Masks. I read about them a lot these days. Which means I think about masks a lot. I remind people to wear their masks at our retreat center. I make jokes – admittedly not very funny ones – about wearing my mask. I have two hooks by my front door for masks. One is marked “clean” and the other is marked “dirty.” I boil the dirty ones at night. (Yes, I’m serious.) It’s easier than doing another load of laundry. Simply put them in a pot on the stove and boil them for ten minutes. Just don’t forget about the pot. I did that once. My niece, hearing something sizzling on the stove at midnight, saved the mask just in the nick of time.
I have purchased more types of masks than I care to admit. Many of them are too big for my face. And don’t get me started about masks for kids. I have tried at least seven different kinds of masks (and two different extenders) for my daughter, Eleanor, and her two younger cousins because they don’t stay on. One batch of masks took three months to arrive, and they smelled like turpentine. I tossed them. The latest set cost me $14 each, but they fit, are adjustable, stay on, and don’t cause too much perspiration. Plus, Eleanor likes the rainbow design, and so do I.
This week Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, mandated that all customers wear masks in their stores. A community meeting about kids wearing masks in schools in Utah was shut down before it got started because outraged attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder without masks. The Governor of Georgia mandated that masks cannot be mandated anywhere in his state in spite of surging COVID-19 cases. For months, the news has been littered with stories fist fights, shootings, stabbings, even murder from escalating face mask disputes.
Here in Minnesota we are waiting to hear if the Governor is going to require wearing masks in public. I honestly wish he’d get it over with and tell us all to wear them. A growing body of scientific research shows that masks mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
We have experienced significant losses personally and communally throughout this pandemic. I have named those in other places, and I imagine that readers can add more to my list. On top of quantifiable losses, so much has changed in the last four months: our relational patterns, our work structures, vacations, and financial situations. Then there are the daily inconveniences . . . like masks.
It’s a simple thing to wear a mask, yet it has become a source of national contention, vitriol, and violence. How is it that being asked to wear a mask has elicited such extreme responses? How is it that medical and scientific recommendations to wear a mask as an act of caring for others, and oneself, are experienced as an imposition on one’s supposed rights? While there are sophisticated analyses related to these questions, at the end of the day, we have a basic, practical decision to make.
As for me and my house, we will wear masks. Even though they are uncomfortable and inconvenient and frustrating.
We will wear masks because we love our neighbors and because any claim to love God without loving them is hollow.
We will wear masks now even if, in the future, we discover that masks make no difference in stopping the spread of COVID-19. I don’t expect that to be the case, but even if it is, ought we not inconvenience ourselves now in the best hopes that we might keep ourselves, our loved ones, and others safe and healthy?
Today we are starting a new ritual in my home related to masks, a ritual to help us remember why we choose that which is uncomfortable, a ritual to help us remember that we belong to and with others, a ritual to helps us connect to God, our healer, provider, and source of life and hope. It’s a blessing of our masks. We take them off the hook and say a few words before donning them:
We love God. We love others. We love ourselves. We wear these masks because of love. May we do our part in keeping others and ourselves safe and healthy as we wait on God to heal us. Bless these masks, God, and those who wear them. Amen.
This is simple and short enough for a six-year-old (and her mother) to remember while rushing out the door. It is enough to ground us when the masks fall off, get hot, and—I suspect this is closer to the real issue—symbolize the many other unwelcome limitations placed on our lives.
I’m not the first to ritualize mask wearing. Buddhist monks, Jewish rabbis, Christian pastors (and surely others) have done so as well. Buddhist monks in Thailand made masks from recycled plastic and inscribed them with words such as, “To know the problem is to find a way to end the suffering.” Rabbi Michael Knopf has written, “Jewish tradition expresses its commitment to the supreme importance of human life through laws related to the preservation and protection of life. This class of commandments is known as shmirat ha-nefesh; literally, protecting life. It is derived from a biblical verse which teaches, ‘Be cautious with yourself and seriously guard your life’ (Deuteronomy 4:9).” Consequently, Rabbi Knopf penned this prayer for mask-wearing: “You are bountiful, Infinite our God, majesty of space and time, who has sanctified us with divine commandments and has commanded us about protecting life.”
United Church of Christ professor and pastor Mary Luti has published this longer blessing in the recently released, Emerge: Blessings and Rituals for Unsheltering:
God of health and wholeness,
of neighbor love and kindness
bless this mask, my slight shield
against great ills:
Bless the fabric that repels the drops,
the ties that go behind my ears,
the wire that fits snug against my nose,
the folds that cup my chin.
Make me grateful for my mask
even when it makes me hot,
even when I look funny in it,
Even when I’m dying to take it off.
Bless me also, and everyone
who for their own and others’ sakes
put on this holy inconvenience every day,
our minds made up to love.
Whatever mask wearing is like for you, we hope you will find ways to connect to the deeper purposes and values in it: consideration, care, respect, hope and a three-stranded love of God, neighbor, and self.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)