BY DAVID ROMANIK
A few weeks ago, I tested positive for Covid. Remarkably, this was the first time anyone in our household had contracted the virus (as far as we know) in the two and a half years since the start of the pandemic. Fortunately, my case was relatively mild, and no one else in my family was affected. Nevertheless, I knew that the CDC recommended a five day period of isolation, a prospect that was complicated by the fact that my in-laws were in town and there was no obvious place for me to quarantine in our house. Lacking any better plan, I decided to make my way to Hospitality House.
If you have never visited Hospitality House, it is a beautiful facility. Built in 1925, this historic Abilene landmark was acquired by the church several years ago, thanks to the generosity of several parishioners. It has since been lovingly restored and serves primarily as a space to accomodate guests of the church. I recognize that I was extraordinarily privileged to be able to make use of this wonderful space. Not only was it comfortable, it was close enough to church that I could make my way over after hours and catch up on some of the work that I was missing. Most of all, the sheer relief of having a place to stay and recuperate without the risk of infecting my family was a genuinely powerful experience. It was not lost on me that “hospital” and “hospitality” share the same root. Indeed, the earliest “hospitals” were not primarily centers for expert medical care, but places where travelers and pilgrims would stop on their journeys to nurse injuries and recover from illness. Sometimes all we need is a place to rest.
If I’m honest, though, I did struggle quite a bit with loneliness during this period of isolation. Initially, of course, the solitude was productive, even invigorating: I wrote, I worked ahead, I read, I was able to think strategically, and I made time to pray. Before long, however, my patience had started to wear thin. I missed my kids, I missed my wife, and I missed my parishioners and coworkers. Spotty wifi at Hospitality House meant that Facetime, streaming services, and other Internet-based activities were not available. Moreover, the fact that most people have “moved on” from Covid meant that my predicament did not earn as much attention as it might have a year or so ago (I did receive a number of “get well” texts from parishioners, for which I was very grateful). By the fourth day of my quarantine, I was feeling thoroughly dispirited and more than a little sorry for myself.
That fourth day happened to be Sunday. I knew that streaming the service would be difficult in light of my Internet issues, so I sat on the front porch of Hospitality House at 10:30 with my prayer book/hymnal combination in hand, attempting to imagine where the congregation might be in the service. I knew I was only guessing, until I heard the tower bells pealing, signaling that the Celebrant was reciting the words of institution. As I heard those bells, I was flooded with emotion. The words of institution are the moment when the miracle of the Eucharistic table is believed to occur; it is the moment, in other words, when Christ’s real presence is made known in the bread and wine. It’s why we make such a big deal of this moment: elevating the paten and chalice and ringing bells for the entire neighborhood to hear. I wept as I listened to those bells, because they reminded me that Christ was present even in my loneliness and in my boredom. Those bells were a reminder of God’s promise that we are never alone.
If nothing else, the pandemic reminded us of the immense value of being present to one another. I am grateful for the reminder that, regardless of what we may experience in this life. God is present to us.