The month in review…

Christos Anesti! As we enter into the ‘’joyful space’ of Easter still in a time of pandemic, I find myself looking backwards over the last week wondering if I have the calendar wrong. Was this really Holy Week? Did the Triduum just happen? Again and again on social media, between the almost frenetic publication of virtual liturgies, there was that sense of mourning – how could the days have unfolded without us? Of course, they didn’t, we were there – and the high holy days of the Western Christian calendar followed one after another leading us through the sequence of time and scripture readings and beloved prayer texts. Some day we will probably make better sense of all this, until then, I share a few experiences from my corner of the world.

The first is an odd sense of guilty relief – the Triduum is over, Holy Week is over, the second half of Lent is over – we can finally stop trying to do it (‘it’ being the most important liturgies of the year) all online and around the dining room table. We can emerge from the tension of, on the one hand, parishioners and others wanting us to do one thing-along with our own expectations of ourselves, and on the other hand, the real limitations of space and time along with our bishops wanting us to do another thing. On top of these realities, there was the anxiety of doing it all in a different way than we once felt confident in undertaking.

The second is the reality of Christianity being a “we” religion, and liturgy, above all, being a communal endeavor, while we tried to negotiate the continuum of individual and corporate prayer. There were many fine publications – amazingly produced seemingly overnight – that enabled the domestic church to pray. But for many of us who spent a good block of this time completely alone (I was living and working at home, alone, for three and a half weeks), the compulsion to do something different often meant using materials intended for a least two people and a dialogical liturgy. During the academic year I pray morning prayer daily with a community, and when school is not in session, I do the daily office alone, but somehow I (and others according to a lot of online conversation) felt compelled to abandon our solitary daily prayer for an individual execution of communal prayer. It was exhausting.

The third was the virtual or online liturgy experience. I found at the beginning of the cessation of local liturgies (which for me was right before the third Sunday in Lent), that I tried to log on to an endless array of virtual liturgies from far and near. As the weeks went on, I found the experience less and less prayerful, less and less like being in a liturgy and more like a commodity to consume and evaluate and check in and out of when I couldn’t sustain a virtual presence. I know from many conversations that not everyone felt the same – their livestreamed parish liturgies worked well for them and were of great comfort. For me, however, livestreamed liturgies – especially the eucharist – ceased to engage me in positive ways. On top of that, I found myself oddly reluctant to engage in local productions and more comfortable with liturgies from far away. I occasionally prayed the mass with a friend who presided sitting at his dining room table in Ireland, and listened – even not understanding it all – to one of my favourite bishops pray morning prayer in English and Maori from his study at home in New Zealand. There were also the amazing occasions, such as the Pope’s extraordinary Urbi et Orbi from a rainy deserted piazza in front of St Peter’s that remains hauntingly before my eyes and ears,

The fourth was finally being reunited with my family on Good Friday (a surreal flight if ever there was) that changed the experience of the Triduum for me right in its middle. But here it was returning to a primarily Jewish neighbourhood in the midst of Passover that also struck me. The awkwardness of doing what we do in large groups now in intimate domestic settings made me realize that our Jewish neighbours had it all over us for domestic ritual and liturgy – they’ve been at it for millennia, and have many things to teach us about the quotidian setting of true mystery in the presence of the living God.

The fifth shift that confronted me unexpectedly was actually saying prayers out loud – I had been reading, or listening, for weeks. Now, with other real human beings in the same room, I had to speak outloud – a commitment and embodiment of a different order. I have made a note to myself to get reacquainted with Juliette Day’s work on Reading the Liturgy when I have a chance to reflect on the ramifications of modern people for a lectio divina tradition of always voicing our prayers. I was caught off-guard at the participatory dimension of hearing myself, let alone others around me.

Sixth, and last, is the realization of how important the domestic and popular rituals become. We’re actually pretty good at what some disdain as the secular elements of Easter – dying eggs, making the Agnus Dei cake, setting the table in particular ways, finding the right flowers and herbs in the yard with which to decorate, doing the small domestic rituals that we only do at Easter. They were oddly comforting – balancing the challenge of the backyard Easter Vigil (complete with Exultet!) with other ways of being a small church. We did agree doing liturgy together, with all its bumps and challenges, was – for us – more ‘’real’, more authentic, more present, than sitting down and watching the liturgy streamed from a mostly empty church. As one author put it, Easter without all the “glitter” was surprisingly good. We returned to the basics, the heart of the resurrection of Christ and our participation in the paschal mystery, even without trumpets and lilies and processions and large spaces and large crowds. It will be interesting to look back (from a temporal distance) on how these experiences done under duress change us, and perhaps allow us to see with new insights next year as we enter into these high holy days again.

These are my experiences – they match the experiences of some others whose thoughts I purposely sought out, plus many who have written on social media. But other observant Christians had different experiences and found life in practices that did not work for me. I’m curious as to why; is it because we may hold different orders in the church and therefore different expectations, or is it generational, or is it a facet of our personalities and particular circumstances? Regardless of the routes we have taken to arrive at this Easter Monday, may these 50 days find all of us rising from isolation, prepared to offer thanks to God and to those whose selfless and constant work has saved lives and called our priorities of corporate life back into alignment. Alithos anesti!

6 comments

  1. I think it’s completely understandable to feel relief that this highly unusual and in many ways excruciating Holy Week is over. These are our high holy days, the most profound and joyful and meaningful celebrations of the year, and they were mostly spent in the mode of anxiety and isolation while snatching crumbs of consolation where we can. And we have done all this in the midst of woe (I speak from New York) and grief and dereliction. Hell, we’re missing funerals (I’ve missed two; an online memorial is not the same). We know what we are missing.

  2. Thanks Paul and Rita – speaking of woe and mourning Rita, there has been the most extraordinary number of people writing about the death of one of their parents in the last couple weeks, and while the physical deaths were not related directly to the coronavirus, the inability to accompany them in their dying, or be at the funeral (or hold a funeral) is a source of pain and deep grief. The barriers of separation has been so overwhelming in these past few weeks, I simply find myseslf crying whilel reading social media accounts…it will be a day of rejoicing when we are free of this virus, but also a time of delayed mourning.

  3. Thanks Paul and Rita – speaking of woe and mourning Rita, there has been the most extraordinary number of people writing about the death of one of their parents in the last couple weeks, and while the physical deaths were not related directly to the coronavirus, the inability to accompany them in their dying, or be at the funeral (or hold a funeral) is a source of pain and deep grief. The barriers of separation has been so overwhelming in these past few weeks, I simply find myseslf crying whilel reading social media accounts…it will be a day of rejoicing when we are free of this virus, but also a time of delayed mourning.

  4. In our situation, people over 70 and/or with underlying medical conditions are being required to behave in a way that is unnatural. Many people have spoken to me about the absence of touch in their lives — no embraces, hugs, kisses or any of the other tactile ways in which we normally relate to others — even between them and members of their families who do not live with them. My own mother-in-law, now in her 80s, commented recently on how long it has been since she touched another human being.

    I think, in addition, we have had to do without the senses of taste and smell, throwing us back on the senses of sight and sound. In this regard I was especially interested in Lizette’s observation about saying things aloud. Many of those isolated at home have been able to watch online, but I suspect that rather fewer have voiced prayers aloud, perhaps remembering the old adage that talking to oneself is the first sign of madness! It also seems unnatural to pray aloud when there is no one present with whom to dialogue.

    Emerging from all this is going to be a cathartic experience as we revel once again in being able to use all five senses, but I suspect that a significant number who have experienced what is, in effect, sensory deprivation will require help to readjust.

    1. It might also be an opportunity to be in solidarity with the many people who go for very long periods of time without being touched by another person, who are isolated for a variety of reasons, and who don’t have regular access to things most folks take for granted and only now realize are gifts not entitlements. As a family member of mine a few hundred miles away would say, “welcome to my world”.

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