AN ALTARED HEART
Anxiety, Prayer, Poetry, and Hope During COVID-19
Sarah Crowley Chestnut
Lily, our five-year-old, is standing in the narrow hallway outside her room in only her underwear. It’s bedtime. It’s past bedtime. She should be brushing her teeth. She leans back against the century-old, textured wallpaper. “Mama,” she says seriously as I approach. “I am thinking of Mowgli.” She grins because I grin, and begins to bop up and down, giving herself a back-scratch.
I lean against the opposing wall and join in. Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worry and your strife! we sing together, dance-scratching our backs against the walls until Lily announces, “Well, that feels much better,” and dashes into her room for a song and prayers. Usually I sing her one song: a nature-loving re-write of “Hush Little Baby.”
Tonight she does not have to work hard to convince me to sing another song, and then two more.
We made it through our first week of mandated “homeschool” and social distancing. We haven’t been off the property for over a week. California just issued “shelter in place”; Massachusetts will do so soon, too, we expect. Now that there are more tests available, the numbers will sky-rocket.
I’ve been thinking about bare necessities more than ever.
. . .
Settling into bed myself, I go through the liturgy of the pillows: flat one for beneath my knees; feather pillow for my head; the third propped behind me against the headboard, ready to grab if I turn from my back onto my left side. In this position I need something to hold.
For the first time in fifteen hours, the house is quiet. Lily and her older brother, Jacob, are sleeping. My husband, Joshua, has gone through his own pillow liturgy and turned onto his right side away from me and is settling into a slower, rhythmic breath pattern that isn’t yet punctuated with snores.
I am concentrating on my own breathing, scanning my body for signs of illness. My face feels hotter than usual (fever?). My throat has had a tickle in it for the last week and a lump of phlegm or anxiety (anxiety phlegm?) right in the spot where, on the outside, the neck pools between the collarbones. Right in the spot where I have welcomed kisses. Right in the spot where, on the inside, I imagine a malicious gathering of germs ready to plunge into my lungs.
I really have no idea about the anatomy of my respiratory system.
I am concentrating on my breathing. I am holding my breath to check my lung capacity. The tickle in my throat seizes and I cough, and cough again (a dry cough?). I reach for that third pillow and turn onto my left side. But now, because my left ear is pressed against a pillow, my head is an echo-chamber for my heartbeat.
In poetry, the basic unit of rhythm is the iamb, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable: bum-BUM. A heartbeat. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because it was the rhythm of heartbeat plus breath. Five iambs to a line; five heartbeats to one cycle of breath. To learn lines by heart, you have to get them into your body. You have to get them into your breath.
I turn onto my back again and concentrate on lines I’ve learned by heart over the last year: “The Altar” by George Herbert, then “My own heart” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Finally, Psalm 23.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me. Surely goodness and mercy. Surely.
. . .
I didn’t use to have—or didn’t think I had—a problem with anxiety. But there it is: fear. One of the basic human emotions with all its progeny alive and well in me, too. I look at the “Emotion and Feeling Wheel” a counselor gave me once and name the lump in my throat: dread. And there is worry, inadequacy, helplessness, insecurity, nervousness and panic. Yes, all of these. Yes, I am afraid.
This time last year I had recovered from a bad bout with the flu I came down with on the night of my 39th birthday, only to find myself locking horns with fear. Who am I kidding? Locking horns? I was running for my life in the colosseum of my heart and mind. In hindsight, I realize I was hovering on the edge of a full-blown panic attack for about two weeks.
At the time, I chastised myself for “being dramatic.” (I recovered from the flu, after all). I could feel my imagination tunnel-visioning on all the possible tragedies, but I couldn’t pull my mind back from that cliff-edge. It was, I see now, a real confrontation with my mortality. A facing-off with one of the most basic truths about human existence—about my existence: contingency. I do not have to be. I am dust and breath. Apart from God’s life-giving breath we all sink back to the dust.
I was working on a lecture on the heart at the time. Whatever attempting to pluck an articulate path through the vast terrain of the heart was doing to the blood-pumping muscle off-center in my chest, I don’t know exactly. I know it was stressing it. There were no unstressed beats: bum-BUM. It was BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM all the time.
But what the Holy Spirit has been doing with that whole constellation of events—turning 39 (here comes 40 and mid-life); being in bed with the flu for nearly three weeks; acute anxiety—is the work that God has been committed to for every one of us ever since our first parents laid their hearts on the altar of self-sufficiency…ever since they rejected contingency as prerequisite to life.
The Spirit has been chipping out my heart of stone, and giving me a heart of flesh.
. . .
In the biblical imagination, the heart is the seat of the will, the organ of perception, that core part of us that is always worshipping something or someone. 17th century Welsh poet-priest, George Herbert, understood this. Looking at the altar in the little stone church where he pastored, he saw his own heart:
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch'd the same…
The weekly remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf happens on an altar. Here Herbert internalizes that altar and puts Christ’s body and blood, the bread and the wine, right on his own heart.
Herbert did not live a long life by our standards, though he reached the average life expectancy for his time, dying at 40 of “consumption,” or tuberculosis. In his lifetime, London theatres were closed at least three times because of “plague.” A common devotional practice of the time was the momento mori, the remembrance of one’s mortality, a daily face-off with the fact that you will die.
Even during a time when death was literally at the door, the human heart needed to be reminded of this truth: you are dust and to dust you will return.
Last year as I recovered from the flu and was learning how to cope with anxiety, I started every day with a series of slow stretches (You are a body, Sarah! And you are alive!). I ended lying flat on my back on the floor. In this position, I prayed, “Today I might die. Yesterday I did not. All of my tomorrows belong to you, Lord Jesus.” Stating and facing these basic facts became a “bare necessity” of each day, a momento mori.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
Nickaela also says, “Sundays are hard because we are homesick for heaven.”
We feel the rupture of what was always meant to be together: earth and heaven. Earth-and-heaven. We feel how unheavenly earth is. We feel how unearthly heaven seems.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Kingdom this earth, our Father.
Sundays are hard because we feel so far from home. We feel the toll our mobility has taken. The gears have been grinding all week as we learn to move at a different pace in an oh-so-familiar place.
We feel now the toll that running from ourselves and from God has been taking every minute of every day. Give us this day. This day, O Lord.
Our church is live-streaming the service this morning. Our L’Abri co-workers and housemates are streaming the service for their church from the sunny, tiled floor room in our house because they are helping to lead their congregation through a pastoral transition. We “go” to their church this morning because it is here and I feel pangs of anxiety and guilt. I’m feeling lost right now in more ways than one.
The fact is, even before COVID-19 social distancing measures, we were moving toward the periphery of our church, beginning an exit and a transition to a different church. The main reason is geographical: we live 23.4 miles (thank you, Google) from our church, which in metro Boston feels like travelling to a different world every Sunday.
What does it mean to go to church right now? What does it mean to be the church right now?
Herbert looked at the altar and saw his heart. He looked at the walls of St. Andrew’s and saw stones…perhaps he looked out at the gathering of parishioners and also saw stones:
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus said of the exultant multitude, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:36-40). The apostle Peter—named “Rock”—clearly thought a lot about what it means to be a stone. He wrote to the church in exile under Nero’s violent persecutions, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
I imagine Jesus, standing on the threshold of my heart, taking a long, affectionate look around. I see him enter and lay his hands on the stony walls. I hear him say, we can work with this.
I think of so many scattered stones praying quietly in their homes this morning, perhaps joining live-streamed church services and singing along with the hymns coming through computer speakers.
We can work with this. We’ve always been working with this.
What is God doing with this whole constellation of events? Pandemic and shortages of protective equipment. School closures, church “closures,” shifting timelines, uncertain projections, uncertainty projected. Our economy poised on a precipice.
My heart, the broken altar. My life and so many lives, scattered stones for the building of a spiritual house.
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26).
We can work with this.
. . .
For years—decades even—I have breezed past Psalm 23. It’s everywhere, after all. On pillows, framed in cross-stitch, on kitschy posters—everybody knows it. And like every good adolescent (and we all know how prolonged adolescence is these days), I rejected the familiar and the popular because it was…familiar and popular. And, I wrongly thought, it just seems too nice.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless…
Throughout this past year, I have returned to Psalm 23 like…well, a hungry sheep to good pasture, a thirsty sheep to quiet waters. I have prayed it at night, as part of the liturgy of the pillows, prayed it when my heartbeat is too loud in my head, prayed it driving to and from my children’s schools, prayed it as a song, prayed it half-said, prayed it under my breath and when making bread. And this past week I have prayed it again and again walking the half-mile lane that runs through our neighborhood.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
I have prayed this Psalm standing in my children’s bedroom doorways, brushing my hand over the doorframes, imagining the Hebrew people in Egypt painting lamb’s blood on their doorposts. I have prayed for Jesus’ blood to mark our doorposts. Then I’ve second-guessed that prayer. If I pray this am I saying COVID-19 is a plague on the earth, a mighty act of judgement which is also a mighty act of deliverance? Who can say that? Who is being judged? Who is being delivered?
I pray Christ’s blood on our doorposts, yes, as a plea that coronavirus will pass over our house and all who have sheltered here, but I pray it even more as a way to rehearse my ultimate hope whether or not illness finds its way to us. I pray and I plea Christ’s blood because, in Christ, judgement has already come. Death has been met and mastered. The worst thing is not the last thing. It is not Friday; it is not Saturday; it is Sunday, resurrection day—even in Lent.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Today I might die. Yesterday I did not. All of my tomorrows belong to you, Lord Jesus.