The spreading novel coronavirus has forced us to dispatch with one ritual after another: school, the National Hockey League season, changing from our sweatpants.
One of the most ancient, sacred ways we know to come together is clearly out, too.
Next month, three of the world’s biggest religions will cancel services celebrating Passover, Easter and Ramadan, all of it unprecedented in modern times. Even Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, regarded as the site of Jesus’s tomb, has closed doors this week for the first time since the Black Plague in 1349.
This has got rabbis, priests, imams and ministers rethinking how to reach their flocks.
“It is not a Jewish thing to go off by yourself or to find God on a mountain top all alone,” Rabbi Daniel Moskovitz says. “Religion feels a lot better when you are not doing it in isolation. It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself.”
There is nothing natural about “preaching into a cellphone,” Rev. Anna Greenwood-Lee says with a heavy sigh. The Calgary priest feels as lost in front of the camera as she did 20 years ago, when she was first learning to deliver sermons. “I was terrible at it.”
Her son has some advice of his own: “Lose the serious face.”
At St. Laurence Anglican Church, Ms. Greenwood-Lee often sees people when the rug gets pulled out from under them – when they’ve lost a job, or a loved one. Right now, she says, the rug has been pulled out from under all of us, all at once, and we are all feeling off-balance. “It feels like being on a dark country road. We can’t see where we’re going.”
One day, she adds, “we will get home.”
She’s posting daily, two-minute sermons to Twitter; it’s her way of offering comfort in these challenging times.
In the most recent video, she urges people to shut off the news and try cooking a new dish, painting, writing, creating. “It’s a chance to wrestle our confusion, our anger, our anxiety into something beautiful.”
And yes, she smiles more, on her son’s advice.
Even the most digitally savvy preachers are feeling unmoored. “I’m a hugger,” says Mr. Moskovitz, who has been posting his sermons to YouTube for seven years, since moving to Vancouver from Los Angeles. “I want to hug people right now.”
The day the pandemic forced the closing of his synagogue, he broke down in his car and wept. Like so many of us, the Vancouver rabbi wakes to “thoughts only of exponential numbers, of my family sleeping peacefully, an unseen threat looming like the angel of death on surfaces. Did I touch my eyes, my nose, my mouth, did I wash my hands enough? Did they?”
Temple Shalom is running morning minyans, shabbat services and addictions recovery programs on Zoom, a conferencing app. But it’s not the same, Mr. Moskovitz says.
The experience hasn’t been all bad, the warm, funny San Francisco native adds. He thinks that more Jews observed shabbat last Friday than in any other time in modern history. “It was like the Messiah did come,” he says with a laugh.
For Catholics and Anglicans, the most central part of mass, the communion, when congregants take the altar bread, is clearly verboten. “Our sacrament is now in the eucharistic fast rather than the eucharistic feast,” Ms. Greenwood-Lee says.
“That will make it all the sweeter when we can take the sacrament again.”
In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Rev. Barry Morris is not able to shutter his church: Too many rely on the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry for its washroom and phone. The neighbourhood is now grappling with two deadly epidemics: the virus and opioids.
Mr. Morris knows this too well. Six weeks ago, his 32-year-old son, Eli, died from an overdose.
For the time being, he is allowing recovering addicts to meet at lunchtime in the church. The park where they used to gather for meetings is closed. They have nowhere else to go. He worries the coronavirus will hit the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalized the hardest. He will stay open for them.
All three preachers told The Globe and Mail they have been grappling with questions that have dogged saints and theologians for millennia: Where is God in all of this? How can a benevolent God inflict such suffering? And as the death toll rises from the resulting COVID-19 disease, and doctors are forced to leave some to die, why?
The virus is a “natural evil,” like earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, Mr. Moskovitz says. Human evils “we know what to do with; we can explain them as the corruption of free will. Hitler came from us, not God. Gun violence is our fault, not God’s. But what is the meaning of a virus?”
To Ms. Greenwood-Lee, part of the answer can be found in Psalm 23. (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”)
A “God who pulls all the strings is not the God I believe in,” she says. “God never promised to shield us from the shadow of death. God’s promise is that when we do find ourselves in that valley, he will be there with us.”
Crises also present opportunities, says Mr. Morris – to reconsider who we are, to become more self-aware, to be more loving, more compassionate. To him, the meaning of all this is that we must learn to pull together.
“People ask: Where was God in Auschwitz? God was in the acts of kindness, of compassion that in spite of everything and all attempts to destroy our humanity still remained.”
God did not rescue the Jewish people from the Holocaust, he adds. “People rescued people.”
God granted humans with immense powers of reason, intellect and collaboration, Mr. Moskovitz says.
“The virus is a test – not of God but of us,” Mr. Moskovitz says. “Can we pull together to fight this and subdue it, or will we tear each other apart?”