How do you do church when you can’t go to church? Before the COVID-19 outbreak came to town, I didn’t realize how much of my spiritual life centered on going to church. Now, after two weeks of “social distancing,” it’s causing me to reassess.
As usual, my first reaction to social distancing was a wisecrack. Not a very funny one (which is also not unusual, but, hey, my sense of humor is what it is). Social distancing? I thought. Sounds like something a Norwegian Lutheran ought to be pretty good at. Just add a line to the Ole and Lena joke: How do you tell a Norwegian extrovert? Ya, he’s da guy dat looks at da other fella’s shoes in da elevator. Except now he vaits to take da next elevator, to maintain six feet of social distance.
Well, now it’s no joke. At the first of March I was in the hospital. Missed that Sunday’s service. Discharged Monday, and the home health care nurse told me not to go out while I was under their care. So I sent word I’d miss choir practice Wednesday and the next Sunday’s service. Two weeks later home health care is still ongoing, and I’m in no hurry for it to end. I’m still on supplemental oxygen, I’m in a high-risk population for the new coronavirus, and it looks like I’m facing an extended period of voluntary self-quarantine of … how long? Could be weeks, could be months. Who knows?
In the meantime my parish has suspended all face-to-face services and public events for … how long? Who knows? Could be weeks. Could be … who knows?
And that’s a problem. As Lutherans, we like to say we put our faith in Word and sacrament. Word? That’s easy to do at home: Read the bible. But sacraments? We have two. Baptism — that’s easy. Over and done with when I was a baby, and now it’s a matter of living up to the baptismal vows. Never easy to do, but you don’t have to be in church to do it.
But Holy Communion? It’s also known, depending on who’s talking, as the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or the Mass in a Catholic church. Or, if you spend your time researching Swedish Lutheran immigrants, as I do, it’s the högmässa (high Mass) on Sunday morning. I think it’s all the same thing, even though Lutherans, Catholics and Calvinists went to war during the 1600s over different interpretations of the doctrine behind it, and I would have been burned at the stake if I got on the wrong side of any of them. But no matter what they’re called, all these communion services are central to the life of a liturgical church.
And without getting off into a 17th-century theological briar patch about the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine (or grape juice), I think we can say they all require an ordained pastor to consecrate the elements — to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
And that I can’t do at home.
So what do we do if we can’t take communion?
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addressed that point in a pastoral video message on COVID-19 (which I copied to this blog a couple of days ago). She took on the tone and substance of a Lenten meditation, since we’re in the season of Lent anyway:
For the church, Lent is a time for more intentional practices of prayer, reflection, silence and scripture study. Circumstances now are forcing a change in our behavior. But let’s see this as an opportunity for us to to pause and reflect, to breathe, and to think about what it means to be the body of Christ. How do we stay connected when gathering is discouraged?
To her pastoral message, Eaton attached PDF files of worship resources and prayers, one of which is designed for “a situation in which a worship community may be advised against gathering.” It goes like this:
Gracious God, it is good for us to gather as your beloved in community. We treasure your presence with us in word and meal, song and prayer. Be with us in these days when gathering together as often as we would like is not possible. When we must be apart for reasons of safety, we trust that you surround us with your sheltering wings. Encourage us in connecting as we are able, reaching out to our neighbors in need and being persistent in prayer. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our constant companion. Amen.
So what else can we do at home? Well, we can pray. Better, we can be persistent in prayer. I like that. Persistent in prayer.
In addition to the resources on ELCA’s website, there’s a very nice collection of common prayers put up online by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Frankfort, Ind. One I particularly like is sometimes called the Holden Village Prayer, after ELCA’s Holden Village retreat center in the Pacific Northwest. At St. Paul’s they call it a “Prayer for the Journey,” and it goes like this:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.
The St. Paul’s prayer collection also has Martin Luther’s morning and evening prayers, along with the Lord’s Prayer and prayers for peace and healing. (Their newsletter, by the way, is called St. Paul’s Epistle and the electronic version is the (e)pistle.) Luther’s prayers, in the Small Catechism, were designed in 1529 for home prayer and meditation, and they’ve held up very well for nearly 500 years.
I keep meaning to incorporate Luther’s devotions into my prayer life. Perhaps this is an opportunity to finally do so.
There are other resources out there, too.
Father James Martin, SJ, editor in chief of America magazine and author of a popular Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, has been especially active in reminding his flock about them since the coronavirus epidemic forced many Catholic parishes to stop celebrating the Mass.
In a recent post on his Facebook feed, for example, he reflected on the assigned readings for the day (including the story in the Gospel of St. John about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well), and recommended “faith sharing” with others — “calling another person and sharing your experience of God over the week. Or talk about what today’s Gospel readings mean for you.”
And prayer. Always — I want to say persistently — prayer. “In today’s reading (Jn 4),” he suggested, “where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, try to place yourself in the scene imaginatively. Try some Ignatian contemplation.”
One of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, this form of creative prayer involves placing yourself in a scene from scripture and imagining how you would interact with Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples or, oh, say, the woman at the well in Samaria; perhaps because I’m a frustrated ex-creative writing teacher, it’s been a favorite on mine. (For examples I kind of enjoyed writing, click HERE or HERE.) The magic isn’t in the writing, though. It’s in the way that working out these little scenarios involves me with the bible, especially the life of Christ. What passages might work for a time of coronavirus? One of the healing miracles at Capernaum? I’ll have to think about that.
Nor is Ignatian contemplation the only spiritual exercise available to us.
An Anglican priest in New Zealand, the Rev. Bosco Peters, cites several in a post on his Liturgy.co.nz website, headlined “Coronavirus Solitude Self-Isolation and Spirituality,” and provides links below for readers who wish to try them:
You could take up praying the Daily Office (also called the Prayer of the Church, and Daily Prayer). You could try meditation (‘Christian Meditation’, or ‘Centering Prayer’). Or ‘Lectio Divina‘ (praying with the Bible); Or the ‘Examen‘ or ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of St Ignatius Loyola. There is plenty on this site about these disciplines and practices (use the search box), and you can search further online, or get a book about these practices to help you.
But I think it all gets back to prayer. What do we do in church? We pray. We sing and we hear the Word, but most of all we pray. And what can we do away from church, away from the hymnals and the pulpit? We can pray. Father Martin titled another video “What can Christians do in the time of Coronavirus?” His answer:
Remember, you are united with people when you pray, and the church is not a building. The church is a community, and you are still part of that community. So I would say, even if you can’t get to Mass, pray. And of course pray for other people in this time of need. Finally, and maybe the most important thing, is to remember that God is with you in all of this.