Grief and Gifts in the Pandemic
I remember, as a young person, being given a book filled with short facts about human beings, most of which I can’t recall. The one piece that I remember was about how people get dressed in the morning. The book observed that most people follow a routine when getting dressed. The routine is different from person to person, but you probably always put either your left or right sock on first. I had never thought of this and began to pay attention. Sure enough, I always put my left sock on before the right. (Still do!) I remember this bit of trivia because it was the first time it had been pointed out to me that humans are creatures deeply invested in habit and routine, even routines and habits that we don’t realize we’ve created for ourselves.
When our routines are disrupted or ended, it’s a difficult thing. Giving up habits that we’d rather not have or instilling ones we’d like to have requires immense willpower and discipline. When routines we enjoy, appreciate and love are suddenly taken from us by circumstances beyond our control—like our corporate worship as a church being suspended and disrupted by a global pandemic—it’s more than difficult. It’s a deeply-felt loss and something that we grieve.
Our worship is a series of structured routines. The structure of our offices and sacramental rites, the structure of our liturgical seasons and the sanctoral cycle, even the structure of rites like baptisms and funerals which mark milestones in life, are familiar ceremonies into which we slip, led to the places where we expect to meet God in particular ways. The familiar structure helps us to readily teach new friends and family our traditions, but it also offers us a lifeline to hold on to in times of great sorrow, tumult, or joy when we cannot give our entire focus to worship. All of this familiarity and the comfort that it offers was taken from us in mid-March and, even in those communities who have returned to some manner of in-person worship, it’s not “back to normal”.
The specifics of what we miss and what we grieve are, obviously, different for everyone and very personal. We grieve the opportunity to regularly participate in corporate celebrations of the sacraments and other important ceremonies. There are a great many baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other important events which have been put on hold indefinitely, waiting for a time when the community can gather to observe them properly. We feel the loss of familiar rites of healing, of spiritual nourishment, and the many “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” that we have come to think of as readily available as we need or desire. We long for our ceremonies. We grieve the loss of making music together, especially singing. Familiar tunes which bring so readily to mind lyrics that speak of our faith. Psalms and songs which speak truths about the lives of the People of God in all times, drawing us into solidarity with all of those who have sung them before us and those who will sing them long after we are gone from this life. We long to sing together again, as the Body of Christ, emptying ourselves of the breath of life to create beauty, in which God is met and which restores the spirits of those who hear. We long for our music and singing together.
We grieve our time together, as friends, neighbours, and family. I was recently speaking with an acquaintance and asked how they were doing in the absence from regular church services. They replied, “You know, in all of this time away from church, I’ve realized that I’m not as religious as I thought. Not very religious at all, actually. But I really, really miss seeing my friends.” I was a little surprised at this. Not at what they said, but that they were so very honest about it! However, it is a good reminder that church does not end with the liturgical dismissal. It carries on into the greetings in the narthex, the hugs and shaken hands, the exchange of news and well-wishes, the pouring of coffee and sharing of lunch, and pours forth with the people of God out into the world. The commitment of the members of the Body of Christ to one another, exercised in the liminal space of parish hall fellowship after the liturgy, is so important to our formation as disciples. We long for our fellowship.
These past months have not been entirely times of loss and grieving. We have also discovered gifts in the storeroom, new and old. Some have discovered or remembered or been shown the importance of a home prayer tradition. The rhythms of prayers before meals, prayer in the morning and evening, prayer and reading scripture with family members have become more important foci for lives of faith. New rhythms of prayer are gifts.
New ways of worship as congregations and as a diocese have come to light. The incorporation of recorded and live streaming liturgies, offices, prayer services, bible studies, and discussion groups have pushed us as a church. Pushed us toward important discussions about our worship, pushed us to greater visibility (and vulnerability) in the world, and have opened the possibility of connections in worship with people at great geographical distance. New ways of worship are gifts.
The important ministry of intentional connection has been adopted and strengthened by so many. Phone calls, emails, Zoom meetings, and even conversations across physically-distanced lawns have been drawn away from the realm of happenstance and been made into intentional, deliberate connection-making moments between members of the Body. This intentional, deep connection making—asking “How are you?” as more than a way of opening a conversation—is a gift.
The future remains uncertain. We don’t know when things will truly get “back to normal” and there is a strong possibility that the new normal won’t be exactly like the days before this pandemic. As we establish new habits and new routines, we will grieve that which we lost. But we will also celebrate the new gifts we have been given, reminders that we are loved by a faithful God who blesses in abundance, even in the midst of our grief.
This article was originally published in the Rupert’s Land News.