I begin this reflection on the nature of connection to the life of the church in a socially-distanced and virtually hyper-connected time in era of COVID-19 with a story of my own physical and spiritual disconnection while living abroad some 13 years ago.
From 2007 to 2009 my wife and I lived in Athens, Greece working with a ministry to college students and refugees. We had been regaled upon arrival with stories of the legendary inefficiency and difficulty of telephone and internet services in Greece. Colleagues had arrived six months earlier than we did and were thrilled at the fact that their home internet had only taken four months to be connected, allowing them contact with family and friends at home again. A story circulated of an expat pastor whose phone had taken over a year to be set up! It only resolved when a member of his congregation told the phone office he needed it to hear telephone confessions. They set it up the next day. Apparently Greeks had been practicing tele-sacraments long before this current wave of live-streamed masses!
We had better luck, at first. We came home with a home internet setup kit from a different internet provider on Friday, and we were online by the following Monday. Our other expat friends wondered with awe at our quick success. We only gloated a little.
Spiritually, I came to Greece with a similar bravado. I was there to serve. My devotional life had been sufficient for my young adult life up to that point, and I could only imagine going from strength to strength out in the fields of service.
In the matter of a few days, it all went away. A dispute between our Internet provider and the national phone service left our line dead. Six months of customer service calls availed little. Our connection back home was severed. Spiritually, my prayer life began reflecting my human communications. What had previously felt wide-open and free suddenly became constrained. I liken it sensing that a mobile phone signal had dropped. No more “bars” for months.
My previous prayer and reading practices no longer seemed to work. My devotional practices and prayers felt ineffective in the face of such a divine and human silence. Was it even worth continuing? I developed a form of spiritual depression matching my social isolation. Ultimately, my hunger and thirst for God would not let me remain idle. “As a deer longs for water brooks, so my soul longs after Thee” (Ps 42:1).
I turned to the Psalms. I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. Their breadth and depth were a salve. Eventually this rhythm led me to seek an ordered way of praying that did not depend on my prayerful ingenuity or my sense of God’s presence. I found the Book of Common Prayer, and in short order upon returning to America found my way into an Anglicanism that was at once evangelically vigorous and rooted in the ancient traditions of prayer. I discovered a love for Christ in the sacraments, and I answered a call to the priesthood. Somewhere along the way the joy returned, and I took comfort in the constancy of the ritual observances of my faith, and put faith in the Lord “who is in secret” (Matt 6:6) as my feelings ebbed and flowed.
Three years ago, moving from five years as a parish priest to a full-time doctoral student was a jarring transition similar to my time abroad. Again my spiritual life faced the challenges of being cut off: no more daily Masses at my parish, no more weekly rhythms of homily-writing, no more surprise pastoral calls that brought me out of myself and into the everyday crises of others. I had moved from a busy urban diocese with many lively churches within a 15-minute drive to a smaller, more rural diocese with only a few nearby parishes with meager daily offerings.
I learned to adopt new habits of spiritual life: I took to attending regular masses at one of the many chapels on campus at my Catholic university, worshiping Christ through spiritual communion, unable to partake in the host and the cup. I learned that the daily office is as well-suited to personal recitation as it is to corporate common prayer, and I deepened my practice of making private recitation of the office the central part of my spiritual life.
In these days of semi-mandatory quarantine, these past times of feeling cut-off have returned to my consciousness. I am not one given to over-use of technology. I haven’t streamed a live Mass yet, and I doubt it will easily become a regular part of my spiritual observance. When I’m there in church, I simply love being near the Body of Christ, both in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the fellowship of the people. Now, “ I consider the days of old, and the years that are past” (Ps 77:5) and I think of these days as models and promises that although corporate worship can never be replaced, the church has many resources that have stood through plagues, wars, and pestilences past from which again I may draw. “And I said, It is mine own infirmity; but I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most Highest. I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind thy wonders of old time” (Ps 77:10–11)
By way of conclusion, I may offer a few offline resources that may sustain you as you find your way through isolation from parish family, from friends, from daily and weekly rhythms of corporate spiritual life:
First, times of trial are perfect for developing a new spiritual practice. Begin with the daily office and add from there. Consider praying an Ignatian Examen before reciting Compline. Try praying one or more of the office services with family or roommates. All you need is a Book of Common Prayer and a Bible. If you can only access these online now, do. But if you have the paper versions, give the internet a break for a few minutes.
Second, as ubiquitous as live-streamed services are becoming, you don’t need me to tell you that you can stay connected to your parish in numerous ways. Consider, though, what you can do without logging on: Read the liturgy of the word each Sunday with your household. Pray the collect. Pray the Great Litany together. This week my young family read the Psalm and Gospel from the Sunday lectionary in a children’s Bible translation and participated in a short retelling of the Gospel in my kids’ own words while they drew pictures of the story. This is a practice easily continued once life returns to normal that could be supplementary or preparatory for corporate Eucharistic worship.
These days, in lieu of receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist, practice spiritual communion. This prayer from the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (Revised Edition, West Park, New York: Holy Cross Publications, 1967), p. 110, has been my regular prayer:
In Union, Dear Lord, with the faithful at every altar of thy Church where thy blessed Body and Blood are being offered to the Father, I desire to offer thee praise and thanksgiving. I believe that thou art truly present in the Holy Sacrament. And since I cannot now receive thee sacramentally, I beseech thee to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to thee, and embrace thee with all the affections of my soul. Let me never be separated from thee. Let me live and die in thy love. Amen.
Come Lord Jesus, dwell in thy servant in the fullness of thy strength, in the perfection of thy ways, and in the holiness of thy spirit, and rule over every hostile power in the might of thy Spirit, and to the glory of the Father. Amen.
As these prayers indicate, distance from our regular means of fellowship and communion need not leave us separated from communion with the Body of Christ. Modern social media are fine for this, but the offline resources of the Church offer more than a simulacrum of what we had before social distancing separated us. They offer communion in a different kind with the Body of Christ whose grace is sufficient for us, whose power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Let us not forsake the many means God has provided for our communion in Christ.
Fr. Paul Wheatley is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.