Thank you, Lord, for Virtual Gatherings

In September 1997, I was excited and anxious. I was finally going to begin the fulfillment of a dream – I was going to seminary. I had packed my bags, made my arrangements, and said my goodbyes. My Dad was making the drive from Minneapolis to New York with me, some father-son bonding time for the road.

The morning we were supposed to leave, my Dad got me out of bed – way too early. He was yelling for my help. My Mom was sick, and had passed out, and he couldn’t wake her up. We called an ambulance and she was hospitalized for a few days. A combination of factors made her ill and her heart rate was too low – a vagus nerve condition.

I was bummed about the delay, but we still made the trip a few days later when she improved and was able to come home.

My first month at seminary was, well, awful. I was lonely and disoriented – I had never lived away from Minneapolis, and I didn’t have any friends there. Above all, I was worried about my Mom.

Communion through a Dormitory Pay Phone and a Phone Card

In my first semester at seminary, I called my Mom from the common dormitory pay phone. I paid for the calls with a prepaid phone card.

There was no FaceTime, no Zoom; no Google Meet, or WhatsApp. I couldn’t see her. The same was true for conversations with other loved ones – the only connection was the sounds of their voices.

A fellow student living on the same floor had loud conversations with his family, in Arabic. That common phone was his only connection to his family. Sharing one phone was inconvenient, especially if we had to wait until the previous user was finished.

Those phone conversations gave me strength during the Fall semester at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1997. That old, nasty phone was the medium of communion for my family and me.

That phone bridged the gap that separated us physically. Yes, the space provided by the common pay phone was limited and imperfect. I was more excited for Thanksgiving that year than in any other year of my life because I knew that our sharing of family communion would be whole again. In the meantime, I consoled myself with the reminder that the pay phone “is as good as it gets.”

Symbols: Real, not Either/Or

“As good as it gets.” “Already/not yet.” These are nifty phrases used to explain Liturgy, especially its proleptic feature. Is this encounter with God permanent? No, “not yet” – because God sends us back into the world to be God’s witnesses. The imperfection of the liturgical encounter can make us desire perfect communion with God. Until the second coming of Christ, then, we wait in anticipation of partaking of the life of God for eternity, without end.

The liturgical encounter is not that final, eternal encounter with God. But it is still a real encounter, and each time we gather with the risen Lord in our midst, we change.

Virtual Liturgy and Education: Real Gatherings

The same principle applies to our experiences of pandemic liturgy and teaching. It is tempting to complain bitterly about the limitations of virtual platforms like Zoom. No, it’s not the same as gathering in our church buildings to sing a hymn together, to hear the choir sing, to greet one another “with a holy kiss.”

This semester, many of my students expressed their preference for in-class learning. They’re less distracted. For my part, I communicate better with students in person. It’s easier to pick up on their cues, to read their facial expressions. Students’ bodily gestures always indicate a lack of understanding or interest. It’s harder to pick up on these cues on Zoom.

Despite these limitations, I learned something valuable from my experience teaching this past semester. Its simplicity is profound. Students learned. We interacted. We communicated and had a dialogue. My semester is finished, and I have a dozen or so ideas percolating on how to improve the virtual learning platform. I’m confident that one can teach and learn with excellence in such a platform.

What about worship, then? Is the praise offered to God somehow limited by masks when we are able to gather in person? Is the Holy Spirit unable or unwilling to enter into the space occupied by liturgical participants who can’t attend in-person worship?

Who dares to challenge the power of the Most High who brings together the Divine Logos with human nature in Mary?

The imperfections of virtual worship, teaching, and learning annoy us. The liturgy, teaching, and learning that happens on virtual platforms is not quite the experience of in-person gatherings. Nevertheless, virtual liturgy, teaching, and learning are still real. We still praise God. God is still with us. Instruction still takes place. Students still learn.

Robert Taft wrote that the Liturgy fills the gap between God’s outstretched hand and Adam’s finger in Michelangelo’s famous fresco.

The same lesson applies to us today: divine grace fills the space shared by people who gather virtually. 

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for virtual communication, the platforms that allow us to teach, learn, and pray together virtually. In 1997, an old, common dormitory pay phone helped me sustain communion with my family. This year, new platforms help us sustain religious life and education. Thank you, Lord, for reminding us that the virtual is, indeed, real.

One comment

  1. Nick, I just have to thank you for bringing back a memory from my own time in Divinity School. We didn’t even have a pay phone, but somehow someone on our hall arranged to have a phone strung out into the hallway from under her door with unlimited minutes and we all used it (no privacy, but a lot of communitarian impulses!).

    Anyway, I vividly remember sitting on the floor in the hallway talking on that phone to Jim Dwyer, a friend from college. He went on to become a very eminent journalist, and just died a few weeks ago, so he has been on my mind, but it’s the idea of the hall phone that triggered this memory. I had sent him a hunger issues journal I was editing, and he liked it. We were interrupted briefly as he got call waiting. He brushed it off. “It’s just some Mafia guy, threatening me… Nothing to worry about. I’m investigating how they bought off a politician…” We were, each of us, following our own star — so young and without a dime, but with plenty of ideals and plans to run out into the world and make our mark on it.

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