“Why can’t I just get a cold like a normal person?” I wailed to my husband. “Why must everything be so drastic?” It’s true. I haven’t had a simple cold in 25 years. It’s always a sinus infection, bronchitis, pneumonia — with a few oddities like cellulitis thrown in for variety. Sicknesses don’t strike me and go; they linger, dig in, build a nice home (sometimes an entire housing complex) and settle in for a good, long stay.
Which leads to today’s Catholic dilemma: December 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation, one of my favorites — the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It’s all about Mary being conceived without sin, being chosen from the get-go, a real “girl power” holy day. And I don’t feel well enough to attend mass.
Missing mass is a big deal. It’s a mortal sin. If you die in a state of mortal sin, it’s hot coals and pitchforks for you, buddy. No joke. But the church does allow for some exceptions — illness or care of a small child. But that doesn’t make the decision not to attend mass any easier.
Type “should I go to church when I’m sick?” into Google, then sit back and get ready for opinions. The answers are all over the map: “Go unless you are dying.” “Go, but sit in the back and don’t touch anyone.” “It is most charitable to stay home and not spread your illness.”
All of these viewpoints have merit. I do want to attend mass. It’s a powerful and healing ritual for me. But our church, rather than following the standard “altar at the front, then rows of pews” is rather more circular, with the pews nestled around the altar like an amphitheater. There is no “back corner,” really. People sit all over. It is not an easy place to isolate one’s self.
I don’t want to infect my pastor. I don’t want to infect my fellow parishioners, many of whom are elderly. I will never forget — much to my deep sorrow — exactly who it was that gave me pneumonia in 2014, or who insisted on passing on bronchitis to me last year. I attend church with them every week. Maybe for them it was a simple cold. But in me, already cursed with asthma and lungs scarred by previous bouts of pneumonia, every bug goes straight to my respiratory tract. What do you do when someone who has been hacking away all service long extends a hand to you at the kiss of peace?
But how can I reconcile not going to mass if I leave my house for any other purpose? I bought groceries last night. Otherwise, we would starve. But it took me out into the open, into the larger world. How was it okay to do that but not to go to mass tonight?
I am left feeling the weight of Catholic guilt (which, let me tell you, is immense) on top of my upper respiratory woes. I’m sinful and sneezy. Stuffed up and beat down.
I can only honor God to the best of my ability, which in this case will be at home, in private prayer and communion, along with hot lemonade and honey. Lord, accept me, mucous and all. I give myself to you. You won’t mind if I bring Kleenex, though, will you?