Through a Glass, Dimly

COVID-19 Shaping Spiritual Communities

COVID-19 dwells in the space between us. So we keep our distance.

One nursing home in Cincinnati plans to use plexiglas to facilitate scheduled interactions for residents as the nation opens back up.

Some people already visit their loved ones through windows.

And Zoom meetings? How strange I have become to myself as I watch myself watch others through virtual frames.

These and other similar thoughts brought to my mind what Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth while they were separated from each other: “For now we see in a glass, dimly, and then we will see face to face.”

For now, we see in a glass, dimly–

Many of us are hearing or experiencing firsthand the difficult stories. Some people are dying alone in hospitals or nursing homes because of quarantine safety precautions. Funerals in recent weeks have been livestreamed because of stay at home practices that limit the number of people who can be at cemeteries.

I presided last week at such a funeral—a double funeral for a husband and wife in my extended family. They died at home, several days apart, from natural causes. I am thankful that a family member was their caregiver and was with them in their final moments of life.

Ten of us gathered at the cemetery for the funeral. That was the state-sanctioned limit at the time. No chairs. We stood the distance of a grave depth apart from each other around the two caskets to pray, weep, and remember. The funeral home director videoed the service to share later with those who were unable to attend.

Navigating the distance between us

One of the most striking and painful realities of the pandemic for me has been the social distancing. We are living life in these days–and experiencing dying and death–with an unexpected, unfamiliar, and unwanted distance between us.

Gregory Griffey is a former student of mine who works as a Hospice chaplain. Gregory shared an image that lingers with me:

There are windows between us these days at nursing care facilities, in hospitals, and even in grocery store lines. We are social distancing everywhere in our lives–funerals, gravesides, even in the most mundane daily activities.

A hope surfaced as Gregory and I talked about this space between us. What if those windows–those distances between us–are liminal spaces meant both to protect us and to reveal sacred mystery.

In liturgies, liminal spaces are boundary or threshold spaces. They are transitional spaces where transformation can and often does happen. As uncertain and even frightening as liminal spaces can be, their fluidity make them spaces where unexpected new life can emerge.

At least, that was the hope toward which Gregory and I gravitated in our conversation.

Lingering liturgical questions

Some questions for the liturgical theologians and ritual theorists in our midst linger with me about the distance between us in these days.

How is COVID-19 and related ritual and liturgical practices changing our understanding of the way liminality constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs community? 

How is social distancing shifting our perspective on the construct of the neighbor? Of the stranger? 

We have much to consider in the months and years ahead. Realities that stretch our understanding. Wounds that ache for communal balm. Theological questions that strain for responses.

–then we shall see face to face

For now, we wait in hope.

At least, that was the Spirit-whisper I heard at the cemetery as we buried a couple who on that very day would have celebrated 70 years of marriage. What a journey their almost century of life–70 of those years together–must have been.

Never before I have heard such power in familiar funeral texts as I heard that day beneath the tent as the wind blew around us: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).


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