years ago, a group of families from our parish formed its own lay-led community, transforming the school gymnasium into a worship space between basketball nets. Sunday mornings we bless our hand-carved altar draped with liturgically themed cloth and holding more than a dozen potted plants. As often as not, our planning committee races around the gymnasium, frantically gathering hymnbooks and candles while others test the sound system and our choir rehearses.
Like the altar stripped bare on Holy Thursday, this outdoor Eucharist is striking in its simplicity. There is no choir, only a solitary guitarist leading us in song. I forget we are not supposed to sing and a few notes slip out but they are muffled by my mask. I experience a deep peace, as gentle as the night breeze on my face.
Our celebrant, Father Carl, expounds on the gospel reading in which Jesus extols us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven. He tells us not to forget to forgive ourselves. At communion, we remain in our chairs while a lay minister spritzes our hands with sanitizer before the communion minister offers us the Body of Christ.
This pandemic has brought unspeakable loss and suffering, but also lessons. The virus has illuminated, as never before, the inequities in our society. The great injustice of a supermarket cashier risking his life for a job that pays only minimum wage. The health disparities for our black and brown brothers and sisters. And we also learn, in our enforced solitude, the blessings of contemplation and quiet. We learn to treasure what really matters: our relationships, good health and purpose in life.
On this September night, I experience the blessings of simplicity. There are only essentials: A few canvas chairs, a table serving as an altar and congregants looking up to see the stars appear in a darkening sky. I remember a Eucharist long ago celebrated in an Elizabeth, New Jersey, living room, a scratched piano bench serving as an altar. Gathered around that bench were neighbors living in one of the state’s poorest communities, looking for hope in a reality defined by poverty. Over ham sandwiches and iced tea, we shared our plans for beginning a neighborhood coalition to fight homelessness.
Once again, I find myself in a worship space stripped to its essentials. Before we are bid to go in peace, Father Carl asks us to hold up our flameless candles in honor of those souls killed on 9/11. And I think that, back then, we were united as a nation in our resolve to fight against terrorism.
But this is 2020, and we are in the middle of a pandemic that has turned our society upside down. I fold up my chair and head to the parking lot, exchanging greetings with a few masked friends I struggle to identify.
Before getting in my car, I strike up a conversation with a woman named Margaret whom I know from our women’s group. She is parked next to me. We ask about each other’s families and we talk about the service.
We glance across the street at the courtyard still strung with lights like a street festival in Little Italy. This Eucharist, we say to each other, was the most meaningful in a very long time.
Marcy Darin is a member of St. Giles Family Mass Community in Oak Park, Illinois. She is the mother of three adult children, a writer of creative nonfiction, and works as a grant director for AMITA Health, a faith-based Chicago area health care system.