This is a really weird time we are living through. One of the biggest problems is the large numbers of people who are asymptomatic, who are carrying the virus but don’t know it themselves, who we think are therefore capable of transmitting it to others but don’t know it themselves. They may also have had the virus without realizing it, and we do not know if they can still transmit it even after their own body has, unnoticed, silently dealt with it. There is so much that the scientists have still to find out. Every day brings new discoveries about what this infection is, how it may work, and how it could be treated.
What this means for someone like me, in good general health but with a medical condition which means that catching the virus could well prove fatal, is that everyone, yes everyone, has become “The Enemy”. Everyone is a potential killer, whether they know it or not. Even the one I live with and share life with could be potentially able to kill me. I myself could be asymptomatic, could be The Enemy without knowing it.
I find it completely unnatural to be actively avoiding people when I am out exercising (a 45-minute walk each day). Normally I would wish them a good evening, but now I don’t even want to open my mouth in case I emit lethal aerosol or breathe in theirs. The scientists talk about viral load, without ever telling us what the fatal dose is or how we could measure it.
When people (and there are too many of them) come directly towards me instead of standing aside or waiting or moving away, I become irrationally angry. Why are they unthinking of others, and worse still, unthinking in general? Don’t they understand how contagious and lethal this thing is? I growl in my head at them and think highly uncharitable thoughts about them.
I don’t want to be like this. For someone who has preached participation for 55 years, it is totally abnormal to be avoiding people, shunning them, even hating them. Talking to others, especially those who are scared to return to church, I find that I am not alone. Friends tell me similar things. We agree that not only are we frightened of being close to others, we especially miss the sense of touch, the ability to hug, the possibility of a normal conversation without worrying about masks or social distancing. We need that full human contact.
Our only hope now is a viable raft of vaccines for the different strains, together with effective forms of treatment.
I am also very afraid of what this is doing to us liturgically. Already it is clear that celebration has become a highly individualized thing, whether remotely via Zoom or physically in church. Everyone is in their own little bubble. Everyone, even the priest, has become a consumer of liturgy, not a (con)celebrant. As well as being consumers, the non-ordained have returned to being spectators. We watch others doing things on our behalf, and we are detached from them, mentally and spiritually. We do not do the things that we used to take for granted. We have, in fact, become to an extent disengaged from the Body of Christ.
People are so intent on “getting” Communion that they overlook the immense risk not only to themselves but to the person who administers it. The act itself has become individualized. It is no longer Com-union but a solitary exercise. We have moved back from “We and Jesus” to “Me and Jesus”. We really need to ask ourselves why we are even doing this, especially when so many around the world do not have access to Eucharist at all or only rarely. Could we not fast in solidarity with them? Would not this help prevent us from sinking into individual eucharistic consumerism but help us to remain a part of the celebrating body, albeit one that is in a state of temporary suspension?
Because singing by our assemblies is forbidden in many places (though some are taking the risk), we are actively searching out music that will prevent the people from joining in. Musicians are looking for hymn tunes that are unfamiliar to their people so that a cantor can sing texts that we need to hear without the people being able to sing along with them. Antiphons have suddenly become more popular in certain quarters, not as a way of including the people but as a way of holding them at arm’s length. The music of virtual choirs is being inserted into Zoomed celebrations, or even into live ones.
This is the most bizarre thing. Our music has become liturgical wallpaper, just background music that may add something to the atmosphere but adds nothing to the liturgy. Everything that we worked for over a period of more than 50 years feels as if it has been undone at a stroke.
My fear is that reversing all of this is going to mean a large amount of re-education, or re-formation, to get us back to where we once were. My prayer is that when that time comes, we will have the energy and the wisdom to do it well.
In the meantime, not everything is doom and gloom. One of the great benefits of this time that we have been living through is that many have soaked themselves in the Word of God. Where participation in Eucharist has not been possible, people have found increased nourishment in reading scripture, in lectio divina, in the psalms, in online spirituality groups rooted in the Word. In England and Wales, we are nearing the end of a Year of the Word (“The God who speaks”) during which people have actually been doing far more in finding ways in which God can speak to them than might otherwise have been the case.
There has been an increase in silence and in prayerfulness. People are taking time to pray, priests are taking time to celebrate. The names of people who need our prayers are being mentioned aloud in celebrations, and people are comforted by the knowledge that Mass intentions are still being fulfilled.
And I hear many people — not just choirs but people in the pews — saying how much they miss the music that they used to sing during celebrations. That is encouraging, and shows that the picture is not quite as black as I have painted it. Organists who are playing pieces on the occasion of a “communal” celebration are being told that the atmosphere they create is appreciated.
But changing back to our previous mindset, where we are no longer afraid of being near other people, and where we understand from within what liturgical participation really means, is going to be a real effort. The longer we have to wait to start it, the harder it will be.