Liturgy in the Time of Cholera

Matins: the view from my church’s Nest Cam. (I was praying in between screenshots—honest.)

This is not how I imagined my entry into Orthodox worship. What did I imagine? A slow acclimation to the chants, the sound of clanging censers, the smell of incense, the sight of the gold-hued icons, all the elements of a two-thousand-year-old worship tradition that seemed so alien to me at my first vespers service last summer. This vision of my journey into Orthodoxy was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Services have been available online for several weeks now, but this was the first time I joined my now-invisible fellow parishioners on the live feed (though, as my priest reminds us, the always-invisible Church Triumphant and all the saints are always present during Divine Liturgy, even in an otherwise seemingly empty sanctuary). I “attended” both matins and Divine Liturgy, which are currently made available to parishioners via YouTube and the Google Nest. If I follow the Liturgy on YouTube, I can hear every note and prayer clearly, but the video is heavily pixilated and the feed breaks in and out. If I switch to the Nest feed, I receive a clear, wide-angle view of the sanctuary, but the voices of the priest and chanters are obscured by background static. I opt for the Nest feed, which is more reliable, and eventually my ears adjust to the sound quality. Nevertheless, what seemed unfamiliar to me last summer (and had grown somewhat more familiar over the following months) now has been once again rendered unfamiliar by the live feed.

I snapped a photo of myself during matins. I am a full week unshaven; my hair has grown longer than I would usually allow. My eyes look tired, unfocused, passive. I am not as alert as I normally would be while standing in church. I am standing (and, I admit, sitting) in my home office. My desk serves as a cluttered “altar.” As a catechumen, I am used to following the rhythms and motions of worship by closely watching my fellow parishioners. Today, I frequently forget to cross myself at the appropriate times without my brothers and sisters in Christ around me. My cat joins me at one point, giving special resonance to the prayer, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” I open my window to let the fresh air in.

Top: I felt much more passive experiencing the Divine Liturgy over a live feed. Above: my home office “altar.”

Toward the end of matins, I begin to engage more fully in worship. The sounds become clearer, holier. We recite the Creed together and with millions of Orthodox Christians around the world. The sounds from outside my window begin to incorporate themselves into the service. I can almost smell the incense as the censers clang. The icons shine and assume a living presence through the live feed.

“Throughout history,” my priest says, “there have been millions of Orthodox Christians who couldn’t have regular Lent or Pascha.” Think of Lent under the yoke of Communism. Think of St. Mary of Egypt, who we honor today. My priest reminds us that she spent 48 years alone in the desert without attending Lent or receiving Holy Communion. We stand in special solidarity with them during this strange and precarious time.

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