The Liturgical Sensorium and COVID-19

Like so many others, my connection to the formal liturgical / sacramental life of the Christian community has been reduced to livestreamed Masses.  Like so many others, I am keenly aware of the bodiliness of liturgy, something that requires a measure of physical proximity to others in an assembly of believers.  Experience of liturgy is meant to be informed by this proximity.  To a certain extent, proximity is constitutive of liturgy.  This idea raised for me the question of what I perceive when I am at liturgy.  The proximity of others, the statues or stained-glass windows, the kneelers, the tabernacle, the altar, the crying of young children . . . all of these things and more make up my liturgical sensorium, the gestalt of being at worship.

At home, this sensorium is different.  I hear the Word of God proclaimed in juxtaposition not to a statue of St. Augustine but to two toy statues of Godzilla and Monster Zero in my living room.  I see and hear the presider reciting the Eucharistic Prayer, not against the backdrop of light filtered through stained-glass windows, but against the daylight streaming through my windows at home, which give a view of large trees and the exterior walls of my apartment building.  I don’t have kneelers at home or a tabernacle, but I do have a pantry.  I don’t have an altar, but I do have a dining room table.  I don’t hear crying children, but I sometimes hear loud conversations in the hallway of my building or the thrumming of the elevator going about its work.

We worry sometimes about whether or how or how many people will return to physical church buildings if and as restrictions on gathering are lifted.  Will people find that going out is not worth the bother if they can find a Mass on TV or Internet?  Time will tell.  In any case, my point here is not so much to raise the question about how many will return but to ask what impact the experience of liturgy in the sensorium of “home” might have on our awareness of God’s presence in the world and on our expression of discipleship.

God’s presence.  It is one thing, for example, to hear God’s Word proclaimed aloud in a church or chapel in the company of scores or perhaps hundreds of other people.  Church is the place to hear God’s word.  Through the miracle of modern technology, I can hear God’s Word proclaimed aloud in my home.  I hear words of life’s triumph over death, and perhaps I look across the room at a chair in which a deceased love one once sat.  I hear “Take this, all of you, and eat of it,” and I gaze at the dining room table where I had breakfast not long ago and where I will eat again later in the day.  I hear “Go, the Mass has ended,” and I look not at church doors but at the door to my home, through which I enter and leave much more often than I enter and leave a church building.  Do I go forth from my home “glorifying the Lord by my life”?

An expression of discipleship.  It is one thing to join my voice with scores or hundreds of others in saying “Thanks be to God” or “Alleluia.”  It is another to say these words at home, where a person in the next apartment or in the next room might hear me—maybe a person who does not share my faith in Christ or who perhaps has no faith tradition at all.  Christianity is all about safety in numbers in the sense that no one lives the life of discipleship alone—self-baptism, for instance, is not a thing.  Moreover, in full consonance with the Christian tradition, Lumen Gentium 9 tells us that God has “willed to make women and men holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness.”  In this bond, now virtual rather than a matter of physical proximity, I am not alone in uttering words of gratitude or singing songs of praise.  But physically, I am alone and my participation in the liturgy is in principle perceptible to people who might not otherwise know my life of faith.

There are ways in which virtual participation in liturgy might appeal to the consumer that in one way or another lives in all of us—if I don’t like the song, I can mute the video and ditto for the homily—or to our laziness—I’ll stay in for Mass because it is raining outside—but I am aiming at other potential consequences of livestreamed liturgies.  How do they affect our sense of where God “is” and how do they affect our sense of discipleship?

I would close by noting that my experience of recent weeks gives me a window into the lives of those who are homebound or in care facilities and who have no access to liturgical celebration apart from radio, TV, or Internet regardless of public health emergencies.


  1. Upon reading this ‘note’ about the ‘home settings of the virtual liturgy’, it does strike me that some small improvement of the ‘ambiance’ would be to move the 2 beasts out of your line of sight and perhaps add a Cross/Crucifix and/or an icon in their present placement. Having been in the hospital and now with virtual liturgy at home myself, I think that the experience does at least ‘improve’ when one can in some small way make more ‘appropriate’ the placement where the screen is ‘shining forth’. The affect and effect you point to is real, but given the present times, we must accommodate in order to hear and see the ‘good news’ being broadcast.

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