During COVID-19 quarantine, I have missed being “physically present” on Sundays with my brothers and sisters in my parish family. I was raised in an Anglo-Catholic “High Church” tradition that was highly structured with many rules and regulations about how, when, and where the People should come together for the weekly Celebration of the Holy Eucharist and other acts of Christian worship. Of course, most of those rules and regulations were written centuries before there were even any words in our various Human languages to express concepts such as “computers, the Internet, and live streamed services.”
During quarantine, I often find myself pondering questions of which I’d never thought such as how I feel about week after week of making an “Act of Spiritual Communion,” but not actually consuming the Bread and Wine. I think about what it means to be the People of God gathered in a single united community when each of us is in a separate home in quarantine.
In a recent phone call discussion I had with our rector about the St. James live-streamed services, Mother Kate Cress mentioned to me a question she had been asked about the blessing that is always given at the end of the Holy Eucharist. Until COVID-19, we had all been accustomed to being gathered in the same physical space with the person who was pronouncing the blessing. We are accustomed to blessings being “in person” and “face to face,” not on YouTube or Zoom. We are used to hearing and seeing the person pronouncing the blessing because we are normally in the pews a few yards away from that person. When a person asks me to bless a cross or a rosary, they hand it to me and stand next to me as I physically hold and touch the object and pronounce Christ’s blessing on it.
But how does this all work when the person giving the blessing is standing in front of a camera and the person receiving the blessing is standing in front of a computer monitor or TV screen several or even thousands of miles away? How can we be one united community if we are each in many different places?
Too often, Humans, even Christian Humans, fall into the trap of thinking that whatever pain or suffering we are going through is unprecedented, unique in all history. However, it’s usually the same pain and suffering that others throughout time and space have also faced. It’s just packaged differently in each individual’s life. We’re not alone. We have others from whom we can learn.
For example, I thought of when I was in seminary and read about Christians in the Middle Ages who sometimes went to a Mass at a great shrine or cathedral on a feast day. Sometimes, such large crowds came, that many could not get inside the church building, but had to stand outside during Mass with the overflow crowd.
I remembered reading how some of those people would wonder if they had really received a blessing since they were outside and the priest was inside and thick, sound muffling walls were between them. Were the physical distance and the walls a barrier to receiving a blessing? No!
The problem was that the People were not remembering that God is inside the church building as well as outside the church building. Moreover, the blessing does not flow from the priest or bishop. The blessing flows from God. The priest or bishop is pronouncing the reality of God’s unending blessing. They are focusing the People on the fact that God is always blessing us. We Humans need “focal moments” to remind us of God’s constant blessing. It is not God’s blessing which is occasional. It is our awareness of that ever flowing and eternal blessing which is occasional!
When quarantine began for me back at the end of April, I worried that it would be a terrible time when my mental, spiritual, and emotional life would be diminished and weakened. I worried I’d be bored and unable or unwilling to stay in quarantine. I saw nothing but pain and frustration coming as a result of quarantine.
Good, Lord, was I ever wrong! Oh, yes, the pain and frustration have been real and considerable, but I also have found my spiritual life strengthened and abundantly fed by the way quarantine has forced me to remember so much of what I had been taught by Christ . . . and then too easily had forgotten.
I had forgotten the wonder I felt as a child when my Sunday School sang the foundational Truth of the Gospel in the words “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I felt such community with the other children back then although I don’t where any of them are today. But when I am alone and sing those words now, I remember that I am always “in community.”
I had forgotten the awesome mystery of pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words which were written down and smuggled out of the Nazi prison where he died. Bonhoeffer said that he had never truly felt the reality and presence of the Christian Community until the Nazis put him in solitary confinement where he died a few days before Allied troops liberated his prison.
I had forgotten the words written in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:1) about the great Cloud of Witnesses which surrounds me every moment of my existence. I cannot perceive them with my mortal senses. I think of them far too seldom. Yet, even though they go unnoticed by me, they are nonetheless surrounding me as surely as the family and friends of a newborn infant are in the nursery unnoticed by the baby.
I had forgotten Blessed Paul’s words in Romans (8: 35-39):
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The pain and suffering we are all experiencing during COVID-19 is real. I in no way mean to diminish the reality of our many hardships be they financial, illness, loss of loved ones, isolation, loneliness, fear, despair or anger to name but a few. Nor do I mean to try to dismiss or trivialize that pain with glib little statements such as “Look on the bright side” or “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
What I am saying is that the problem is with the finiteness of my faith, not with the infiniteness of Christ’s Love. The problem is with my readiness to see pain and loneliness when it manifests in my life from time to time while blithely ignoring the endless love and blessing which flow abundantly and constantly from Christ through all Creation.
I hate this COVID-19 plague! I hate quarantine! I hate the death tolls! I hate the empty stores and theaters and streets! I pray God that we never live through something like this again. But I will not let those feelings cause me to lose sight of what is true.
What of the concerns about the reality of the people who surround me although they are unseen by me as they live in their separate homes and unseen by me as they live in the Nearer Presence of God? What of the concerns about being fed by Christ’s Presence every moment that I exist? What about concerns as to whether or not Christ’s blessing can reach me in my home while it is being pronounced from the High Altar of St James? Well, as far as concerns about all that, I have none.
In quarantine, I have been forced to remember what I had forgotten. As much as I have hated quarantine, it has been where I have remembered what I had forgotten. The next time I turn on my computer or iPhone and throw the live-streamed Mass onto my TV screen and hear the priest pronouncing the blessing in a deceptively empty looking building many miles away, I will remember what I had forgotten.
I will remember that no one should have to remind me or proclaim to me that I cannot be separated from Christ’s Love and Christ’s blessing and Christ’s Omnipresence. Hopefully, after COVID-19 and quarantine are behind us, I will remember Christ’s Love, Presence, and Blessing NOT because I hear someone remind me or because I see someone pronounce that Truth. I will know that Truth simply because by God’s Good Grace, I will more and more feel it in every part of my whole being.
Peace, James Lee Walker +