An Altared Heart: Saturday

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This morning I am making cinnamon rolls. How many “covid confessions” have already circulated over text from friends, announcing that in spite of Lent chocolate and wine are free-flowing in our homes again? “It’s just too much,” we all agree. Because suddenly we are submitting to a fast we did not chose: our mobility—perhaps the defining feature of our time—is utterly restricted.

For centuries, Benedictine monks have taken a vow of “stability,” promising to remain in the community they enter for the remainder of their lives, and not move from monastery to monastery. Not only are we used to dashing from store to store, appointment to lesson to meeting to work-out and home again, we expect to move our household—perhaps several times in our lives—across country or even across oceans. I would never have thought to fast from mobility during Lent. Chocolate, wine, even (before having children) my morning cup of coffee, but not mobility.

What can be learned about God and self that cannot be learned in any other way but by staying in one place for a long time? I have become accustomed to facing my inordinate dependence on sugar, caffeine and alcohol during Lent, but to face my inordinate dependence upon my mobility? I’m tempted to say, before the fast has even really begun, “It’s just too much.”

On the last grocery run I made before school closures and cancellations of every sort started to fall like dominoes, I looked into my cart from the back of a long line and groped for some inner reassurance that I had chosen what I should, that I had what our family needed for now. (How long is now?) Beets and potatoes because they store well. Five boxes of three different kinds of tea—one my new favorite, “Tension Tamer.” I reached for words that could speak for me, this time from 19th century Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

—G. M. Hopkins

In his characteristically highly wrought style, Hopkins confronts his own propensity to look for comfort where true comfort cannot be found: in the darkness of his own depression and anxiety. I cast for comfort I can no more get / By groping round my comfortless…“comfortless,” being something of his own shorthand for “comfortlessness,” or resistance to comfort.

I looked up from the contents of my cart and exchanged forced grimace-smiles with the person in line behind me. I glanced over the contents of his cart. Why didn’t I get seltzer, too?

Maybe I’m groping for comfort with these cinnamon rolls. Slicing the rolled dough into spiraling rounds, I arrange them in the pan and leave them to rise briefly on the counter beside the red-and-yellow tulips. Back in December, I had filled several pots with bulbs and left them in the basement until green tips appeared. I had known I would be pining for spring by February. I just didn’t know how much I would need these unanxious blooms. Later in Hopkins’ poem he exhorts himself:

…call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room…

—G. M. Hopkins

Maybe these cinnamon rolls are helping me to “leave comfort root-room.”  Hopkins’ poem ends:

…let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

—G. M. Hopkins

I love the idea that God’s smile is not “wrung,” not twisted dry and drained of readiness to take pleasure. And I love that an “unforeseen time”—a surprising, joyful moment for Hopkins—was found in gazing on a “pied” or dappled sky blasting a colorful stretch of end-of-day light between silhouetted mountains.

We gather at the kitchen table, pour freshly brewed coffee and lean over the Pyrex dish of lavishly glazed, gooey, yeasty rolls. Today and every day this is far more than a “bare necessity,” and in that way, these cinnamon rolls are essential. We lift bites too big for our mouths on our forks and whoop, “Praise God for sunshine! Praise God for Jacob! Praise God for Lily! Praise God for Sarah, for Joshua! Praise God for cinnamon rolls!” 

Walk the lovely, lit mile, I tell myself, and sink my teeth into the sweetness.

*

I leave my phone on the kitchen counter, silenced. It is cold out, but sunny, and we take our sugar-crashing bodies out to the unfinished tree fort to clear last autumn’s fallen maple leaves, and to add some railings, and a rope ladder. For now the plan for what to do with this time is to start with “finishing the unfinished.” The tree fort. The primed, but not painted doors and windowsills. Books—so many books—with an old receipt or a pencil marking my place a third of the way through.

So much gets stuck half-way there.

To stay put is to face all the unfinishedness our busyness and procrastination help us ignore or deny. Right now there is a thread-bare flannel sheet lying on the floor outside my bedroom. It’s been there for two weeks, waiting for me to follow through with my plan to cut it up into dust rags.

To face all this unfinishedness is also a confrontation with mortality. Death is the great interruption. Someday I will be snatched from my relationships, my work, my projects, perhaps mid-sentence. Perhaps with pen in hand. Perhaps the flannel sheet will still be lying in the hallway.

*

We live and work at L’Abri, a Christian study center, where our first job is to welcome people. It was very strange to abruptly and prematurely send people away with so much left undone. It is good that finished work—in the ultimate sense—is not ours to do.

Finished work—in the ultimate sense—is not ours to do.

Sarah Chestnut

The evening of the day we announced the decision to end our term early and told people to make immediate travel plans, Joshua still gave the scheduled lecture he’d been preparing. Chosen months ago, the topic suddenly seemed even weightier, and certainly timely: Between the Cross and Resurrection: Reflections on Jesus’ Death and Our Own. If Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago didn’t get people thinking about their mortality, words like “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “uncertainty” definitely did. Joshua confessed his own “creedal befuddlement”: when Christians affirm, in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended to the dead,” what does this mean? Where was Jesus on Saturday after he died and before he rose again? Where was Jesus when he was dead? Where do we go—if anywhere—when we die? Is where the right question?

Now, submitting to a mobility fast and facing so much in my life that is unfinished, I am able to better imagine myself into the first disciples’ complete bewilderment over how much can change in one week’s time. Jesus’ final words, “It is finished,” reverberate meaninglessly. What could this possibly mean? Nothing is finished. Everything has been upended, left undone.

But in the greatest act and statement of completion, Jesus wasn’t saying, “The End.”

Projected on the screen behind Joshua throughout his lecture was an icon of the resurrection, also known as “The Harrowing of Hades,” or Christ’s descent. Clothed in white and gold, Jesus is standing on the cross, on the gates of death and Hades, is trampling down death by death, and he is heaving Adam and Eve, representative of all humanity, from their tombs.

My friend Nickaela often says, as a reminder to us both, “Because of the resurrection, the worst thing will never be the final thing.”


4 Comments

  1. Travis Jamieson

    @tjamieson1

    Thank you for this. I’m feeling so down today and longing for the world to be made new… for me to be made new. Your words give me a window into what Jesus’ followers must have felt while Jesus laid in the tomb. Everything changed within a few days. Such a potent message for my life today. Thank you.

  2. Travis Jamieson

    @tjamieson1

    Thank you for this. I’m feeling so down today and longing for the world to be made new… for me to be made new. Your words give me a window into what Jesus’ followers must have felt while Jesus laid in the tomb. Everything changed within a few days. Such a potent message for my life today. Thank you

  3. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    I am loving these essays so much, Sarah. Thank you.
    (Also, hello from southern MA! I was making plans with a friend to come up for one of the Friday L’Abri lectures right before the term was cancelled. Sadness. Hopefully we will make it a reality when this is all over.)

  4. Rachel Musteen

    It’s so great to see my favorite blog and my favorite spiritual community intersecting here. I got to see these tulips back in February at the house, and I have loved seeing them again at the morning chapels these past few weeks. “I didn’t know how much I would need these unanxious blooms.” Thank you so much for these words, and yesterday’s. I didn’t know how much I needed them.
    (And I, too, made cinnamon rolls this week. “Essential” has indeed taken on a whole new meaning.)

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