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 on days when I’m serving as Professor and Priest 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 always feels like a bit of a reprieve.
This morning, my waking thought 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. This particular set of beads were the ones that spoke to me the most as I strung them together; but it was only as I prayed over all those rosaries on Easter morning that I realized that they were intended for me. Sometimes we forget how to receive, particularly gifts to and from ourselves, and I was particularly grateful for that Easter morning 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 and racial disparities highlighted by this pandemic. I feel the grief, anxiety, and loneliness circling around me; I’m shaken by my own uncertainty all the while knowing that 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 we are each 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 in my teaching, so it was a gift that was easy for me to give to my parish. 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. Technology is method, not 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 my academic roles in faculty and administration. 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 when everyone is “shifting” to virtual spaces that I was already resident, inhabiting the virtual there. The first aspect of the St. Phoebe School to emerge…last year on the Fourth of July, to be exact…was the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe. Daily opportunities to pray together virtually were all ready to go when we knew we needed to physically distance. Now, those who are a part of the school and others gather synchronously every morning and we have become a community of mutual support. I can’t imagine starting my days any other way.
Priesting in pandemic reminds me that relationships…with each other, and with God…are what everything else is about for me. That’s not new information, but it’s uncluttered for me now, as my blended life takes on its own form. In the pre-pandemic “business as usual” other physical preoccupations…like which desk by body sat behind in which office at which time during the day…tended to get in the way. My vocational self has singularity of purpose now. I don’t want to go back to the way things were.
We say that 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 were blooms emerging where we didn’t think to look until we needed 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 secular 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 somewhat 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 “on the ground” that my learning and transformation in mostly virtual format were “real.” The doubt, the skepticism, the “but how can there be spiritual formation online” were a persistent drone, 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 trust online teaching as an online learner. 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 in my make-shift home office with cobbled together odds and ends of furniture, looking at my home altar set up on an old cedar chest spread with a decorative scarf. My computer rests on a tray table atop my bed where I also take calls for work, grade papers, and attempt to remain a scholar. My virtual background sometimes displays my academic office but today, it is a photo from last year, the altar at St. Mark’s set for Easter. I “see” myself in these places, and indeed, I am there. And I am here. And I am in the homes and places of the people who gather. It is is grace and relationship which makes this seemingly impossible connection possible, not just technology. I’ve learned to trust the technology of our age to serve as the invisible playground of the 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.
On these singular-of-purpose Sunday mornings as I gather with the parish I was called to serve, I know who I am. But I am coming to realize that I always knew. That is the imago Dei, the image of God that each of us bears in this world. When I pray as a priest, my hands extended as the Eucharistic prayer moves through us, transcending time and space, we are caught up together in that sacramental space where the physical meets the spiritual, transformed, that which divides and distracts us in this world falling away to reveal the essence of our selves, our individual and collective identity as Beloved.
Our physical distancing now is a gift borne of that belovedness: 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 a divine dance, carried through unprecedented times, marvelling in the mystery of how and why this virtual togetherness 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.
The essential is now.