Saturday, October 31, 2009

Love in the Time of Swine Flu

There once was a time when I looked forward to the sign of peace.

That’s the part of the mass where you shake hands with everybody around you. It's kind of like a spiritual version of the seventh inning stretch.

We started doing the sign of peace in the Catholic Church when I was in grammar school and I remember how one of my classmates once grabbed another kid’s hand during mass and said “hey, how’s the wife and kids?”

Fortunately for him, none of the brothers caught him in the act for they would have no doubt sent him to meet his maker right there in church. It’s a much shorter trip.

I’ve been attending services at Trinity Church for a few years now and I’ve gotten to enjoy this little hand-to-hand routine. I greet my regular buddies and new arrivals and next to the sermon, it is—or was—my favorite part of the mass.

But that was before the H1N1 virus and all its attendant hysteria came to town. Now my church has a hand-sanitizing android stationed in the vestibule ready to spew its gooey contents into any outstretched palm.

It looks so out of place, a penny arcade reject, standing in this venerable place where Alexander Hamilton once worshiped. But as much as I hate the damn thing, I’m glad it's there.

Unfortunately when the priest says “let us exchange the sign of peace” I often hear “let us exchange our various germs.” And I remind myself to keep my hand away from my face and make sure to get a spritz of hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

But it doesn’t end with the sign of peace. After that comes communion, where the priest puts the host in your hand and then you take a sip of wine from the chalice.

Now I do not drink from other people’s cups, I don’t care where I am. Nothing personal, no offense, but it's not going to happen.

I did, however, con myself into believing that if I just gave the host a quick dip into the chalice, I could get a taste of the sacramental wine without risking infection.

That, of course, is delusional thinking, and it took the swine flu outbreak and my recent heavy cold to shake me out of this fantasy.

I thought about skipping the wine entirely, but that’s not easy to do when everybody else around you is either sipping or dunking.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but a couple of times I’ve actually fake-dipped my host into the chalice, stopping just short of the wine--which is incredibly lame given that I’m trying to save my immortal soul here.

I always slink away, half-expecting a voice that sounds a lot like Charleston Heston to thunder from the rafters “I SAW THAT, NUMB NUTS. WHAT PART OF ‘ALL KNOWING’ DON’T YOU GET!?”

Your Host Today

A few weeks ago I was all set to fake-dip when an older priest whom I didn’t recognize actually yanked the host from fingers, sank it into the chalice, and rammed it right into my kisser.

I felt like I was back in Catholic school where you’d turn to a pillar of salt if you even thought about touching the host.

I went to church this week, wincing every time someone coughed. It reminded me of my morning subway ride, where I play a little game I call “Find the Cougher.” I take a seat, open my book or newspaper, and within a few minutes, it’s guaranteed somebody sitting right near me will start hacking and choking like a career coal miner.

One morning the my train was so full of coughing people I wanted to jump up, wave a baton like Arthur Fiedler and lead them in an all-hacking version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I wonder what non-hypochondriacs do during their morning commute.

So now I’m standing in church and I realize that a heavy duty cougher is in the pew right behind me. The guy’s got a cold, virus, swine flu, the heebie jeebies, who the hell knows? All I know is that he’s sitting near me and that means I’ll have to shake hands with him.

Yes, I am brother’s keeper, but if my brother’s sick I really want him to keep him the hell away from me.

During his sermon, Rev. Mark encouraged us to look for God in everyone we meet. And if can’t see Him in someone we don’t care for, he said, then we should look harder. Does that include the guy spewing his germs all over me?

All right. I shook hands with the guy during the sign of peace, but I didn't have much choice. He was right behind me. I made a mental note to keep my right hand away from the rest of me until I could sterilize it.

The cougher dashed up the aisle ahead of me at communion, which meant no sipping, dipping or even looking at the chalice for yours truly. I took my host straight up and then headed back to my pew ahead of everyone else, which felt a little like the walk of shame after a lousy date.

I shook hands with Rev. Mark on the way out, as I always do—he wasn’t coughing--and then I slipped around the tourists, pushed the door open with my shoulder, and put my hand beneath the hand sterilizer’s nozzle. The thing hummed and squeezed some glop onto my fingers.

It wasn’t the sign of peace, but it did give me some peace of mind.


Brenda from Flatbush said...

This was multiply spit-take funny...especially since I have a very fraught relationship with the good ol' Greeting of Peace. As a person with such bad chronic sinus trouble that I must blow my nose every 10 minutes or so for my entire life (seriously), I have adapted well to the socially handicapping nature of my mild cross to bear--everywhere but in church at the Greeting of Peace. Then, especially in flu season, I am Persona Non Grata; the unlucky congregant who faces my outstretched hand must make a ghastly choice between brotherly love and (they suspect) grasping a germ-laden paw. I have even tried ostentatiously applying a squirt of Purel beforehand, but that only draws attention to the matter ("oh, God, it must be bad!") I feel like a leper. Fortunately, Our Lord was very fond of lepers.
By the way, dipping the host is standard in some Eastern Rite churches, and the practice is delightfully called "intinction."

Anonymous said...

i loved this post! coughers on the subway - i always found them really loud and disruptive more than being grossed out by them. i just want to give all those coughers some halls cough drops and tell them to quiet down.

Rob K said...

Oh, Brenda, I would probably be one of those germ-o-phobes who freak at your greeting! And thank's for the into on "intinction." That's a new one.

And, yes, coughers on the subway are noisy as well as scary.