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The strangest thing inspired me to write about shut-ins today, and I suddenly found myself discussing a church service when that was the thing that was the furthest from my mind. My plan was to write about shut-outs because I was inspired by a blog post I saw today from BookBaby.

BookBaby is a suite of self-publishing services offered to people who write and publish books. The blog post began innocently enough: “12 things you can do to build your writing career while stuck at home.” The very first bullet point snagged my heart immediately. It was a flaming arrow headed in my direction. I caught it. It was amazing. I will write more about this point for the next blog post.

For now, let me start off by contrasting the shut-outs with the shut-ins, which is a thing wholly unrelated to writing, but still very interesting.

Our church offers special services for our parishioners who are shut-ins. Eucharistic ministers, those who are trained to deliver holy bread and pray over those who are not able to attend weekly mass, are usually the ones to visit shut-ins. For many years, I was aware of shut-ins, but had no personal connections with them until fairly recently.

My husband, following his own special journey to uplifted spiritual connection, decided he would follow the path to become both a lector and a eucharistic minister for our church. After completing the required training, he did the lector thing for a while and dropped it, choosing to focus on the eucharistic ministry portion of his chosen service to the church.

For around two years and counting, my husband has worn his cross proudly after weekly service as he sets out on his mission to visit the church shut-ins. Immediately after holy communion, my husband carried holy bread in a sacred velvet pouch, all while navigating small roads in our town, looking for people on his list to visit. There were people who were elderly, some were sick, some could not respond because their mental faculties wouldn’t let them, and there were others with variations of circumstances on why they were not able to attend mass.

The eucharistic minister is supposed to administer the holy bread, which for us is a small, round, thin white wafer slightly larger than a quarter, and then recite a short prayer. It is a simple process that allows the parishioners to maintain a connection with the church, and with God, yet, it is often anything but simple.

In some cases, parishioners are emotionally moved by the experience. They become expressive through words and actions. They are verbal and are able to talk out their feelings and experiences with their current status of life. They won’t say it in so many words, but they are deeply grateful to the eucharistic ministers who take the time to visit them at their homes, even if the whole thing lasts for less than thirty minutes. They crave human connection, just like the rest of us, and fill up with a satisfied heart with each visit.

Some parishioners are too infirm to respond. Some have their eyes wide open, but all they can do is stare, usually into a blank space. The physical body is there and all is functioning, but the brain is not able to produce physical or verbal responses. Yet, the soul is very much alive. This is probably the closest a human being gets to being in a comatose state. It is sad, indeed.

Other parishioners keep their eyes closed, yet they are upright, confined to a chair. It appears they are sleeping, but it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. Many of the parishioners my husband visits have some sort of caretakers, whether family, friends, nurses, or other paid services. While the caretakers manage the physical well-being and comfort of the parishioners, they are not able to perform the service that my husband is entrusted to do.

My husband, like many other valiant men and women, have a label that suits them well: they are extraordinary ministers of holy communion. By church definition, they are considered “extraordinary,” because they cannot be ordinary. Ordinary ministers of holy communion are typically bishops, priests, or deacons who serve principal roles in the church. They can all say the mass and give holy communion. Extraordinary ministers are not permitted to have main roles in a mass, but they may hand out holy communion both during mass as well as after mass to shut-ins.

If we look at the prefix “extra” as part of extraordinary, we see that extra always means outside, as in: the extraterrestrial being is an alien that lives outside of this universe, or, a person from one country who commits a crime in another is usually extradited by going outside of the country and sent back to where he came from.

While the church maintains that extraordinary ministers of holy communion are so identified as a formality to distinguish the main celebrants of a mass from lay persons who help, I like to think the name symbolizes a deeper meaning.

My husband, like every other man and woman who chooses to serve the church in this special capacity, is not just an extra, but an extraordinary member of the church. According to the dictionary, anything extraordinary is outside of ordinary, exceptional, amazing, and so much more.

Taking a religious oath to serve the church by bringing holy bread to people who cannot travel to the church and choosing to spend time to be with people and pray over those who are unable to respond is nothing short of extraordinary.

All of us are shut-in right now as the coronavirus is wreaking havoc over our world. It is true we are all experiencing different levels of frustration as we’re dying to venture out into the world and be normal and free and come and go as we please, but we can’t. We must remain inside our homes and explore our inside lives with our own families, isolated among our own.

It is not an exact match by any means, as we have our faculties and can walk, talk, eat, bathe ourselves, read a book, and jump up and down without someone helping us, but it is something. May we all exercise compassion with those suffering from the effects of the disease. May we get at least a small inkling of an understanding in what it means to be a true shut-in, like the ones confined to their homes or in care facilities, unable to venture out.

The next time, I’ll get into the heart of the matter and explore why a BookBaby blog post really inspired me to write about shut-outs.

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