By Mary Davis
Gatherings, liturgy, and rituals are paramount to making meaning, providing depth, and bringing direction for the events in our lives – and we need them more than ever during a pandemic.
We are approaching a holiday season like none of us have ever experienced, but we still have a chance to make positive memories. During biweekly support chats with healthcare leaders in our six-hospital system, several people said they were looking forward to the end of 2020 on New Year’s Eve. This thought spurred several of us to create rituals for the whole system to say goodbye to 2020’s challenges – and to retain some of its gifts. In our pediatric hospital, we will have piñatas and refreshments in the last week of December for “Knock Out 2020!” parties.
At the majority of our other sites we hope to have rituals involving water bowls with dissolving paper to write messages to leave behind about COVID-19 (fear, changing protocols, no hugs) and keepsake boxes for what we want to retain (appreciation of family, slower pace of life). These gatherings, of necessity, will be small and physically distanced. Ideally they will also include ways for people to participate electronically, and many will be either virtually viewed or recorded. This is our present and likely future reality.
Physical distancing combined with technology has now become a common way for many Catholics to experience their Sunday liturgy. Previously, televised liturgies were mostly for the homebound. Now we make reservations to attend our own parish liturgies in person, and if we can’t, we attend through technology. The upside is that now we can participate in Mass in parishes anywhere in the country or even the world. At a cousin’s suggestion, I attended Mass in the churches of my parents’ childhood: where they attended high school, where they married, where I was baptized, and several churches overseas that our family attended during a military tour. This has greatly enriched my spiritual life journey.
Our CPE program went entirely online for classes when COVID-19 began. As we typically have a retreat day each unit, I debated how this could continue through Zoom. But I was determined to make it work. With intentionality, I put together retreat materials in boxes for each resident. As we opened our retreat day, each activity was in a separate envelope or box within the larger box, allowing for an element of mystery for our day. Some boxes contained objects for contemplation and sharing, other activities were YouTube video clips or songs we shared., One of the items was a liturgy we shared, complete with Communion bread that each person received, broke, and ate during our service.
We laughingly learned that song was best led by one person, with the rest of us on mute, until we all knew the song. We learned that gestures to songs helped us connect more vividly on Zoom. We learned that meditation times were deepened if we closed out our videos so as not to be distracted by each other’s faces or movements. All residents mentioned our Zoom retreats at the end of the year as highlights of their two COVID-19 CPE units.
We gave one of our residents and his family a baby shower through Zoom, inspired by a podcast from Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. She notes that any gathering needs to have a purpose/theme, and she supports having common objects, food, and drink to bring diverse people together. When we invited our Spiritual Care and CPE staff to the Zoom baby shower, we prepared small boxes for each person attending and sent them a pink party hat, a baby rattle, a Little Debbie cake and a baby shower-themed napkin. The family expecting the new baby girl already had 2-year-old twin daughters, and we all had fun shaking our rattles after the girls assisted opening each gift. We all ate our cakes when they cut their party cake. The family loved seeing all of us in similar party hats, and they felt less alone in their otherwise isolated time awaiting the birth of their child.
The point is that external circumstances need not impede us from providing opportunities for persons to be touched by presence and spirituality. This is how we continue to extend healing in challenging and uplifting times, and it is how we, too, make them meaningful.
Mary D. Davis, BCC-S, is the group director of clinical pastoral education for CHRISTUS Health and ACPE Certified Educator for the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System CPE program in San Antonio, Texas.