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The Trials of Returning to Worship

By Shirley O’Shea

It had been more than five months since I had entered a sanctuary when I returned to church. Before the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the suspension of worship services, I would drive 20 miles each Sunday to my church, Christ Episcopal in Cooperstown, New York, and then approach the sanctuary’s entrance by walking along a path that divided the church’s cemetery, with its 18th-and 19th-century headstones bearing the names of the village’s founders and of more obscure but faithful folk.

As I walked toward the sanctuary and its warm glow, a reverential feeling already overtaking me, I would listen to the bell toll, announcing the commencement of worship but also providing a reminder of death’s inexorableness and the hope offered by the resurrection.

When church services were suspended indefinitely, I assured myself the hiatus would not be for long. I watched the recorded Morning Prayer services posted by my priest on our church’s YouTube channel. But when I watched the Easter Vigil and saw my priest administer the Eucharist to his wife, the only other person in attendance, I felt envious.

As the days passed I tried to be faithful in private prayer, reading the Daily Lectionary, and sometimes reading Morning Prayer, the Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, but as the days turned into weeks and then months I perceived that the presence of God was becoming increasingly obscured by news reports of the pandemic and its politicization, the demands of supporting my son during home instruction, and my own needs – to exercise, to write and read – in order to stay sane as my and everyone’s world became more and more circumscribed by the invisible enemy.

Even going out into nature, which I am fortunate enough to be able to do with little effort, did not draw me closer to the Spirit of God as it had countless times before. The salt of my faith seemed to be losing its savor.

Although I appreciate the friendliness and welcoming spirit of the people of my church, my deepest relationships based on shared spiritual aspirations are with members of other Christian traditions. Nevertheless, the people of Christ Church are, by definition, my spiritual family and with them I participate in the glorification of God, the retelling of the stories of God’s actions in history to redeem humanity, the seeking of God’s blessing and the celebration of the Eucharist. In being deprived of all these corporate activities that enable us to receive God’s grace, I felt a spiritual weariness and an encroaching worldliness.

When our bishop said churches could reopen subject to a number of restrictions, I asked my husband if he felt comfortable with my going. He said he did not and out of a desire not to cause him undue anxiety about exposure to coronavirus, I agreed not to go.

But on a recent Sunday I decided to attend a small Anglo-Catholic church where a dear friend serves as priest. There were only a handful of worshipers there. The priest told me I would be safer there than in the supermarket, and indeed I did feel safe. But I also felt numb. I did not feel a rush of joy and relief at being back in God’s house. Instead, I felt confounded at the reality that we, the church, had not been able to be together for so long.

Why would God allow this? How could we be expected to continue praising God and seeking his will in our lives while being separated from one another, when Scripture clearly demonstrates that this has never been his intention for the church? All I could do, as I sat in the pew, and knelt, and stood, and listened, and prayed, and recited the creed, and participated in all of the other acts of worship, was acknowledge that I will most likely never have any idea why this separation of the members of Christ’s Body has had to be endured.

In our diocese, we are permitted to receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body at Eucharist, but not the Blood. How I miss drinking from the chalice. The warmth of the wine passing down my throat, seemingly toward my heart, is a spiritual tonic that reminds me of the cleansing that Jesus Christ offers through his sacrifice and his constant love. It is a physical reminder that Christ gives himself for me and the whole Church, and that the Spirit burns the impurities from us and affords us new beginnings.

I pray that the end of the pandemic will give the Church a new beginning as a witness to a world wracked with anxiety and isolation, even without the presence of a strange and deadly disease. I hope we are filled with a new courage to tell the world that God loves it and wants all beings made in his image to have full lives in him. May we, the Church, though the grace of God, be a tonic to a world that struggles with many maladies and desperately seeks healing and peace.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer residing in Oneonta, N.Y., with her husband, Geoff, and their son, Jeremy. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and newspaper reporter


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