I Miss Singing at Church

April 5, 2020
Tish Harrison Warren, for The New York Times

The coronavirus crisis reminds us that we are bodies, not simply souls trapped in a mortal prison.

By Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
I miss things I did not know I would.

I miss people’s smells. Isn’t that funny? I didn’t know that I even noticed people’s smells, unless they smelled very good or very bad, but now that I have to talk to friends, family and co-workers only through screens, I notice the staleness in the air that comes from sitting alone.

I miss walks with friends, how I could look in a friend’s eyes and see light in them, not flattened into two dimensions. I miss the sadness or laughter those eyes reveal up close, the hard days, the mirth. I miss how we could note the weather together, complain about it, talk casually as we walked together, notice a new for-sale sign on a house or (yet another) new macaron place opening soon.

I miss idle chat with my barista — my favorite one, who one time when I mentioned that I had a deadline and was having trouble focusing told me that I could not have a refill of my tea until I had written at least 400 words. After that, every time I ordered from him, I called it my accountabili-tea. I miss asking him about his niece. I’m only about 90 percent certain of what his name is, but I know he has a newborn niece whom he adores, and I used to ask for updates on her.

I miss bumping into people I know and giving them a side hug and asking how they are. (I am a born Texan and we hug. It’s just what we do, whether you like it or not.)

I miss the congregation singing at the church where I’ve served as a priest for three years. If I could hear them sing this morning, I wouldn’t mind if the person behind me was off key. I would even take a whole load of my least favorite songs, the ones I find plodding or cheesy or overdramatic, if I could just hear them sing with me.

And though I’m an introvert, I miss gathering together, watching the sanctuary slowly fill, hearing the soft murmur of the crowd, the trills of children, the coughs, the handshaking, strangers sitting side by side, everything that is now most dangerous.

And I miss taking and giving communion. I miss seeing hands after hands cupped open to receive. Some rough, axel grease under the nails. Some smooth and manicured. Every age, every skin color. I miss watching their faces as they receive the meal together, how tired they look, how happy some of them seem, how a few receive the bread and then close their eyes and whisper a deep, earnest “thank you,” how certain parishioners cry every single time I give them the host.

God did not sic coronavirus on us to teach us a lesson; nor does he delight in the chaos and death it is causing. God hates sickness and death. But God also lets no crisis, no suffering and nothing in our lives go to waste. God is resourceful and takes it all as the raw material of redemption.

This time of social distancing feels a little like when my friend’s mom caught him smoking a cigarette as a kid, so she made him smoke the whole pack (“You want cigarettes, I’ll give you cigarettes!”). He never smoked again. And I can’t think of anything that will make us appreciate embodied presence more than having to forgo it almost entirely for a while.

The analogy doesn’t quite hold. Screens aren’t cigarettes. And even now, I, who am — to put it mildly — skeptical of our digital revolution, appreciate screens in a new way. Now someone in my house is on a Zoom call at any given time. Mo Willems, a children’s author who has been live-streaming daily drawing lessons, is the hero our family needs right now. Netflix (with junk food) on Friday nights is a moment of normalcy in this crazy, anxious time. And vital health and public-safety information comes to me now entirely through screens. That said, I think we all feel the glut of way too much of this good thing lately.

For Christians, the most holy thing on earth — more than communion, the Sistine Chapel, the Holy Grail or the Rocky Mountains — is the human body. This is, in part, why a vast majority of churches in America are setting aside our sacred vessels, bread and wine, and our gathering together to protect vulnerable human bodies. The church itself is called — what else? — the body of Christ.

The story of creation in the Bible reminds us that we humans are bodies. We are not simply brains on a stick or souls trapped in a mortal prison. We believe bodies and souls are inseparably entwined (which is why Christians and other religious groups care so much about eating, drinking and sex, not because we think the body is bad or dirty, but because we think it is mysteriously connected to our very soul, but that may be for another essay).

And we believe that God came not as a book or a codex of laws or as a hologram or a creed or an idea, but as a person in a body, Jesus. In assuming a body, God redeems embodiment itself. Therefore, we believe in the resurrection not merely of the soul, floating away to some ephemeral mist, but also of the body.

Before two weeks ago, it was pretty easy to ignore the brute fact of our embodiment. We can habituate ourselves to noticing our bodies only when we are counting up their flaws or trying to improve them, as though they are a beast to tame or marble to sculpt. Or we can be tempted to embrace the digital revolution so wholeheartedly that we prefer the company of an avatar on a screen over the ordinary goodness of being a body with other bodies. Or we can ignore bodies altogether, focusing completely on the life of the mind. Or more often, on the bottom line.

This virus has exposed that we have whole segments of society that do not have paid sick leave, and human resource policies and cultures that depend upon overlooking the pesky reality that any worker has a limited and needy body that deserves care.

We must embrace social distancing, for as long is as needed, to protect our health care system and the very real, fleshy bodies of millions of people. But we also need to collectively notice that something profound is lost by having to interact with the world and our neighbors in mostly disembodied, digital ways. This is something to lament and to grieve. And like all grief, it exposes the value and glory of the thing that was lost.

When social distancing is over, however many weeks or months that may take, I hope we each go get a strong coffee with a friend, go on a walk together and notice what a complete gift it is to do so — the remarkable grace of having a body alongside other bodies, on an ordinary day. What a quotidian, overlooked wonder we find in the textured tangibility of the physical world. And I hope that I, for one, never again take these ordinary gifts for granted.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America,
writer in residence at the Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh and author of “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.”
She is a contributor to the forthcoming book Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.