On this particular morning in the midst of our pandemic diaspora, I rose knowing to my core what day it was, a definite change of pace since generally speaking, my days seem to be blending into one another. Wardrobe selection is often a particular challenge for me because while my dual vocations blend in task and timing across my days, my wardrobe isn’t necessarily as flexible. But Sundays have a singularity in purpose, dress, and focus which feels like a reprieve.
This morning, one of my priestly thoughts was that I wanted fresh flowers for my home altar, but time and rain had finished off the last of the lilacs and flowering spring bulbs which I’d been replenishing since Easter Sunday. So, fully dressed in clericals, I went for a morning walk through my yard equipped with bud vases and scissors, hoping for some offerings of nature. She did not disappoint: soon my empty glass containers were filled with some variegated hosta leaves, spiked purple spiderwort, vinca with its green leaves and flowering periwinkle petals, and blooming white hawthorne branches. I set both vases of flowers, still wet with dew, on either side of the wooden cross my Dad made for me, one of the last gifts from his wood shop before that favorite hobby was too much for his health. That handmade cross at the center of my home altar is adorned right now with a set of anglican prayer beads, one of many that emerged from my hands on Good Friday as I rent my heart open and prayed. It was the only set unclaimed by someone after I’d extended the invitation to select one for me to mail; they were the ones that spoke to me the most as I strung them together; but it was only as I prayed over them on Easter morning that I realized that they were intended for me. Sometimes we forget how to receive, and I was particularly grateful this Easter for that reminder.
It has been a year this week since my father’s death (April 23) and very soon it will be the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood (May 11). Nothing about this past year has been ordinary, or anticipated. I’m profoundly aware of that reality in these days of physical distancing. I’m also aware of the heart-wrenching injustices highlighted by this pandemic; I feel the grief, anxiety, and loneliness around me; I’m shaken by uncertainty and know for some it borders on despair. These are real, human, and profound responses to this real, profound and unprecedented time. Some nights, I feel all this ripping my heart open. And I remind myself that the call to minister in this time of pandemic is not to try to fix, or to placate. It is a call to pay attention; to love deeply; to remind others and oneself of God’s loving presence in this particular time and place; to boldly live and help others live into what they are called to do.
I was still thinking about the unanticipated living out of my own call as I prepared for virtual worship today. St. Mark’s, the parish I serve, has lovingly started referring to me as the “Minister of Zoom.” This was a technology platform I already used fluidly; it was a gift that was easy for me to give. Like most of us, I could laugh or cringe at the recognition that technology is so central to all that we do these days. But that isn’t the real story. That’s just the method, not the heart. The heart is bringing who we are and what we know how to do in order to do the work we are called to do. The gift within being the “Minister of Zoom” is that through this shared experience I have unquestionably grown even closer to these beautiful people with whom I worship and serve…and we have all grown more aware of God in our midst.
It’s true in all facets of my life, actually. I realize more every day how deeply I care about my faculty colleagues and my students; those relationships are the core of all that I do. In this blended vocational life, I am also shepherding the emergence of the St. Phoebe School for Deacons, a new iteration of diaconal formation for my diocese and one of our neighboring dioceses as well. It is not lost on me during this time that the first aspect of the St. Phoebe School to emerge was the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe. Times to pray together virtually were ready to go when we knew we needed to distance. Now, those who are a part of the school and others gather for prayer every morning. I can’t imagine starting my days any other way.
Priesting in pandemic reminds us that relationships and prayer are what everything else is about. We know that, of course; but often other things get in the way.
No, we weren’t prepared for any of this, any of us…not the academy, not the church, not our society. But in these strange days as we grapple with new, pandemic realities of having to lovingly distance in order for the most vulnerable among us to survive, I have discovered there were roots of preparedness to do this work that had been taking root in my soul.
Like those flowers filling my empty vases this morning, there are blooms emerging where we don’t think to look until we need to.
As I strolled my garden this morning, discovering hidden blooms, I thought about the things that were taking root that I didn’t even see. When I felt called to the priestly life as a full time professor in a different field, I couldn’t imagine what seminary would look like. Much to my surprise, I felt deeply pulled to a low residency program where in-person intensives were matched with intense online study. To that point, I was skeptical of online learning. But the learning I received, in the format that I received it, utterly transformed me. At the same time, speaking truth with love: it was also an uphill battle to convince people that my learning and transformation in this format were “real.” The doubt, the skepticism, the “but how can there be spiritual formation online” was persistent, and I learned to anticipate it. Hear it. Hold it. Pray with it. And in the end, simply to live what my transformative experience was, and is, and communicate that with authenticity. It was challenging, and different, and new, and beautiful. I learned to pray across distance, time zones, and physical boundaries. I built deep relationships with people I saw rarely in a physical sense, but whose essence of person, intellect, prayer and persona I came to know deeply. I learned that physical contact was not a prerequisite for spiritual connection.
My priesthood, in fact, has uniquely emerged from that transformative learning.
This morning, I logged onto Zoom as the host and greeted my parish family with joy. I said a silent blessing on each person as I saw them enter, as they chatted before the service, and as I lined up the readers and the clergy and the singers so I could find them in the virtual dance of muting, unmuting, screen-sharing, chatting and praying together. I said loving hellos, and passed birthday wishes and inquired about the well-being of people and their families. We have people who call in on landlines, and participate by smartphone and tablet and camera-less voice…some who are in dining rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, others who have virtual backgrounds and cameras connected so that they can sit back and participate from comfortable chairs.
Behind the scenes, I sit on my guest room bed, looking at my home altar set up on an old cedar chest with my computer resting on a tray table while my virtual background displays the altar of our parish, set for Easter. I “see” myself there, and indeed, I am there. And I am here. And I am in the places of the people who gather. And it is not only technology but also the Holy Spirit who makes this seemingly impossible connection possible. I’ve learned to trust the technology of our age to serve as the invisible playground of the Holy Spirit who will and does create in us opportunities to love, relate and connect in ways we didn’t know we needed, until we needed to. And now, with new eyes, we are able to come together as Church in the world. It is changing us in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.
I recognize that there is conversation and debate in my theological circles regarding Holy Eucharist and Spiritual Communion. For me, on Sunday mornings as I gather with the parish I was called to serve, I am fed and nourished with the reminder that in God’s time and space, we have never left the table. We are being fed and nurtured as the Body of Christ that we have been formed to be. That is what I pray as a priest, my hands extended as the Eucharistic prayer moves through us, transcending time and space. I go back to that memory of priestly presiding, etched in my spirit, even as we worship now through common prayer and the Liturgy of the Word. The transformation is essential, and sacramental: it was, is, and will continue to be in the gift of our selves that we bring.
Our physical distancing now is a gift borne of love for each other, and the most vulnerable among us. Our virtual togetherness honors God who is always in our midst. We are held in the dance of the Holy Trinity who carries us through unprecedented times and with whom we marvel in the mystery of how and why this is working and burning in our hearts week after week. It is different, yes. It is challenging, yes. But it is holy. Like the virtual learning that formed me as a priest, our virtual worship forms us as the people of God who do not need to be bound by physical limits. We are discovering the invisible, loving, transforming presence of the divine in our midst. Our hearts are opened on this long road to Emmaus we walk together during this pandemic, and the recognition of Christ’s presence is burning within us as the scriptures are opened for us to hear with new ears. Jesus will be known to us, profoundly, when we gather together in physical space to break bread together again. And I suspect we will know with even more veracity the ways in which we have been fed and nurtured all along the way.
On this Sunday, my spirit is full and my heart is burning within me. I am renewed and reminded that the yes-saying of a soul to transformation by the holy is not a finite or predictable work. It is a gift continually unfolding, for times when it is essential.
That essential time is now.