Who would have anticipated that we will be at this pandemic for 14 months and more?
By now, the novelty of watching Mass at home has worn out. In the beginning, it was interesting to see how different parishes put Mass online. Facebook Live? Zoom gatherings? YouTube videos? Basic cellphone video recording? Professional multi-angle videos footage with editing? Online screen prompts or display of responses and readings? With all activities came to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, there were plenty of time to think about baking interesting home “communion bread”. By the time the second lockdown came about, most “work”, but our social life, resumed. Work might just took on a different form. Some baking is still going on, but I am now baking the “essentials”. Literally…bread. And then…my family started having lower tolerance for terrible music at online mass. Perhaps, it would have been easier if the hymns were on screen or made available before mass for people to sing along to hymns or Psalm response. Unfortunately, I have only seen one parish that values parishioners’ participation at online mass this way. So, with the convenience of the mute button on laptops for live-streamed mass and the fast-forwarding mouse click for the pre-recorded ones, we watched mass online with less agitation. Click…problem solved.
Needless to say, Sunday worship is now a passive activity. It has now been diminished to watching an ordained person worshipping at the altar. The most active work on our part is really to scout for the online mass with homily that speaks to us best. We have a choice! Some live streamed mass allows parishioners to greet and chat with one another. Although this allows some sense of community, the chats online during the live stream are also distractions to our worship.
I am writing all the above not to dismiss the genuine efforts of many clergies trying their best to keep the parish alive and to serve the parishioners. They have been trying and working very hard…and without technical training or formation for Online Ministry. The reality is that this challenging time prompts us to constantly re-examine how the baptized worship and why we worship in a certain way.
I was reading Robert Johnson’s book on Inner Work and there was a passage that talked about rituals.
It led me to remember the times when I was fully engaged in playing a piano piece. The last time I played the melancholy Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2 for friends after dinner, there was a long moment of silence, and I had goosebumps all over. It was a transcendental moment. I neither remembered the mechanical notes while I was playing them, nor did I remember my own actions/performance. That was an experience of my body and my emotions feeling all the symbols on the paper! This memory made me realized how important it is for me to sing hymns as rituals.
For many years, I enjoyed the experience as a cantor at church. I was excited about the words that jumped out at me as I sang. I had talked about how the hymn lyrics were my first lessons in Theology. However, I have never considered how the rest of my body, other than the brain, understood those words and experienced those words. After reading the quoted words of Johnson, I now understand why I would shed a tear every time I sing the choral piece “Pray One Hour” by Paul K. McKay during Lent. A piece on Jesus praying in Gethsemane, asking the disciples to pray one hour with Him, for tomorrow He must die. Every time. And… that piece “The Summons” by John L. Bell? Every time after leading that hymn at church, I felt compelled to think of my works of charity and act accordingly. Will you let my love be shown…Will you let me answer pray’r in you and you in me?… Perhaps, this is the effect of muscle memory that we talked about in piano practice when you practised to the point that the fingers just move to the right keys even when your memory fail you. The body cells know what to do.
For me, singing the hymns rather than passively listening to the hymns mean that my body cells get to know and fully engaged in the hymn lyrics. That is the effect of a good ritual. Hymn singing is my ritual that allows me to have full participation in worship. This is something that I can do for #ChurchAtHome. For others, it may be dramatizing Scripture or taking an Awe Walk to have a transcendental experience. I am sure there are many rituals that can lead us to God. After all, God wants to reach all of us! It will be silly for us to think that there is only one way for the baptized to worship.
I am so glad that I still have all the hymn books with me after retiring from music ministry. I think I am going to try the ritual of meditating on the daily readings and singing hymns on my own for the while. Together with the experience of online faith sharing groups, I believe I get to worship and feel the love of the church community in the best way possible during this unusual time. I shall update you on my #ChurchAt Home experience if the pandemic lingers on.