I miss God. I miss Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I wish I could tell you that the lockdown, and the suspension of public masses in the Archdiocese of New York, have proved spiritually fruitful for me: an extended Lent, a long journey into a spiritual desert that would allow the spiritually adept to take his life of prayer and contemplation to the next level. But I’m not a spiritual adept, and I’d be lying if I pretended this has been that kind of a dark night of the soul.
No, mostly I just feel socially distanced from the God-Man. I feel distanced from the Church he founded. And it’s as if time has lost that liturgical character that I found so sane, and so enchanting, when I became a Catholic more than three years ago.
Theologians will scoff at these gripes. They would note that the God who so loved the creature man he became one of us – this God would never distance himself from us, would never abandon us. Ecclesiologists would point to the lovely passage in Lumen Gentium which says that while the “sole Church of Christ” subsists in the visible, hierarchical church under Peter, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines”. Historians, meanwhile, would remind me that vast multitudes of our Catholic forbears were happy to take Communion just once a year.
The experts would all be correct, of course. But what can I say? Deprived of the fullness of sacramental life, and especially the Mass, my interior life has dwindled to a minimum somehow. Watching the Mass on a laptop just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry. I try to get my 3-year-old son to watch along, but he associates the laptop with his “Blippi” and “Peppa the Pig” videos, and it’s hard to persuade a toddler that we should instead watch this video with the “special bread”.
Worse, I find my fingers hovering, twitching, tingling over my smartphone, before eventually giving in and grabbing the damned thing, to catch up on my latest feuds with strangers on Twitter. Worse still – Lord, forgive me! – I’ve had to stop myself from pouring a glass of wine or grabbing some crisps in the middle of Internet Mass, because that’s what I normally do when I watch shows on my laptop.
What is going on? I think I know the answer. Anthropologists see Catholicism as among the world’s most ritualistic religions. Any religion, according to a well-known definition, combines rituals (systems of symbolic communication) with beliefs about the meaning of existence. Together, the rites and beliefs regulate our access to the sacred. Religion suffers greatly when the two elements are ripped asunder and ritual falls by the wayside.
As the liturgy scholar Uwe Michael Lang has noted, religion fuses our private, subjective experiences of the moment with universal, timeless accounts of ultimate meaning. At the Mass, for example, I join my sorrow over my sins to the Church’s public, canonical messages about sin and salvation. And that fusion takes place through ritual: I bow my head slightly, strike my breast three times and ask the Blessed Virgin Mary “and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God”.
What we are losing in the lockdowns is that public, exterior dimension of ritual. Yes, there are other channels for accessing that dimension: a friend recently asked me to pray the Rosary with him over the phone, and amid my spiritual aridity, it was as if the Messiah himself had called me. Still, there is nothing quite like the Mass, the supreme expression of the Church’s ritualistic genius. That’s no small loss.
All of which is to say that bishops all over the coronavirus-ravaged world must press to restore the sacraments as quickly and as safely as possible. Yes, the Church will persist without public Masses. Yes, God never abandons us. But the religious experience of the faithful mustn’t be allowed to wither.
Laptop Masses just won’t do.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and a columnist for First Things