An altar in the Benthal home during an online Mass. Photo: Eileen Benthal

I can hardly believe it’s been a year since this pandemic started. While many of us are recounting our year remembrances of things that changed in our lives, we are also breathing a little sigh of relief. 

My husband and I and my youngest daughter just passed the two-week mark since our second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. None of us had a reaction to either shot — which was a relief. While we are not running into crowded venues or leaving the house without masks and hand sanitizers, we are feeling a little more at ease in public. 

I actually cried tears of relief after the second shot thinking about the last year and how hard we worked to keep our youngest daughter, Jo, safe. I remember the feelings of panic and anxiety early on — fearing that her shunt would fail or she would suffer intractable seizures or a brain hemorrhage that would send us rushing into midtown Manhattan at the peak of COVID. 

I was in touch with nurses on the frontlines in Manhattan. I knew the makeshift morgues and refrigerator trucks outside the hospitals were real and that an air of death hung in those quiet streets that had become like a second home to me when Jo has long hospital stays at NYU.

We took some radical approaches to keep Jo safe and healthy. Sometimes I felt like my husband and I were warriors— charged with keeping the princess safe and happy in her castle at home. 

Jo didn’t seem to mind because we kept her very busy, expanding her art studio and starting baby chicks in a brooder that was tucked into a corner of our gutted bathroom which stopped construction under the mandates.

I am very grateful that we made it through the last year with no COVID exposures and only three hospitalizations in December—while numbers in NYC were still lower than the national average. 

The shutdowns last year coincided with holy days for people of Jewish and Christian faiths. Lent, Holy Week, Passover, and Easter looked very different a year ago, as churches and synagogues scrambled to bring worship services online and into the homes of millions of Americans.

Our living room was quickly transformed to serve our needs to worship the Lord in our Catholic faith. We stopped attending church the second Sunday of Lent — a week before the churches shut down — as a necessary precaution for my daughter. The gallery wall in our living room was already set up as a “family tree”  just months before COVID reached the United States. 

The gallery wall holds family photos including wedding pictures,  a favorite scripture, and a Franciscan Cross in the center of the tree. The friend who designed the tree also painted our favorite birds on the branches. Birding became an even more important pastime as we sought to keep ourselves active at home. 

When the churches closed we placed an antique table at the base of the tree and set it up like an altar, with candles and statues, scriptures, and a rosary. On Sundays and early mornings during the week, the iPad became our connection to our faith community as churches streamed Sunday and daily Mass to Facebook and YouTube. 

When we first started participating in Mass online, we turned our living room couch around to face our makeshift altar. Jo held her djembe between her legs and tapped it to the music and we sang as we could with responses and songs. 

Our “domestic church” became a concrete celebration of faith in the center of our home. At the end of the first service we attended at home, my husband and I decided it was easier to leave the couch turned around facing the gallery wall and our little altar. 

As the weeks turned into months, this space in the center of our home became a holy place to find peace in our hearts. The three of us together and apart found time to rest and pray there in the midst of the frightening news and growing anxiety. For me, it became a connection to the rest of our family, scattered by miles and distanced by pandemic protocols that kept us apart. 

I broke down in our living room during Mass on Palm Sunday, one year ago today. It was an ugly cry from the depths of my soul. The realization that I would be spending Holy Week away from the church for the first time since my parents brought me to be baptized as an infant over 50 years ago, was overwhelming. 

Our Catholic faith walks us through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ with a somber solitude that erupts in joy and light at the Vigil of Easter. I longed for the sights and smells of candles and incense and lilies on the altar at Easter and the sounds of psalms recited, then crescendoing into choruses of Alleluia. I longed to receive the Eucharist,  the source and summit of our faith. The rhythm of Holy Week— the suffering, dying, and rising is an ebb and flow I have come to understand in my natural, as well as spiritual life. 

Still, we found our Holy Week rhythm as our living room was transformed from darkness into light. We dressed up and lit candles all around as streamed the Easter Vigil from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, onto our altar at home. 

It was intimate and holy.  We showed up and God met us there.

Our first return to church was in Riverhead, with St. Isidore’s Church in the parking lot of St. John Paul ll school. It was a safe transition for us which eventually led us back into the church on Sundays.

Though we’ve been back to church, with masks and distancing,we’ve kept our altar set up at home. Most mornings I attend daily Mass online at our home altar.  I’m so grateful that most churches acknowledge that many people may not be able to return to the church in person and so continue to live stream for the sake of those at home. 

Our little altar is a reminder of the need to pause frequently and pray. It’s also a reminder of all we’ve been through and all the blessings we’ve received in this past year. 

This Holy Week we will be walking the Way of the Cross with the Christian community. We’ll spend Good Friday outside at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island and attend an Easter Vigil Mass in person rather than at home. 

On Easter Sunday, most of our family will be present together for the first time since before the pandemic began.  It will be a celebration of resurrection and new life for us all. We are all still alive, a year older, and much wiser for the struggles we’ve all endured this past year.  

Each in our ways over this past year, we have all endured some kind of passion- suffering, death, and a rising to new life. It is my hope that our families, our nation, and our world can heal from this time of sadness and emerge renewed in faith this Easter. 

I can’t wait to hug my kids and I’ll probably cry again — this time with tears of joy.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen