By Lizzie McManus-Dail
It was March 24th. And my favorite florist was giving away a dozen roses with every purchase. The shelter-in-place order went out at noon; by midnight, their doors would be shuttered. I had already been tucked in my apartment for almost fourteen days myself, because I am immunocompromised.
Someone in my immediate family is sick with COVID-19, and I cannot be with them right now. Someone else in my immediate family was just transitioned to hospice care, and I cannot be there to hold his hand and hear the stories, again, about his childhood cat.
I want to be clear: I support the order to stay home, full stop.
But there is something about dispatching roses — sending them out in dozens to bloom and die away from the shop — that had me gutted.
I’d left the apartment for the first time the day before. I rode in the car while my non-immunocompromised husband ran essential errands. We popped open the trunk for a curbside grocery delivery, and we cruised down MoPac at 4 p.m. at a crisp 60 miles per hour (that was new). And then, when we were on our way home, slowing to a stop at a red light, I saw that the locally-owned florist had bouquets of flowers spilling out from the shop and a sign that read: Drive-Thru Bouquets!
“Should we — could we — ”
My husband had already ticked the blinker, sliding into the empty turn lane. The shop was lush and green and I could see through the windows all the way back to a full store room, blossoms carefully cut and held in barrels, and plants in pots on shelves and lining the walls.
“We’ll stay open as long as we can,” the man at the till said, rolling our sunflowers in brown paper.
And the next day, they were giving away roses by the dozen. Mobilizing the already-dying flower to live, as all cut blossoms do, for a short while longer on a shelf or a table in a home.
And even though all those blossoms were always destined to a slow, browning-at-the-edges death, I could not stop thinking about the tragedy of them dying in an empty shop.
The cynic in me says it is internalized capitalism: the image of so much profit, wasted. But the Christian in me thinks about Easter, and how we would flower the cross, and how we worship a God of profligate abundance, and I’m just stuck with this sadness of a tomb without women to bear witness.
We’re thick in Lent now, and normally, I’d be stuffing eggs by the dozen at church, where I work as a Family Minister, faithfully counting them out until I had completed 2,000 eggs for Easter Sunday’s egg hunt. As a staff, we’d be navigating who got to use the printer when — pulling long hours with eight services in four days. I would be ticking down the days to washing my parishioner’s feet on Maundy Thursday — always a little squeamish for me at first, but ultimately the most important liturgical gesture I do every year.
Normally, I would be all in on the dying part of Lent: the death of the parts of myself that make me selfish, cruel, unkind. I’d be going to Confession, and I’d be kneeling at the altar to receive bread and wine three times every Sunday morning — once for each service. Normally, I’d be humming the macabre Lenten music on my tired drive home. I’d live, with some relish, in the reminder of our mortality and the time that carves away productivity and “more” and pauses to think about what God has already done, and how that is already sufficient.
When death feels like a cleansing — when death is at a safe distance — I love Lent. And I do not mean this cheaply: Lent has been the place for me in the past to process the deaths of my loved ones, a time when I felt the solidarity of collective lament.
Normally, I think I’m just fine with the death we befriend in Lent.
But when death is all around me, I feel like the empty florist shop resplendent with flowers that will never live and die surrounded by people. I feel like that empty shop is going to cleave me in two.
Picturing the shelves and shelves of roses, I think about the protest song, “Bread and Roses.” One of the lyrics is this: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.” In other words, we need the essentials to survive, yes, but “humanity cannot live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). Though composed to demand the right to vote, the song still feels necessary now, when grocery stores run dry of bread, when hospitals run out of masks.
From whom do you demand bread and roses when we are shut up tight at home, not by a person or system but by a virus? (A virus that is made more powerful by oppressive systems, but that is for another essay.)
Where do we turn, as Christians, when we cannot even have the bread of life — the sacrament of Holy Communion — because to physically partake in eternal life might cut this one short for us or our neighbor?
I’ve been thinking that maybe we turn to people who have lived through this, specifically, to St. Julian of Norwich, about whom I’ve learned much from Amy Laura Hall’s Laughing at the Devil.
Saint Julian lived during the bubonic plague, a time when a third of the human population around her died in excruciating agony.
She also lived at a time when the sacrament of Holy Communion was not regularly shared with the laity, and when it was, the chalice was still withheld.
Saint Julian was an anchoress, which is a special kind of vocational living in which one never leaves their room. St. Julian had a window. She was there to pray, without ceasing, for God’s mercy, for her community, and her church. She did have one constant companion, according to tradition: her cat.
In short, St. Julian’s life is starting to sound more and more like my own in ways I never wanted or imagined. But St. Julian did not become a saint by living in a small room with a cat; she became a saint because God gave her a vision, which she wrote down, and those words reverberate with power across the centuries.
In her vision, she wrote these words, perhaps her most famous words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be most well.”
On its own, this sounds pretty vapid to me: all will not be well, like, literally, because thousands of people are about to die and are dying.
But I think the bread, and the roses, are about trusting God — even when it feels like God is not trustworthy. Even when we are surrounded by death. “To believe in the resurrection,” writes Richard Rohr, “is to trust in dying.”
Trusting that all will be well, trusting in the death that comes before resurrection, these are not permission slips to apathy. These are the fervent prayers of a faith in a God who died and rose again. But a God who decided we needed to see her love more, so she would lay down her life for us, her friends.
And as I sit here this Holy Week, by my own little window, beholding a world where this Easter there will be no egg hunt, a Maundy Thursday with no footwashing, a season in which I will not have bread — I will have roses.
Because trusting dying is not giving up, it is giving to God. Death is one end, but it is not the end.
Those roses will die, in the shop or in a hundred kitchens across town. They will die, just like me, someday. Because the ultimate end is the same for us all: we will all die. Some of us will die from COVID-19, some from inexplicable, brutal tragedies, some from the body at long last saying she is done carrying us after years and years of care.
But Holy Week ends in Easter. Death gives way to resurrection, if we first walk the way of the cross.
So the wellness, the roses, that I think St. Julian talked about are not a promise of protection from the world. She also says that God did not say, “‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’”
We are being travailed. We are being tempested. We are diseased.
And we will not be overcome. We will stay in place, we will pray without ceasing, we will wait. I didn’t know it at the time, but Austin’s florists enacted resurrection by taking all those flowers in the shop and blessing our city with a jubilant installation.
And on March 24th, hours before the shelter-in-place landed, with carefully washed hands and observed distance, my husband drove back to the local florist drive-thru.
And he came home to me, arms full of roses.
Lizzie McManus-Dail manages (holy) mischief as both Family Minister and seminarian in Austin, Texas, and is a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of NC. She has two cats.