Much as I appreciate the intentions of those replacing covid-cancelled gatherings with online substitutions, I find myself unmoved by screen-time stand-ins. So many things have gone online: college courses, pub trivia nights, family reunions, dates, happy hours, book clubs, visits with grandparents, and of course, church. I honestly hope these replacements work for many people—that they are lessening loneliness, boredom, and isolation as we shelter-in-place; that they create fun or deep or meaningful social spaces—even sacred spaces. Heaven knows, we need this. But some software is missing in my head to make these connections connect for me. I am a failure at online community—or at least an outsider. I am unreachable by these efforts and unmoved. And that is okay. (Note: I am absolutely in agreement with stay-at-home orders and do not believe groups, including churches, should be meeting.)
In part due to my love of liturgy, I am a Candidate for diaconal ordination in the Episcopal church. Liturgy is what I love about my tradition: participation in the rituals, shared ancient prayers and stories, the sensory-sacred experience of bowing to take a wafer and wine in a meal shared communally across centuries and continents. Twice in the last month I visited an online liturgy. I was pleased to see many people had done the same and based on comments, seemed to connect with the experience. But I just felt odd, distracted, alien. I hoped I’d never have to lead such a service—because I would feel like … . That’s the thing, I don’t know what I would feel. The experience evokes in me not a ‘something’ but its opposite—a numbing absence of something.
And realizing this has been positive for me. Because of quarantine, I’ve come to discover how much my faith experience and my connection to my tradition are tied to community—and isn’t community what it should be about? For me, it is the living breathing smiling shoulder-to-shoulder presence of fellow sojourners that I need. Again, I hope that on-screen, virtual manifestations meet this need for some people, because I want people to experience community in whatever way they can right now. But for me, the present-ness of people is essential, as it turns out. And in my view, this bodes well for community—even religion! It bodes well indeed.
This was my happy discovery in these covid-riddled weeks. I expect I am not alone in my wonderment at the power of shared spiritual space, and wonderment at realizing this more profoundly because of its absence. We need each other; we need the energy and feeling and smell of one another, the present-ness of each other. We always did. I’m hoping the imposed distancing between us because of covid helps us re-cognize (re-know) it even more.
For me, faith tradition and flesh-and-blood community are one and the same. The stories, texts, and rituals of my tradition frankly only means something to me when shared. I know this is a radical, and perhaps to some unacceptable, statement. I say it again: the stories, texts, and rituals of my tradition frankly only means something to me when shared. What is wrong with that? We were always meant to be together on these spiritual paths. When I am alone, my spiritual experience is much more silent, wordless, contemplative, formless, tradition-less. But that is not enough—not for me and I expect not for any of us. We need rootedness in something time-tested, long-lasting, and communal that holds us steady when everything starts to shake. And we are meant to share and receive. What we experience in solitude we take into community and offer to others—a process that requires a language. That language is what our traditions provide. Simply that: a language. By simple I do not mean unimportant. Rather, we humans are the language creatures, the storytelling creatures; language is the most sublime thing we can share. The rituals of my faith tradition move me when shared. The history and progress of a certain movement move me when shared.
We humans were built for sharing, for this language-ing of spiritual experience that we communicate when engaged—together—in our traditions. When we don’t share our deepest experiences in traditions classically categorized as “religious,” we find other ways to share them, other kinds of tradition. I go so far as to say that every human being is religious. We all have religions of one kind or another; it’s just that some folks don’t recognize their religious-ness because their systems of meaning and tradition are not commonly labeled as such. But in my view, we are all religious.
I’m inspired by some of the ways people form traditions amidst covid and quarantine. The roar of voices down a New York street as people yip and holler at their windows for healthcare workers every evening, moved me to tears. Stories about Italian neighbors singing together out their windows did the same. People are making community and cobbling together traditions amidst covid-imposed social isolation, because we are creatures made for community and for the rituals and “languages” that facilitate it.
At times we do it at the supermarket. Have you noticed the choreography we participate in when traversing a grocery store these days—everyone shifting and shimmying to give people six feet of personal space? I noticed this immediately on a recent trip to the store. I might meet eyes with the person I am passing, even smile as I move aside to avoid nearness to them, all the while another person shimmying and shifting to avoid getting close to me. Many of us wear masks as a kind of shared “religious” garb as we partake in these shared practices—being connected in solidarity, in our common longings and values, in one of the few ways we can be: while grocery shopping. I’m not saying grocery shopping is a religion. But I am pointing out the ways we are so easily moved by participatory experience around shared values. I could feel it at the store—the way everyone was on-board with the practices because of deep values we share, a meaning system: namely, solidarity around staying healthy and protecting the vulnerable. We had formed a new way of shopping, a new tradition, and I felt a sense of community with fellow shoppers even amidst social distancing. We humans are tradition forming creatures; and often we do it unaware.
It is okay to be unmoved by online social gatherings. It is okay to long to sit with a friend at a table, to lean in and feel their human presence, to see the subtle expressiveness of their bodies or the way light glistens off of their skin. It is okay to lament the absence. It is even okay to be turned off by online family reunions or online church. The lack just reminds us of what we truly need and love, which is each other.