Since the global pandemic began over a year ago, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations. For the next several weeks, we will publish pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad.
This post was written by J. Anderson, a writer in Minneapolis.
Early in the lockdown, when spring had begun to ruffle the flattened grass left behind after snow’s creeping away, I walked beside the remains of a lake with my dog. It was an hour after dawn. Santiago sniffed at bleached cattails as an eagle high atop a leafless tree watched the water eddying around them.
Above our heads, small, white clouds freckled the sunlit sky and moved with a vernal urgency, pushing new life forward. Around these clouds, the sky was blue. It was a blue so limpid, hovering above the field of tufted, old cattails and winter-worn reeds, that “blue” was not the right word for it. It might have been called diaphanous green. It was gold shivering a little bit in the cold, April morning. Neither precisely color nor light, it was sky as I had never imagined it, scrubbed of detritus and purely itself, a display so beautiful that, upon seeing it brushed over the dying lake as Santiago tugged at my wrist, eager to pursue the scent of morning, I began to cry.
It cannot mean nothing that God has taken us from our churches. In the mornings, I read the Old Testament, taking cold, dark comfort in Isaiah, in that God who is provoked to anger by specious offerings and performative rituals. I am not opposed to anger—in God or anyone else—to the value that it has, like that of a violent wind, in battering our bows to face the direction that we would not go.
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
– Isaiah 1: 13-17
For more than five years preceding the pandemic, I worked for the Church—first as a faith formation director and then as an administrative assistant in a judicatory setting. I am not insensible to the pleasures of church in its communal manifestation. I have been, in fact, the orchestrator of such pleasures, tasked with ensuring solemn assemblies. Voices calling to and answering one another in the spareness of song; a collective breath held as a sermon lands squarely; the scuffle and thud as bodies kneel to ask for mercy alongside their neighbors; the smell of meatloaf and the sound of clinking silverware as adults eat Sunday lunch and children chase each other around folding tables; the laughter, sobs, and embraces at a baptism that are not very different from those at a funeral; candles glowing on Christmas Eve—these scenes barely begin to enumerate the rapture of liturgy, of the ways in which it holds open for us the door to God.
It cannot mean nothing that God has taken us from our churches.
But when the earliest disciples asked Jesus how to pray, his response was one of the most practical, least mysterious exhortations in the Bible:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
– Matthew 6:1-8
What desire for convention, what horror of change, what inability to imagine the kingdom led us to codify this teaching in Scripture, and to ignore it, weekly, in practice? Cloistered in my home, I, too, zoom into online church. But I also, day by day, let the divine in the pandemic do its work. I sit in my room, and I think about what I have done. I come before God privately in prayer, my words scrubbed of intervention, in fear and trembling.
Wendell Berry observed that conventions are not reality. By convention, I woke in darkness and walked with my dog Santiago in the smudge of garage-mounted alley lights. By convention, I packed a cold breakfast to be eaten at my office desk and a lunch that might be heated in a microwave oven. By convention, I entered city streets at the same time as a hundred thousand other commuters, sitting with them at stubborn traffic pauses, exhaust pouring from our tailpipes, while those without employment held cardboard signs on the sidewalks beside us, asking for help. And by convention, I labored for eight hours in a cubicle into which only light bulbs shone, escaping as often as I could to walk to a museum filled with art, to a park filled with trees, purchasing a latté merely to pass a hedge of sparrows en route.
I lived my life this way because these are conventions that the Church accepted. By shattering them, the pandemic released me to sleeping until my body was rested; to walking in morning sunlight; to cooking hot lunches, praying at midday, napping in the afternoon; to unhurriedness; to an intensifying sense of being purely myself, like a dog whose delight in food and shelter, slumber and scent, is simple and satisfying and scrubbed of civilizing intervention.
I resigned from my job at Christmastime, as new life entered the world. I did so, not because I had been hired elsewhere or because I am close to the age of retirement or because I thought that my work was meaningless; none of those things is true. I did so because, in sitting alone with scripture in the quietude of morning, the voice of my soul became more discernible.
In sitting alone with scripture in the quietude of morning, the voice of my soul became more discernible.
By societal convention, we judge people by the work that they do, and work that is valued is remunerated. Scripture pushes at this judgement. Giving up my salary and my connection to organized church was a means of selling my possessions to follow Jesus. I have faith that my ministry is not among file cabinets but in giving voice to the sky and to the river, to the bees who are dying and the dandelions who are detested. I began, as a writer, to pursue the work of teaching God’s children that to muzzle a dog or stomp an ant underfoot is to fail to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and that to see life in a dead leaf is to understand Christ.
Two days after I wept before that ineffable blue sky, Santiago and I walked before breakfast. On the horizon above the trees, smoke from wildfires more than a thousand miles away obscured the city skyline like an abominable incense. We passed pine trees and railroad tracks and gardens with tulips, and we stood above a shaded creek where two gaggles of goslings made their way to the Mississippi River.
“Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life,” says the psalmist. Outside God’s courts, God is present. There is weeping in the night, and work to be done, but joy comes in the morning.