The nurse ducked her head into my hospital room this morning to ask if I wanted the sacrament. I said yes, she closed the door, and then I got really emotional. You don't realize how much religious ritual means to you, I suppose, until you need it.
From the outside, it's just a piece of bread and tiny cup of water. In the hospital, of course, it's also a short visit from kind strangers, but a swallow of bread and a sip of water seem like odd gifts to bring a cancer patient.
For those who know, though, this is what my visitors will bring:
It's Jesus, who--after wearing himself thin walking the length of Galilee and Judea teaching, healing, warning, and loving--now lies flat on his face in Gethsemane suffering with me. It's his promise that whenever two or three gather, remembering, he'll be.
It's the years I've spent trying to be one who remembers. The feeling of pew, folding chair, or foyer wall against my back as this act became a central part of my life's rhythm. The weeks I spend as a father wondering whether my three-year-old will touch one and only one piece of bread and whether my five-year-old will throw away the plastic cup after he drinks the water. The weeks I spent as fifteen-year-old hiding from the chapel before I worked up the courage to pass the tray on untouched, learning how to face myself so I could face God.
It's the people who carry faith and memory with me. The autistic deacon who sometimes wore pajamas under his dress clothes when he brought us the sacrament tray. The elderly sister whose house I used to bless the bread or water in--who once told me about the necklace she'd been given by her own grandmother, a pioneer from England who had crossed the plains. The grandfather and grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins and second-cousins who have sat shoulder to shoulder in each other's chapels as we've gathered to welcome babies into the world or send missionaries out to it.
It's the hope that, though bodies are so easy to break and blood so easy to shed, healing and peace win out in the end. That there's a place beyond the grasp of death where we can eat and drink together, where the relationships we treasure deepen through the eternities and the hard experiences we endure are refined like gold into divine wisdom.
It's all that, and so much more. A symphony of meaning in every unassuming piece of bread, every silent cup of water.
My visitors come, thankfully, after I have had time to be helped to the bathroom to have my urine charted and been reminded by the five-foot walk that yes, I need my anti-nausea medication this morning. They come after I've had time to think a lot and write a little and even work up the resolve to start eating.
There are two brothers and two sisters, all with grey hair, conservative clothes, and kind eyes. Following the formal protocol for a patient of my white blood cell count, the brothers don breathing masks as they walk into the room. The sisters wait at the doorway. One of the brothers explains that they live near the hospital, so today I'm part of their stake. It's their calling to bring me the sacrament and a short thought, he says.
He seems taken aback when my only response is to begin weeping openly.
"Hard day?" he asks.
"No," I say, "I just really appreciate you coming." It is enough for me today that this feeling is profound, even if I sound crazy.
After a moment, he blesses the bread. I let the familiar words sink into me and take it when the prayer is finished. The next brother blesses the water. I think of all the souls who will drink today as he gives me the cup.
When I'm done, they open the door so one of the sisters can give the spiritual thought from a mask-free distance. The Lord doesn't always take away our challenges, she says simply, but he does help us through them.
And as they go on to the next room, as I wipe the tears away from all the places where my beard used to be, I know--using the term in the Mormon sense to describe truths you anchor yourself in even beyond the constraints of language--that it's true.