I was a little disappointed when I entered the hospital chapel.
The outer wall, the façade you see from the second floor that suggests that you’re entering a chapel, is thick, abstract, brightly colored stained glass, reminiscent of the windows at the parish in which I was raised. But when I opened the door to enter I saw just a few wooden pews with seats and kneelers covered in garish blue plastic, harsh track lighting over a small altar, and a rough red tapestry crookedly fixed to the wall. There were both piano and small organ on either side of the altar, but each of their benches had been repurposed elsewhere in the chapel.
I had changed into the nicest sweats I had brought for my surgery and recovery, and had put on my thin athletic jacket so I could bring my phone in a pocket and get credit for my steps on my pedometer. The only things that marked me as a patient were the bracelet on my left wrist and IV port on my right arm.
Having recently reached a benchmark in healing, the doctors had allowed me a “real” meal, which was delivered about 45 minutes before mass was to begin. I may have violated my communion fast with the soft foods they provided me, but I figured that my four-day clear liquid fast was enough of a sacrifice to make up for it.
The Polish Franciscan saying mass asked those of us there a few minutes early if anyone would read. I suspected the quiet nurse behind me was not one for public speaking, so I volunteered, confident that I could make it through the reading of the Passion without sitting or having to go to the bathroom.
Because the liturgy is broadcast on the hospital’s internal TV broadcast, the other reader and I had to flank the presider behind the altar to be seen and heard on the monitors of any patients who tuned in. During the Gospel Acclamation I shuffled across the blue carpet in my flip-flops and lounge pants to take my place at the left hand of the Father.
Not enough people had missalettes for there to be much participation, so I was charged with reading the “chorus” parts as well as the speaker. The celebrant directed the microphone back and forth across himself so it could pick up the narrator and I.
On the altar in front of us were a tiny cross, a plastic squirt bottle of holy water to bless the palms, and a few other liturgical objects, all contributing to the dinginess I sensed in the chapel. But during one of the long stretches of the Passion when I wasn’t reading aloud, I looked past the altar to the people and my perspective changed.
A security officer sat in the back. He was a regular, based on how the priest greeted him when he stepped in a moment before mass was to begin. A multi-generational Spanish-speaking family crowded into two pews, the oldest grandchild taking pride in greeting everyone as they came in. One other patient, looking weary, came in with his children and grandchildren. He sat for much of the mass, and his son, sitting behind him, kept his hands on his shoulders constantly. One could see that this gesture had all the affection of an embrace. There were a few nurses and other staff, just enough people to fill the small space.
Regarding this ad hoc congregation, my disappointment with the chapel evaporated. All parts of the Body of Christ, we were never to be reunited but shared this moment, making our way down that Via Dolorosa with Christ, moving slowly towards salvation.