This past Sunday was the first Liturgy in my parish since our bishop (like many others around the world) officially closed church gatherings to the public. We are making do with a “skeletal” liturgy (attended in person only by our priest and cantor) and live-streamed to the rest of the parish (and anyone else who wishes to visit).
Although I firmly support social distancing measures and the decision of our bishop, I struggled with how the Liturgy might “feel” over Livestream. Not only for all the obvious reasons (no one is pretending that “Zooming in” to Liturgy is ideal or preferable over encountering the Liturgy “in the flesh”) but also because my mind… Has been elsewhere these past few weeks. With COVID-19 developments unfolding more broadly and swiftly than any news event I’ve ever lived through, I have barely had the focus necessary to read what I need to for my job. I can’t even sit still long enough to watch Netflix!
So how on earth was I going to settle down for a whole church service?
But standing in our icon corner Sunday morning, earbuds in, I was swept up in the flow–the journey–of the Liturgy. Zoom or not, I was surprised that in most ways, the Liturgy was still… The Liturgy. The same melodies. The same antiphons. The same forward-pulling tug–toward the front, toward the Kingdom, toward the next moment.
My priest had encouraged us to do everything we could to participate in the Liturgy from our homes, whether that meant lighting candles, singing along with the cantor, etc. Which is what I did, but not so much because I was told to. I sang because that’s what I normally do, and the Liturgy that morning felt normal to me. It felt like maybe the most normal thing that had happened all week.
The only snag was the fact that every few minutes or so, the Zoom connection would freeze up, sometimes for only a few moments, sometimes longer. If it were in the middle of a song or prayer, I’d stop what I was doing and wait for the connection to catch up before chiming back in.
Finally, we got to the Cherubic Hymn, something of a “halfway point” between the Liturgy of the Word (the first half of the Divine Liturgy, which culminates in the reading of the Gospel) and the Liturgy of the Sacrament (which culminates in receiving the Eucharist).
The arrangement our cantor had chosen that morning was one of the more ambitious ones from a musical perspective–lots of looooooong, undulating vowels sustained over multiple breaths. To be honest, I don’t really like that version. When I sing in our parish choir, I almost always get lost in the music on that one, swooping down when the melody goes up, breathing at points we were specifically told not to, etc.
But this Sunday, singing from home, I just sang the notes as best I remembered them. And when the Zoom connection cut out yet again, I continued singing into the silence.
It was bizarre and lonely, but also a little exilirating. I’m probably way off right now, I thought, but realized with a smile that it didn’t really matter. Our loving-but-persnickety choir director couldn’t hear me, let alone give me the Look over my missed notes (sorry/not sorry, Peter! 🙂 ).
After a while, the Zoom connection finally caught up, and when it did, I was shocked to find my singing to be exactly in step with the cantor. Not a beat or half note off. For the first time all week, after a dizzying onslaught of updates and disruptions, I didn’t feel like I was lagging behind or “out of it.”
It was a small but poignant icon, to me at least, of what it means to keep time in this strange yet holy season of social isolation.
We may feel like we are wandering around in uncharted territory. We may feel totally off kilter, totally out of our depth. We may feel absent and distant and isolated from one another, tiny islands in the inky waters of doubt and separation. We may feel like we are singing, or praying, or reaching out only to the silence.
I think, though, and I pray that one day the connection will catch back up with us. And we will find that we were, mysteriously and miraculously, in step with one another the whole time.
But to get there we have to keep the time. We have to follow the melodies and join ourselves to the prayers and be, in every way we can, participants in this tradition of ours–not spectators. It will hold us, and it will keep us, if we let it.
If your church is not livestreaming services, feel free to join us at Holy Myrrhbearers Orthodox Mission Church (Toronto)! We have services nearly every day of the week. Zoom info in our most recent newsletter (Fr. Geoffrey uses the same meetin coordinates for every service to keep it simple). Make sure to sign up for the newsletter, too, since developments around COVID-19 are happening quickly and this may affect service offerings.
If your church is livestreaming services, or you’ve been given some other specific advice by your priest (e.g. to read the reader’s service with your family), I highly recommend sticking with your local parish. Now more than ever, we need to join with our local communities in prayer and to be clued into the needs of those around us.