In the movie Pig, Nicholas Cage plays a burned-out celebrity chef turned truffle hunter who lives off the grid in isolation in the Oregon wilderness. At one point in the movie Cage’s character reprimands another chef he believes has sold out his dream with the words, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”
The story reminded me of the early Christian hermits who, beginning in the 3rd century, went into the Egyptian desert to be alone and pray, because what they really cared about was answering the call they heard in the gospels to sell their earthly possessions and be with God.
Due to the pandemic, we churchgoers have been practicing our own form of self-isolation. Home has become our hermitage. The church is to be commended for its quick pivot to on-line liturgies. As a result, over the past two years, most of us have been able to worship on-line. As the pandemic changed, the churches pivoted again and again. Some met outdoors when the weather was good. Then there was a period of time when some churches were meeting indoors with reservations and limited attendance. After vaccines became available, indoor services were no longer limited, but for various reasons many of us continued to use the live stream option.
In both the case of Cage’s character and the Christian hermits, their lifestyles were marked with an intentional lack of self-indulgence. When I attended mass on-line, I generally had a cup of coffee in my hand and watched from my sofa. The novelty of attending mass this way wore off quickly. I soon found that only the first half of the mass -the reading of the word and the homily- engaged me. The Eucharistic Prayer and communion felt more like watching a play than participating in mass. I started leaving live streamed masses after the homily, and then skipping them altogether. With so little personal investment, I started caring less and less about what I really care about.
In Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, spirit and revelation break into the world for the greater part through an individual being immersed in private prayer. God speaks deeply to those who pray deeply.
Christian spirituality (and Judaism) agrees that to find God it is important at times to set off into the desert, or the forest, or simply another room – to find a private place to be alone with God.
But we believe that there is an equally important experience of God that can only be found in a group, in the community of faith. We don’t just meet God in the desert or in the deep quiet parts of our souls, we also meet God in the group, the community, the family, at liturgy:
“For where two or three gather in my name, I shall be there with them,” Mt 18:20. We not only show up for God; we show up for each other.
I went back to attending in-person indoor weekly Sunday Mass a few months ago. I’d like to say that it was an easy adjustment for me, but it wasn’t. I was out of practice. It felt more like returning to the gym. My pandemic self bristled at the fact that I had to plan for it, dress for it, and actually go. It wasn’t until last Sunday that I walked out of church and thought to myself that the ritual of going to church finally felt normal again.
We have a problem to solve.
Gathering together in social settings is something that the pandemic has taught us to cherish. But it has also taught us that we can do without much of what we did before. Live streaming mass has led us to see gathering as a faith community as something we can opt in and out of with little consequence. As a result, only about half of most congregations have returned to in-person services. The pews are bare.
Live streaming is here to stay. It is no less than miraculous that people across the country who are immunocompromised, or otherwise unable
to physically attend mass now have this option.
I have one friend who lives in a remote area
who tunes into a mass thousands of miles away because it feeds her soul. Senior facilities stream mass on televisions for their Catholic residents in their community room, and for those who are bedridden, mass is available in their rooms. My guess is that most all of these folks would give their eye teeth to be able to attend mass in person again.
It’s time for the healthy to go back to in-person liturgy, because that is where we Catholics belong.
See you in church!