April 28, 2020

by Silvia Gosnell.

Rarely does so much of humanity share such similar circumstances of external life as we do at the present moment. In the context of covid-19, our lives in the world are nearly at a standstill on a global scale. The exterior world seems to have stopped, with implications on many dimensions.


Christian worship is no exception. Most churches are shuttered; it is near-impossible to gather physically in community to pray, thank, and praise. As people who proclaim that God is spirit made flesh in Jesus Christ, and that each of us is a living member of Christ’s Body, we are disabused of any notion that the material presence of worshippers’ bodies can be neglected or devalued. Materiality matters. So what are we to do when our deep desire to go deeper into the divine life calls us to worship together in these times, when the physical space between us has become, of necessity, unbridgeable? Where is God in this? 


As the apostle Paul observed, we are constituted πνεῦμα,ψυχὴ,σῶμα: spirit, psyche, body (Thess 5:23). From a neurobiological perspective, the more we learn about the body, the more we realize how entwined it is with our minds in bidirectional ways; also, several studies have found significant differences in the bodies of people who pray. The state of a person’s emotional and spiritual life impacts the body and vice-versa: Interior life cannot be dissociated from the physical self. Internally as well as externally, we seem both to be made distinct and called to unity in every dimension of being, in the image of our triune God.


It is difficult not to notice that, whether by prudence or government mandate, these times lead us inside: into our interior spaces — physical, emotional, spiritual. As our physical movement in the exterior world is curtailed, we can sit more — and more deeply — with ourselves and with our closest relations. For many of us, habituated as we are to the incessant doing that our culture demands, it is an anxiety-ridden proposition. A cloistered nun noted recently that “People say that they want peace and quiet. Then, when it is thrown in their lap, they panic.” As a result, we sometimes flock online as a compulsive escape from the fear of simply being— of being inside and being with those with whom we share a dwelling place. 


Yet at times we also go online out of our deep hunger to go deeper into the life of the One in whom we live and move and have our being… the One who is love and, being love, is always seeking “the other.” Seeking us. We yearn to respond, to bridge the spatial divide and be in closer relationship with God and with our worshipping communities… so we turn to digital social media, and in the process encounter a great variety of worship resources available on the world wide web. But a question has been raised online: Is live-streaming a Eucharistic service “real” worship—or are we merely spectators watching a performance?


To explore the question, a psychologist might ask in turn: What is the underlying motivation? Two persons behaving in the same way (externally) might have vastly different intentions (internally). Whether in a church building or online, some worshippers may be physically present by social obligation, others through a sense of duty, yet others drawn by love and desire for God and Christian community. The truth is inside. Even under normal circumstances, one can easily be a spectator rather than a full participant in worship, perhaps even going through the external gestures and motions without any interior engagement.


Of course, material and ritual dimensions are by no means unimportant; when we worship, the inner-and-spiritual finds expression in the physical-and-external, which in turn sustains our interior life with God. The Song of Songs expresses the human-divine relationship as an encounter between lovers;  in an intimate relationship there is no substitute for a full encounter — physical, emotional, spiritual — of lovers who desire each other: the encounter that renders visible and material the unity of self and self-with-other to which we are called. And yet when necessity (not choice) demands physical separation, the emotional and spiritual dimensions are able to hold the relationship if those interior elements have been nurtured and developed. Even if not expressed through material physicality, the relationship with the lover is alive, sometimes more readily through the mediation of technologies (pen and paper, telephone, digital media). The Holy Spirit — the Love between, per Augustine — bridges the space (Rom 8: 26-27).


Yet of course we embodied human beings are not immune to the effects of physical absence. When we worship online, the lack of physical presence of fellow worshippers in shared space challenges the immediacy of our sense of being gathered together as one Body. We cannot see our brothers and sisters in the congregation, hear them when we sing together, touch them as we exchange the peace. This sensory deprivation can and does evoke a sense of aloneness foreign to our usual experience of worship as the Body of Christ. We come into heightened awareness of the physical space between us and the impossibility of bridging it at this time in the visible realm. We are confronted with absence. Lack. Loss. Emptiness. Mourning and grief, even, as we join with the pain of the world, and as some of us have already lost friends and family members to covid. In the face of loss, our culture, so oriented toward having and doing, primes us again to respond by turning away — indeed, by running away — in a manic defense against the fear that the emptiness will consume us.


The lived experience of Christians over centuries points to a different response. If we can bear the emptiness and don’t rush to fill it …  if we can lean in to God and trust in the reality of things invisible … then our emptiness creates the interior room — the soul space — for the Holy Spirit to move in. And God will fill the empty spaces.


In anxious times such as these, though, it can be hard to trust fully in what we, in our diverse Christian communities, profess in the Nicene Creed: that God is maker of things visible and invisible, of all that is seen and unseen. Faced with our physical separation, worshipping online in these covid times can lead us to the notion — to the cognitive illusion — that we stand merely as individuals in worship because we stand alone in a room at a given time. From a psychological perspective, the illusion represents our near-universal tendency, in moments of stress, to regress to earlier stages of psychic development. Much like a young child who believes that the “other” has vanished when they move out of sight, or a psychotherapy client who imagines that the relationship with the therapist evanesces when the therapist goes on vacation, when pressed internally by anxiety or fear we collapse interior emotional and spiritual experience — held in the symbolic realm — into the sensory and concrete: “I’m all alone here in worship because I can’t see or hear my fellow worshippers.” Of course it is not true.


Peter Damian, the 11th-century monastic, responded to a question from brother hermits who wondered whether they should use the “We” of liturgical texts while praying alone in their cells. They wondered if “I” might be more appropriate, given that they stood alone. Damian responded that they didn’t stand alone: The whole Church — visible and invisible, on earth and in heaven — is bound together by the Holy Spirit and joins with them (and us) in every act of prayer and worship. Nine centuries later, the philosopher and later-life monastic Edith Stein also perceived the deep interrelationship between the individual and the corporate Body at prayer in her work The Prayer of the Church:

The mystical stream that flows through all centuries is no spurious tributary that has strayed from the prayer life of the church — it is its deepest life … So the mystical stream forms the many-voiced, continually swelling hymn of praise to the triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Perfecter. All authentic prayer is prayer of the church. Through every sincere prayer something happens in the church, and it is the church itself that is praying therein, for it is the Holy Spirit living in the church that intercedes for every individual soul “with sighs too deep for words”… What could the prayer of the church be, if not great lovers giving themselves to God who is love!


If only we would let ourselves lean in.


Much like Miguel de Unamuno — the essayist who in 1900 counseled a friend to locate the whole universe within, so as to better pour himself out — we can discern an invitation for our own time: “¡Adentro!”  Inside!


In interiore hominis habitat veritas.
Epigraph to Miguel de Unamuno’s essay ¡Adentro!”
citing Augustine of Hippo



Silvia Gosnell is a clinical psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works with adults in English and Spanish. She is also a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, and in 2018 received the M.A.R. degree in liturgical studies from Yale Divinity School.