October Journal in a Pandemic Year, Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the beggar who traveled the roads of Italy, preaching and healing, who kissed a leper on his face. He was both humble and joyous, and he understood he must be pierced by the love of God in the flesh to fully love. He died at age forty-two, nearly blind, and bleeding from the wounds of Christ, the “stigmata” received on the mountain called La Verna. He is a saint of the flesh, of the body, of God’s immense love.

I have come to appreciate the human face and its remarkable ability to communicate. While noses are for breathing (definitely a good and essential part of the face), mouths are for speaking, and for subtle expressions that I have taken for granted over the years.

Because now I can’t see them, masked as they are. Mouths are essential as well, but since they expel and inhale dangerous viral globules, they risk spreading and receiving infection. Sneezing and coughing are discouraged, although I had thought they were always discouraged. Good to be reminded, I suppose, not to sneeze or cough on anyone.

I confess that I have always hated telephones. Hearing a person’s voice to me is not enough. I hold the instrument to my ear or tap the speakerphone, and I try to fathom what the face at the other end of the line, the other side of the Cloud, is trying to tell me. And of course this can be remedied by Skype or FaceTime or Zoom, I do realize.

I visited some family members not part of my “pod” yesterday and left greatly disturbed by the necessary masks. This time it wasn’t that I couldn’t breathe (which is true, I tend to panic) since they were kind enough to allow me not to wear my mask, and we were “distancing”, and I am healthy in spite of being over seventy and deemed by the powers that be to be vulnerable. This time my disturbance was over having to speak to eyes looking at me over the mask. It was surreal, as if they weren’t there, but not quite.

I heard their vocal expressions and nuances and laughter and I could see their eyes crinkle and widen and smile oddly. But I left their home frustrated, feeling I had been robbed of something essential to my well-being, my communication face-to-face. I had been robbed of something intrinsically human, and also, I am beginning to think, divinely ordained to express love. I longed to really see them as our Creator intended, and I couldn’t really see them.

My recent ACFW blog post speaks a bit about this, the uses of the face, the need for Christian writers to reflect God’s face in their writing. I’m glad God doesn’t wear a mask, but breathes his Holy Spirit here among us, stirring us up with joy. And we have God the Son too, a face replicated by icons through the centuries, a face we have come to pray to, a face that is full of love and concern, if perhaps sometimes demanding and stern, as is proper in a well-ordered creation, a created order that loves one another.

And in spite of all the furor over mask-wearing, there has been (as of this writing) no evidence that the practice makes any difference, except that it curtails those who might sneeze upon you or cough upon you, in which case you have made the foolish decision (or loving decision) to be too close to a very ill-mannered person, and might need to think that through in future choices you make, at least if you are deemed vulnerable by the powers that be.

One way or another, the State has taken away our responsibility for our behavior, our ability to choose to love on our own, to make the decision to stay home if we are sick, or to sneeze or cough our globules into a sleeve (as we used to do).

In our faith tradition, in our liturgy and afterwards, we have many moments when we are close to one another, sharing the Eucharistic cup, eating of the Eucharistic bread, kneeling side by side before the tabernacle. In the past we would shake hands, hug, touch a shoulder in tenderness, encouragement, or sympathy. When I had a cough, a didn’t cough on others. If I was sick, I stayed home. Now I’m always home, by decree.

I hope we can return to normalcy, to loving one another again, but I’m not sure about that in California. We shall see. Many are fleeing the state and for many reasons. Government control over faces might be a breaking point at some time. It’s just about my breaking point (and I worry about the children in this world of separation, this world of isolation and unlove).

But, then again, there is today’s Epistle, Paul’s call for “lowliness and meekness and long-suffering in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace—one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:1+). Paul calls himself “the prisoner of the Lord.” So I shall embrace my facelessness as best I can, in increased humility and most of all in love, and become a “prisoner of the Lord” too.

At least among Christians, there is only one body, the Body of Christ, the Church, as one of our preachers said this morning. In this painful separation from one another, and the fueled divisions of our politics of hate, this is Good News. We are not separate from one another. We are not faceless. We are one body, His Body. Until the New Heaven and Earth. Until we see Our Lord face-to-face, with our redeemed faces.

And just as described in my recent novel, Angel Mountain, we will sing with all our might, one of the hymns that our Berkeley chapel chose for today, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” based on Revelation’s song of the angels. We will sing with the angels and the saints and all those who have gone before us, those who have died during this pandemic, those who have died before this pandemic, all those family and friends we long to see once again. We will sing with St. Francis.

For we will see their redeemed faces, full of Christ’s glory. And we too will be redeemed, full of Christ’s glory.

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