Elise Italiano Ureneck

My son’s pediatrician had one piece of advice at his nine-month checkup: baby-proof our home. “Secure bookshelves to walls, cover electrical outlets, put up gates and get safety locks for cabinets,” he said. “And bring everything along to Grandma and Grandpa’s, too, because most accidents happen in other people’s homes.”

My son is an unusually fast crawler and has a pretty long wingspan, so we had already implemented safety measures. But the doctor’s emphasis drove home the point: Restrain and constrain against his instincts, at least for this period of time.

I think many of us can sympathize with my son’s frustrations: We’ve been restricted to certain spaces for nearly five months. A few weeks ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon depicting family members climbing the walls of their living room. The caption read, “It’s great to have something we can all do together.” Many of us can relate.

Our access to people and places has been unnaturally curbed, limited to activities and places that have been deemed “essential” by people charged with protecting our health and safety. Our world has been baby-proofed, so to speak, though for good reason: flattening the curve, protecting those who are most at risk, and supporting those on the front lines of the pandemic.

Keeping ourselves safe, even if we’d prefer to risk it on occasion, is also a worthy reason for being a bit caged in.

But as we turn the corner from summer to fall and then fall to winter, I can’t help but wonder how long we will be able to manage without more access to certain spaces, particularly those that are sacred. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were in Philadelphia visiting family, and we stopped by the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul where we got engaged. We wanted to bring our son to the plaza where we made our commitment and stop inside the church where we attended Mass in thanksgiving.

I approached the doors of the church, assuming that they would be locked. Every church I have approached on weekday walks with my son during the pandemic has been locked. My heart sinks each time.

When the door opened, I began to cry. The chance to walk inside, to draw near to the Lord in the tabernacle, was so welcome. The feeling that this space was different from other ordinary spaces was palpable in a way that was more magnified than before the pandemic began.

While social distancing has helped many of us to more intentionally make our homes “domestic churches” by incorporating more religious imagery or scattering sacramentals around, that same space is also where we eat, recreate, work, study, exercise and scroll through social media platforms.

It is true that God is present where two or three are gathered, and grace does sanctify our ordinary activities. Nature has also been a godsend. I don’t know how I’d be faring if I couldn’t pray while hiking the nearby reservoir or go sit by the ocean.

But sacred spaces — those where God dwells — are true sanctuaries. You know it viscerally by their silence, their smell, by the creaking kneelers and the draft in the rafters. The air is different inside.

Jesus tells us that Martha “chose the better part.” But what do you do for months — maybe a year or more — when you can’t sit at his feet?

My son knows that the space is different, too. He observes that his father and I act differently there than we do at home. When we take him to socially distanced Mass, he is captivated by the stained-glass windows and lights up when the bells ring at the elevation of the host.

Our baby is proof that our senses need the sacred. Pastors, please keep your doors open as much as you safely can.

***

Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and is a columnist for Catholic News Service.