“Sacrament in Solitude” by Marianne Hales Harding

The Sunday squirrels were the most aggressive, tumbling over each other to get the holy leftovers, biting and scratching as if their souls depended upon it. He took the sacrament at different times to try to avoid the scuffle, but they always knew. The air grew thick with the Spirit and they perked up even before the scent of bread came wafting down from the canopy.

If he left out the biting, this would make a lovely Sunday School story—the purity of the woodland creatures resonating with the purity of the ordinance. But he had seen squirrels lose an eye over this. It was not an element of the Sabbath that he relished.

Sundays used to be a time when squirrels stayed away. For the first three years that he had lived on the platform a sympathetic Bishop sent intrepid deacons each Sunday to bless the sacrament at the base of his tree and hoist it up with some Sabbath rations. The Relief Society sisters took turns baking individual serving casseroles and a variety of cookies (the cakes and pies were a mess and abandoned early in the project). A filmmaker documented it all one year and got an award at Sundance.

But when church shut down, the deacons couldn’t carpool, and the sisters worried about sending covid with the cookies. A few hearty wilderness types kept coming but it became intermittent, and the Bishop authorized him to bless the sacrament himself. Sundays stopped being so noisy for a little while.

He had always felt that the trees were a temple and had carved suns and all-seeing eyes into the wood of his temporary refuge. He had meant to spend a single summer in solitude but at every self-imposed deadline he couldn’t find a reason to leave. It felt like walking away from the face of God. Now, even more, he felt the peace of prayer, even in the prewritten piety of an official, unchanging one. With no distractions, he felt his words slowly spread upwards as if through water, the echo-less silence a full-throated amen.

Out of habit, he broke the bread in the same small pieces he had learned as a deacon. He remembered after the first few that he only needed one and then he had a slice of bread that seemed entirely out of place in his pantry lockbox. It felt sacrilegious to spread peanut butter on the holy remains, even for Sunday dinner, but he was too frugal to throw it out, so it sat apart for a week and grew stale.

Eventually he noticed the squirrels that would reverently gather to worship with him. Slowly, tentatively, they took the bits of blessing-adjacent bread he offered. He thought they even bowed their heads briefly. It had been months since he had shared food with anyone; he took their silent gratitude as camaraderie and wondered if he could minister even in the treetops.

Now he woke to them turning out his pockets. He had lost track of the original group and grew resentful of the friends of friends of friends who were more interested in the loaves and fishes than they were in the miracle.

In the end it was the squirrels that sent him seeking salvation at ground level. It wasn’t so much their relentless begging as it was their relentless hunger. It reminded him that this moment of pause, however it met his soul’s immediate thirst, didn’t quench it. He couldn’t live forever on borrowed peace. His God didn’t live exclusively in retreat. His God made peace in the multitudes and at the tables of sinners. His God went into the wilderness, but He also came out.

He knew he had to return to the noisy sacrament meetings and busy days. He had to find peace in a forest of fellow flawed followers. He had to trust that he could hear his own prayers through the cacophony because now he knew exactly what they sounded like all by themselves.