teresa-berger-sits-in-pew

Virtual liturgy is still embodied, says this Yale liturgist

Praise can reach beyond human bodies and church buildings, says Professor Teresa Berger.
In the Pews

As the novel coronavirus pandemic closed churches and moved Mass and other religious celebrations online, conversations started happening among Catholics about how to encounter God in virtual Masses. Is there a “correct” way to participate in digital Masses? Is it OK to celebrate with our dog or cat on our lap and a cup of coffee in hand? Is God just as present through our computer and TV screens as in Mass at a parish?

Teresa Berger, a professor of liturgical studies and Catholic theology at Yale Divinity School, says that “God is omnipresent. God doesn’t have any greater trouble encountering us in the digital social space than in a hospital room, a refugee camp, a middle-class parish in Connecticut, or in my own kitchen or garden.”

For Berger, the main question the pandemic brought up wasn’t how to enter more deeply into digital ways of praying—people have been doing that for as long as the internet has existed, she says. In fact, she wrote a book on the subject, @ Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (Routledge, 2018). The pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders just made us more aware of it.

Instead, says Berger, for her the inability to attend Mass was “above all else, a call to enter into communion with all created things.” It was a reminder that liturgy isn’t something that only happens for an hour on a Sunday morning, but rather is a practice that involves both our bodies and souls and allows us “to join in a praise that isn’t confined to church buildings but is there before I even open my eyes in the morning.”

What does it mean to say that liturgy is embodied?

None of us can enter into God’s presence as pure spirit, at least not on this side of the veil between this world and eternity. We all stand before God, and therefore celebrate liturgy, as embodied human beings. People do not leave behind their markers of difference when they enter a church door. I am not magically transformed into a person who is not racialized as white or who is not gendered at 9:59 when I enter church for 10 a.m. Mass.

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This has a million ramifications for how we think about liturgy. Some liturgists have begun to claim, somewhat daringly, that the basic liturgical text and the basic tool of worship—before we sing an opening hymn, before the priest opens his mouth or grabs a liturgical book—is the human body.

We all stand before God, and therefore celebrate liturgy, as embodied human beings.

Is virtual worship still embodied?

Yes, of course it is. Although some may argue that worship in digital spaces or digitally mediated liturgical practices are bad because they are disembodied, I think that’s too glib an argument. In fact, none of us can enter a digital social space without bodies. To be in a digital conversation with you right now, I need my eyes. I need my fingers to log in to Zoom, the space in which we’ve chosen to meet. There is no digital worship without bodies being present and involved.

What is different, however, is that the bodily practices and proprieties are different from when we gather in a brick‐and-mortar sanctuary. For example, over Zoom I might have the luxury of participating without shoes or in sweatpants. That’s a different way of being bodily present than in a brick-and-mortar sanctuary, but that doesn’t mean we’re not engaging in an embodied practice.

Some bodily practices that are possible only over digital worship can be forms of enriching the liturgy. My local parish still has no in-person Masses; everything is online. So, during the livestream Masses, I’ve gotten used to dancing during the Gloria. If I did that in the brick-and-mortar space, someone would probably call a number I don’t want to be called on me. But in the digital social space, there are freedoms of embodiment.

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That’s not to say that digital worship is better than in-person worship. It’s just not disembodied. It’s differently embodied. I think of worship and praise of God as something that extends way beyond humans gathering in a sanctuary.

Do you have any suggestions for how people can enthusiastically participate in virtual liturgy as embodied beings?

I certainly don’t have an answer that works for everybody. I think the answer comes from each person’s specific way of being in the world. It depends on your context: If you have seven children at home, you’re probably not going to get everyone silently, reverently kneeling for any amount of time. (You wouldn’t have it that easy in a brick-and-mortar sanctuary either.)

People have varying attention spans and strategies for how to keep focused. Everyone I know is struggling with this right now, and it’s not only in worship. I’m teaching my classes online this semester, and during the midsemester evaluation many of my students said that they wished they could find better ways of staying present in the digital space.

During the livestream Masses, I’ve gotten used to dancing during the Gloria.

Through trial and error, I have found that I can be present at virtual Masses best if I have something to do with my hands at the same time. I try to find things that are complementary to what is going on at Mass. My favorite example is that I try to water the multitude of plants that surround me: to do something that nurtures life.

I don’t do so well when I give myself a stern lecture about having to stay in place, focus on the screen for an hour, and try to enter into deep reverence. For me, that breaks down at some point. I do, however, try and follow the bodily postures of the liturgy. I stand when the gospel is read. I dance when the Gloria is sung. I extend the sign of peace in embodied ways too: I turn to the east to send peace to my son in Europe and north to send peace to a friend.

What I’m trying to say is that it is necessary to rethink practices that for many of us have been routine for many years. We sometimes think we can easily translate these practices into the digital social space, but life isn’t as easy as that.

Do you think the pandemic will change how we experience the church as the body of Christ?

I think the lockdown has opened up worlds for the Catholic faithful. A neighbor of mine who has lived in Connecticut basically all of her life has recently started celebrating Mass each week with parishes around the world: in Toronto and Washington, D.C. I celebrated Mass with Pope Francis at the Tomb of St. Francis on the Saturday morning when he signed his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship). That was deeply meaningful. And there was nothing I could point to and say, “This is great digitally mediated worship.” It was just a camera pointed at the pope.

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I was in a Mass last weekend that took place in the Ivory Coast and was live-streamed on Facebook, during which a friend of mine took his final vows as a Jesuit. Again, nothing about it was the height of technological achievement, but the joy of being able to “be there” and see him take his final vows transcended any of the quite basic technology.

On Sunday morning, we are entering into something that has been sounding since the beginning of time.

Catholics have a strong global perspective in our ecclesial DNA: We are not a congregationalist-only community of faith. But this has come even more to the foreground during the pandemic. Think of Pope Francis’ deeply moving Urbi et Orbi blessing: the image of him standing alone in St. Peter’s Square with the host lifted over his head while the rain came down. Millions of Catholics across the globe were present with him there in digital mediation.

There are blessings in moments like this: when it is hard to meet with your local Catholic parish but when you can easily join a friend in Africa or the pope in Assisi or Rome.

Does the necessity of virtual worship and changing understandings of embodied worship affect how we think of the incarnation—the idea that God became embodied?

When churches first went into lockdown and we transitioned very quickly into digitally mediated worship, I read a number of people who said that virtual worship was antithetical to Catholic liturgy because it’s disembodied, because it does not reflect the truth of the incarnation.

But I keep thinking that you could make the opposite argument. The incarnation is all about God rendering Godself present in the midst of creation and all its facets. And that includes the messes we create: global war, digital media, you name it. The incarnation can be interpreted to mean that God is precisely present where traditional categories suggest that God could not be present. Before Jesus’ birth, the idea that God would incarnate in human flesh was beyond all categories.

For the past couple of years, I have been thinking more deeply about what theologically can be called deep incarnation. This is the idea that God, in taking on human flesh, takes on not only human beings but everything created. One snappy way of thinking about this is that human beings contain stardust, a quarter of our genetic material is shared with trees, and we are hosts to a gazillion microbes. So when God becomes human, that must also mean that God becomes stardust and the genetic material of trees and microbes. God is not only human flesh like me or you but embraces all created reality from the stardust to the microbes. I have found that really earthshaking.

When I first came across this idea, I thought, “This is really alien to much of our tradition.” But over time I discovered that no, it’s not alien at all. Everyone knows about St. Francis asking Brother Sun and Sister Moon to join in praise of God, but there are so many more elements in the tradition that say a similar thing. For example, Psalm 148 imagines an antiphonal choir where everything created sings together in praise. Eucharistic Prayer 3 begins with the words “You are indeed holy, O Lord” and continues “And all you have created rightly gives you praise.” It doesn’t say “All human beings that you’ve created give you praise,” but “all you have created.”

I am not worried about us not being able to encounter God on Christmas 2020. God will be there.

I started thinking of worship not as something that begins at 10 a.m. on a Sunday but as something that began, as the Book of Job says, when the morning stars began to sing. When God created at the beginning of time and the morning stars began to sing—that’s the beginning of worship. On Sunday morning, we are entering into something that has been sounding since the beginning of time.

This doesn’t have anything to do with digital worlds necessarily, but it does have implications for how we move into and think about God in these digital social spaces.

Do you think the pandemic will change how we understand God’s presence in the sacraments?

Obviously, there have been vast constraints on sacramental participation and different constraints for different sacraments. I think the one that almost every Catholic has experienced is abstinence from eucharistic sharing.

I grew up in a home where both parents lived through two world wars. I grew up never taking anything for granted, whether it was access to food, freedoms, you name it. I have a Syrian friend whose family is currently in a refugee camp; before that they lived in a predominantly Muslim village in Syria. They didn’t have access to the Eucharist whenever they wanted.

As soon as the pandemic hit and life became constrained, I heard people around me say, “I have never lived through anything like this!” And I thought, “You must have grown up in very privileged contexts, because there are so many people around the world who do not have easy access to the sacraments.”

The ability to pop over to the parish church and receive the Eucharist is not how God has become present in bread and wine for much of human history.

After 2,000 years of thinking about how grace is mediated through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the church has very rich ways of theorizing how God encounters us in the Eucharist. The church has always maintained that there can be an encounter with Jesus, the eucharistic Lord, even if you cannot receive the sacrament as physical bread and wine.

When I attend virtual Mass, I usually say a prayer for spiritual communion at the moment the priest consumes the consecrated bread and wine on-screen. I know colleagues of mine, scholars of liturgy, who have anxieties around this renewed embrace of spiritual communion. I’m not anxious about that; instead I find the lure of wanting to encounter the eucharistic Lord and the embracing vision of spiritual communion compelling.

I know some of my colleagues are very worried—and this is a concern I understand and share—that something like a shared cup will not be convincing for a long time to come, because people will connect it too much with danger. But ultimately this is a minor issue. The question is really how this changes or affects how we encounter God in liturgical signs and symbols. I don’t know the answer to that.

Do you have any reassurance for people who are mourning the lack of in-person liturgy this year, especially around Advent and Christmas?

I want to acknowledge and live with the pain of losing beloved moments in the liturgical year. But I also want to acknowledge that whatever cultural warm and fuzzy feelings we have around Christmas, God becoming human and being born among animals was not a pretty sight. This Christmas I want to enter more deeply into that: into the communion of animals and angels who were there, but also into communion with all the beings who are outside the stable.

How to hold those two things in tension, I’m not sure. Maybe we’ll know more on December 26. But one thing I know: God is still entering into our lives and into this world. I am not worried about us not being able to encounter God on Christmas 2020. God will be there. God will meet us in our needs. What we can bring is our own searching for the spaces in which God, once again, comes to us.


This article also appears in the December issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 12, pages 16-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Courtesy of Teresa Berger