Because my father died early in the pandemic, while much of the world was in lockdown, his funeral was a virtual event. The only in-person attendees were members of our immediate family who were in our quarantine circle. My brother lives a long day’s drive away, and my sister is on the other side of an ocean, so they could only be present via videoconference. As the cold spring wind blew across the country cemetery on the hill across from our farm, my husband and I took turns holding up the phone so that my siblings could participate in the burial ceremony.
In the weeks and months to follow we would all grow accustomed to virtually conducting the affairs of human life, from the solemn to the pragmatic to the trivial. Schools scrambled to make learning remotely accessible. In the local courthouse the officials established a system for hearing cases via videoconference. Families contented themselves with virtual tea times, game nights, and cocktail parties. Following the death of our father, my siblings and I would meet up weekly for gin and tonics via Facebook Messenger.
Some individuals were disenchanted with remote meetups from the beginning. Others quickly began to weary of them. Phrases like “Zoom burnout” and “virtual meeting fatigue” became commonplace, and articles circulated analyzing why virtual parties were growing less enjoyable. Deprived of face-to-face and physical contact, our highly digital society began to rediscover the limits of the virtual and the importance of real presence.
But even as people longed to be with their loved ones in the same physical space, they were faced with the paradox that loving and caring for others meant staying away from them. And some of us were already accustomed to being a part of a virtual church where we derived the bulk of our support and spiritual companionship from an online community.
Following the 2016 elections many Catholics across the United States began to find themselves at odds with others in their faith communities who seemed to see nothing immoral or un-Christian about lending enthusiastic support to a xenophobic and nationalistic movement, the figurehead of which routinely engaged in racist and sexist hate speech. Increasingly isolated in spirit from those who were physically present to us, we began to rely more on our online connections with others who were experiencing similar struggles and isolation.
I discovered the online literary community Sick Pilgrim around the same time I began publishing more widely in Catholic media, which was also the time leading up to Donald Trump’s election. Connecting with others who shared my concerns, questions, humor, and tastes was a lifeline during that time. The group hosted online vespers where different members led prayers, meditations, or poetry readings. We collaborated in producing written content exploring faith, spirituality, sexuality, rebellion, art, and ritual. When some of us finally met in person at a conference at the University of Notre Dame in 2017, it was exciting to be physically present with friends we had known, until then, only through the internet. It was also exciting to discover that we got along even better in person.
In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato argues that the gift of writing is a pharmakon—a word that can be translated as “drug,” and one that, like “drug,” can be taken to refer either to a medicine or poison. I’ve long held that the internet is similarly a pharmakon. It can be a medicine or poison. I found the healing side of that pharmakon in my Sick Pilgrim community. Then, the same summer of 2017, I also experienced the poisonous side, when I was subjected to a coordinated campaign of harassment driven by certain former academic colleagues in tandem with far-right media outlets.
The support I received during that time came largely from my digital community. People I had known in person for years, who had talked with me face-to-face, who had asked for my opinion on Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had come to me for advice on how to engage students, who had joked with me at Christmas parties, had turned against me. Others among my acquaintances seemed happy to pretend nothing was happening or that it wasn’t a big deal. But during that time my “virtual church” encouraged me not only to carry on but to do so with renewed energy and conviction.
Digital technology was a gift to me then, and it has been a gift to us throughout the pandemic. For all the limitations of virtual church, without it many individuals would have been subjected to two years of isolation, fear, and grief in near solitude. Access to online services was a much-needed spiritual and psychological lifeline at a difficult time.
But we must remember that access to virtual church for many is a lifeline not only during a pandemic but also on a regular basis. Those who are isolated, those who are homebound due to sickness or disability, those for whom travel is onerous and expensive, relied on virtual options long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. This is why it is important to keep virtual church available. Our collective experience of a global pandemic ought to have helped us better appreciate these alternative meeting spaces and channels for communication. It ought to have made us more thoughtful and empathetic toward those whose experiences are different from our own.
This is one reason I disagree with the view expressed recently by Tish Harrison Warren in her New York Times article, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.” Her argument rests on a premise that, pandemics aside, everyone has equal physical access to inclusive, welcoming, and safe faith community. “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people,” Warren writes. But this view discounts the experience of those for whom physical presence in church simply is not an option. Worse, it implies that those who rely on online church for spiritual sustenance—due to disability, sickness, or other concerns—are somehow “diminished” as persons.
The pandemic gave more of us a taste of what it is like to be isolated and appreciate digital connectivity. We should build on what we have learned.
The other reason I disagree with the perspective of Warren and others who are critical of virtual church is a theological one. While Catholic spirituality has always emphasized the importance of physical reality and physical presence, it also rests on a belief in presence made manifest in absence. The simple definition of sacrament as a “visible sign of an invisible reality” reminds us that we can be present spiritually with a reality that is unseen. Additionally, we believe that the church, the body of Christ, consists not only in those who are physically gathered in one space but in all of us baptized into the sacramental life, living and dead. Our communion with saints, our prayers for the dead, all hinge upon this understanding.
A virtual community that can feed and strengthen us should not be a foreign concept to Catholics who already believe in communion with a global church and sacramental presence in sacred spaces that cannot be defined by physical or geographical limitations. Catholics should not discard the tools for virtual engagement we relied on during the pandemic. Rather, we should explore how we can better use them to serve our community.
Image: Unsplash/The Good Funeral Guide