“I Am There among Them”: The Grief of Simulacrum and Other Lessons from Pandemic Worship
There’s a feeling that I’ve been struggling to grasp and articulate for months as this pandemic has dragged on, like the weight of a wet sweater. It comes after worship, usually —virtual worship these days—or sometimes while getting ready for an online service to begin. In recent weeks I’ve been grateful for friends, as well as students here at Eden Theological Seminary, who have helped me begin to find language for what we are sensing in relation to our worship.
Ever present, of course, has been the overarching sense of grief and despondency writ large in our lives by the pandemic itself: the loss of so many loved ones and community members, the exhaustion of adaptation, isolation, and financial strain. The daily tears of frustration, both from front line workers on the news and from those for whom the glaring disparities in life expectancy between rich and poor, between white-bodied people and people of color, have come crashing in upon them. Certainly, that is part of what all of us are feeling, nine months in.
More specifically, though, I’ve noticed a particular sensation of loss, a sense of insufficiency or lack, in relation to our worship. Here at Eden, we shared 19 chapel services in the spring after the campus went virtual, and then 50 more, four days a week, during the fall semester. Even when things went well, which they often did, I noticed the experience was always tinged with melancholy. Back at the end of the spring semester, when we stopped to reflect, we thought it was primarily the loss of normalcy we were noticing: people missing the familiarity of the chapel space and the disruption of routine. We pushed for more creativity, we decided to make the fall semester an experiment, choosing four different types of services on different days to see what would work. When we gathered to reflect at the end of the fall term, there was a bit more clarity, something more fundamental that we noticed, something not so easily lifted with creativity and a can-do attitude.
You may decide that I am wrong: that I am only stubborn, or perhaps losing my youthful ingenuity, that I am refusing to look on the bright side or see new vistas opening before us. I have both heard and read the excitement of those who have been waiting for virtual church to come into its own. And there is an upside, assuredly. The surge of online worship services, both polished and home-brewed, have connected local congregations with many people who could not or would not darken the door of a church. We at Eden have connected with our alumni around the globe, and have had rich conversations about what it means for Christian public worship to be more, well, public. There were some holy moments in all those chapel services on Facebook Live and Zoom. Even so, the heavy feeling doesn’t go away when the service is over.
Those of us who are song leaders have spent countless hours learning how to edit video in Final Cut Pro, and to play the hymns alone on Wednesday so they’ll be ready for the weekend, and to lead singing on Zoom with people we can’t hear. Even so, we live with the constant sorrow of partial failure. There is a part of us that knows how few people are really singing along, and how even fewer come to the end of the song without hearing the echoes of those days when our voices rippled across each other, creating something new and profound in the air. We hear the absence of shared sound, and shared breath—yes our actual breathing together was part of what drew us out of ourselves and nourished our spiritual hunger. Those of us who lead the church’s song have been glad of whatever solace the music brings to people in isolation, but these days we must carry the ache of insufficiency as part our vocation.
Those of us who have struggled to plan and preside at Holy Communion, or even participate, know a similar ache. Church leaders, scholars, and ecumenical councils have spent countless hours deliberating how virtual Communion should be done, and what counts as valid. Here at Eden, faculty members were invited to follow their own traditions and their own hearts during our weekly service of Word and Table. Sometimes they asked people to bring their own elements to their computer screens. Sometimes they offered prayers of hunger and longing, looking forward to a time when we can gather again. Sometimes they went in different directions altogether, asking community members to post in the chat what they imagine for the banquet of the Beloved Community, or to send in pictures of themselves voting, later shared in a slide show. In every case, at least some of us were left with a mixture of gratitude and melancholy—frustration even, that our efforts to commune with God and each other left us feeling both spiritually connected and reconfirmed in our isolation and hunger.
You may choose different language to describe what you feel. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. I’m going to call it the grief of simulacrum: an amalgam of sorrow and longing that comes from being asked to play along, to enter into worship services and act as if an approximation of embodied, communal worship is the same, or better, or enough. By using “simulacrum” I am trying to be honest about aspects or acts of worship that try to be something they only approximate. I mean to draw out the lurking sense that in virtual worship we are often asked to agree that we are still sharing food, or still singing together, or still praying together when we are not actually doing so. Where before a friend of mine said the Lord’s Prayer in unison with others, now she watches a cute child of her congregation recite the prayer on screen, struggling to actually pray without lapsing into passive viewing or just settling for cuteness, but wanting to play along and act as if it’s the same. This kind of pretense is enervating for worshipers and worship leaders alike.
The feeling is even more pronounced when we try to enter into worship that has been recorded earlier and posted online. The act of trying to pretend that we are actively worshiping together with liturgical leaders, knowing that they actually prayed days ago and are home watching with us or doing something else altogether, wears me out. I know that not everyone feels that way, and I know that pressure for higher production value has pushed many churches toward recorded services. I applaud everyone’s efforts and continue to root for every one of you when I see your services posted. Really. I just find it numbing to keep playing along.
There is also a particular weariness that comes from months of trying to pretend that we are helping to make manifest the gracious presence of the Divine among us, as Gordon Lathrop would say. Virtual togetherness without actual bodies in a shared space may still create feelings of comfort and community, but for me it lacks the particular kind of “Spirit-in-the-space-among-us” for which our souls hunger. There’s a reason that Judith Kubicki and others write at length about the sacramentality of the assembly. The experience of God’s presence in our midst matters for our spiritual well-being.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” says Jesus in Matthew 18, “I am there among them.” (NRSV) There is something crucial to Christian practice about experiencing the Holy in our midst. In addition to the familiarity of the Divine within our own consciousness, in the private worship of our own thoughts, and in addition to the encounter with the Divine beyond us in the beauty and expansiveness of creation, communal worship offers us a particular sense of the sacred for which I have yet to find a substitute. When we meet virtually, there’s an important sense in which the Divine is present in all the places where we are, but the “God among us” becomes a well-meaning contrivance. The language of virtual shared space can’t be pressed too hard. We call it a space in order to try to describe the nature of our connection, our togetherness, but it’s a metaphor: a way of conceptualizing what we are sharing. It’s simulacrum.
Not the least, the way of Jesus necessitates a deep engagement with actual bodies. The one who chose to touch lepers, who shared a table with tax collectors and sinners, who let a shunned woman anoint his feet, and did so in order that the Beloved Community of God might come near. The basileia he proclaimed was not just an ideal. It was a matrix of practices and relationships that worked constantly toward open meal sharing, sabbath economics, bodily nurture, and an expansive welcome into prayer, all of which lifted participants temporarily out of the framework of oppressive societal practices that structured their lives. (See Recovering Communion, p. 171.) The earthy, practical mode of faith handed down to us continues to call us toward embodied, communal worship, not away from it.
My family lost my father this November. That is a source of grief as well. If ever there was a year when it would have helped to gather as an extended family, this was it. We all agreed, though, that it was safer for everyone to wait and gather after the vaccine had been rolled out, maybe late summer. Imagine my surprise, then, as I watched literally millions of Americans choose to ignore the warnings of the CDC and travel for the holidays. “What drove them?” I wondered. Why would people risk so much in order to share time, and space, and a table with the people they considered to be family? What is it about being physically in the same place, sharing holiday celebration, that matters so much? When it really mattered to them, ill-advised or not, video chat would not suffice. People were driven to be together with their families of blood or choosing. That has been an important lesson for me.
I am hopeful that the vaccines will succeed at keeping the virus at bay, allowing us to gather again, cautiously at first, but then perhaps with greater abandon and joy. I don’t know how much of our worship will return to pre-pandemic “normal” (if we would even want it to), but I look forward to the day that we can gather in person again, be it in parks, or sanctuaries, or the seminary chapel. I will take many lessons with me from our worship in a time of COVID. Here are just a few that I will carry with me based on the ongoing sense of grief and longing I’ve tried to name here.
- I will continue to strive for ritual honesty in my planning and leadership of virtual worship. Virtual worship has been around for a while, and it will certainly continue—and most likely continue to expand. Still, worship in Spirit and in truth requires ritual honesty about what we are actually doing, and where we actually are, and what can and can’t happen when we are not able to be physically together for worship. As far as it is up to me, I will not say that we are sharing food when we are not. I will try to speak honestly about how we are together. I will give thanks for the deep communion that all things share in God, but still pray for the day when we can celebrate Holy Communion together.
- The body has deep ritual needs related to physical space, proximity, touch, sound and healing. We may act nonchalant about that when we are extolling the benefits of online worship, but we ignore these needs at our peril.
- Christian public worship, the public worship of local congregations, will benefit from continually asking how we can make our worship more public, more porous, not just welcoming but actually for the broader community as well as those who already attend.
One last thing: keep going. To all of you who are still getting worship done every week, still recruiting and recording volunteers, still learning new software, and drawing from the bottom of the well to bring energy, and hope, and an openness to the Spirit for your virtual worship, you are my heroes (all genders intended there). You demonstrate more leadership and tenacity than I feel at times, and you continue to inspire me to keep showing up. Blessings.