Some nights I make meatloaf, and serve it with mashed potatoes.
Last night I was too exhausted to stand up long enough to make meat loaf. I threw all the meat loaf ingredients, minus bread crumbs, into a skillet, browned them together with some frozen stir fry vegetables, named it “deconstructed meat loaf” and ate it on the sofa in front of my daughter’s X-Men video, which she’d been watching on and off all day.
I remembered that Sunday was “Sunday of Meatfare,” the last day a lot of Eastern Christians eat meat before going without it until Easter. And here it was the day after Sunday of Meatfare, and I was eating deconstructed meatloaf in front of Wolverine and the X-Men. I couldn’t even last a day.
Going meatless for all of Lent isn’t required in my church anymore. On Monday, however, we will be expected to observe a “strict fast:” no meat, dairy or eggs and traditionally just bread and water, but I won’t be doing that either. I can’t eat bread. I can’t eat, inhale or touch wheat or gluten without having a very bad reaction, and the only way I know to bake gluten-free bread is to stir in half a dozen eggs and a cup of sour milk. Lately, I can’t even do that. My autoimmune issues have gotten so bad that I can’t even eat gluten-free grain very often. I’ll have a slice of gluten-free bread or a bowl of rice noodles for a treat, and my digestion will rebel the next day. Most days I eat fish, meat and vegetables, fruit juice and almonds and cheese, and pray I don’t suddenly develop an allergy to one of those things.
I tried to observe some version of the strict fast on the memorial of the beheading of John the Baptist, and I got very sick. My pastor was offended that I’d even tried. He exempted me from any future fasting, because what’s left of my body can’t take it.
So, I’ll be eating meat and cheese for all of Lent.
This is not the only thing my church requires, that I simply can’t do. There are days can’t stand up in Liturgy either. On good days I can. I get there early in my best clothes, I remember to wear makeup, I bring a gluten-free cake for my daughter to eat afterward while the children without food sensitivities are eating doughnuts. I sit and stand and kneel at all the right times; I reverence the icon with a Lesser Prostration. There are days when all of that comes easily.
And then there are the moderately bad days– days where I can throw clothes on and walk into the church, and that’s all.The priest chants “Wisdom! Let us stand and listen to the Holy Gospel,” and I stay sitting, leaning on the pew in front of me to help me stay upright and thanking God for Latinized Byzantine Catholic churches with regular pews in them. If we had a traditional Eastern church with no chairs, I’d be lying on the floor.There are days I can’t get to Liturgy in the first place. Some Sundays I’m too fatigued to get downstairs safely. I lie in bed. I watch the Divine Liturgy on my laptop, livestreamed from the local Greek Orthodox church, because I can’t find a Byzantine Catholic live liturgy online.
There’s something very sacred about being sick and barely able to sit up, listening to a Divine Liturgy. There is the priest in his vestments. There are the congregation in their Sunday clothes, standing and sitting at all the right times. There are the angelic hosts as bright and beautiful and perfectly correct as angelic hosts always are. And here I am, lying on my back, in mismatched pajamas, neither able to prop my eyes open nor fall properly asleep.
Yet our Father sees me.
I can’t be where I’m expected to be, Father. I can’t stand and listen to the Holy Gospel. Sometimes I can’t even get into the church so that I can stand and listen to the Holy Gospel. I’m miles away, lying on my back, and I can’t move.
But You see me. And You are glad I’m listening to the Holy Gospel, in the only way I can.
I can’t eat what I’m supposed to eat, Father. I can’t eat bread. I can’t even eat a little cube of Christ when He comes under the appearance of bread; the priest has to commune me separately with a sip of clear blood. I’m completely unable to observe a strict fast. My fast is a backwards fast– I have to eat meat and dairy products every day, and save grain for special treats. I make deconstructed meat loaf and eat it in front of the television like a pig.
But You see my fast. And You accept the only sacrifice I have to give.
I have failed at Lent before it even started, just by being Mary Pezzulo with the body Mary Pezzulo has.
And this is a grace.
As I’ve mentioned before, you mustn’t tell a chronically ill person that their suffering is a grace, because there’s no way to say it without sounding callous and rude. But as a chronically ill person, I can tell you that I have found grace hidden here.
Because, the fact is, everyone fails at Lent. We need Lent in the first place because we are failures. We don’t do what we’re supposed to do. I have the grace of knowing from the get-go that I’m a failure, of bearing that failure in my body. It serves as a reminder of the state of my soul–of everyone’s soul.
We are all sick and miserable children who can’t do what we’re supposed to do. We are all, in our hearts, lying down in pajamas when we should be standing attentive in our Sunday best. We are all, in our hearts, eating deconstructed meat loaf when we ought to fast. And our Father sees, and loves us.
Perhaps one of the reasons chronic illnesses exist is to remind us of this fact.
I begin the Great Fast by knowing that I fail at fasting. I can’t even eat bread. And this is grace.
(image via Pixabay)