Locked-Down Church: Alone and Together
It is close to one year since our lives were turned upside down by Covid-19. Since last March, during various stages of lockdown, we have repeatedly experienced the shock of not being able to go to church. People who had never missed a Sabbath obligation in their lives suddenly found themselves sitting at home on their own on a Sunday morning, saying their prayers.
All the familiarity of our local church, our friends in the next pew, the music that we love (or cannot stand), the sensation of receiving Communion, and the farewell handshake with the priest, were suddenly taken away from us.
For some people, access to the Internet has helped. Initially, with hesitation, but then with increased ease, a good number of people have been able to log in to online Masses and so at least experience, if not consume, the weekly sacrament.
Jesus in the desert
After a year of this, where are we as Catholics and as a Catholic community? To reflect on this during Lent is, I think, especially appropriate. This season reminds us of how much of our Catholic journey is spent on our own with God; and how much is also spent together with other people.
The foundational Scripture text for Lent (Mark 1, Matthew 4, Luke 4) gives us an image of Jesus on his own in the desert grappling with the devil. And that resonates with the Lenten experience for many of us: alone if not with the devil then at least with our personal demons — our temptations, our sense of inadequacy, our backsliding, our promises to do better.
But Lent is also a journey that, in normal years, we take together. The moment of gathering for ashes on the first Wednesday is a great communal act — ironically, more widely shared than receiving the sacrament itself. We often discuss with our friends and family the challenges (and achievements) of giving up chocolate or cakes or alcohol (the latter even without assistance from Uncle Cyril). And the alms that we collect are, by definition, a link to the wider community as we hand them in for the benefit of the poor in our own parish, or in other parts of our towns, or for use elsewhere in the world.
The great visual image of our Good Friday service — all of us gathered together at the foot of the cross and yet going up one by one to venerate it — captures this sense of being alone together. And the cross itself is a clear visual reminder of the two-fold relationship of the Christian. The vertical beam reaches up to heaven, emphasising our relationship with God; but the horizontal beam reaches out to the world reminding us of our relationship with others.
Aloneness in Covid times
It is obvious that Covid has reinforced our aloneness, and for many people our loneliness. For those who are working or studying from home, the great loss has not been physical proximity to the lecturer or the customer. Rather it has been the loss of camaraderie: the chats around the coffee station, the accidental encounters in the corridor, the shared experience (good, bad or ugly) of a team meeting.
In the same way, no matter how adept we have become at tuning in to Mass, online or on-air (thanks to Radio Veritas), we are clearly much more alone than in pre-Covid times. And even in those intervals when we have been allowed to enter a church, we have had to sit far apart from other people, replacing the warm handshake of peace with an insipid smile of greeting between semi-masked faces.
There are some up-sides, however. For some Catholics this has been a chance to rediscover the universality of the Church: to be truly catholicos. If my local church is not streaming Mass, I am only a click away from one in a different part of town; if my local priest has nothing new to say, I might be able to find a richer sermon in another city; if I feel like experiencing a Mass in a different country or even in a different language, it is no harder than “going to” my local church.
My own mother, in her 80s, has enjoyed online Masses as a way of connecting with churches she remembers from her childhood in India.
Moreover, when my family have had major celebrations — a birthday or a death anniversary — I have been able to “join” my parents at the same Mass at their local church, 5km from their home and 12005km from mine. I know that, while feeling the loss of not having proper funerals, many have found the benefit of technology connecting us with people who share our grief but live in other parts of the world.
Beware of aloofness
However, these small advantages are not enough to compensate for our physical presence at Mass. Of course, we miss Communion in the sacramental sense. Covid protocols create space for our silent communion with God; but we have to work hard to make sure we do not neglect the communion with others that is also essential. If we do not, then “alonenesss” can become “aloofness”. St Augustine defined sin as being turned in on myself (incurvatus in se). Lockdowns can encourage this in us if we do not act to counter it.
How we address this will vary between people and circumstances. For those who can move around safely and are at a lower risk, volunteering in the community has become an outlet. In this past year, at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, we have seen many new volunteers who want to do something which takes them out of their bubbles and helps them give back to others.
For those for whom that is not possible, making a donation or organising a quirky online fundraiser has enabled them to show that they remain connected. All of us have the chance to read more, to learn more, to talk to more people: to expand our horizons so that it is God and others who are the centre of our world and not ourselves.
At time of writing, it is far from clear if we will be back in our churches for Holy Week. We could give up and accept that our faith has been reduced to a spectator sport: armchair Catholics just “watching” the services like some kind of sacramental Netflix. Or we could invest energy and spiritual power in using this time to witness — to whomever we can connect with — Christ’s journey towards his death and resurrection. It might be online; it might be a conversation with a neighbour; it might be a phonecall to someone who is alone.
As Christ hung on the cross he was at one moment completely alone and utterly connected to all of humanity. And, in his agony, he took the trouble to reach out to the two thieves beside him. In the same way, as we carry the cross of Covid, we might feel very alone but we also have a chance to connect with other human beings, sometimes ones who are far away, sometimes those who are very near.
We might be alone, but we are alone together.
This article was published in the March issue of the Southern Cross magazine
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