If, in January, we thought that we had transcended the limits of our physicality, we know better than that now. All of the things that we’ve been doing to keep each other safe from the COVID-19 virus have been things that acknowledge our bodies: we wash our hands, we think carefully about how our bodies move through the world. Above all, we do not touch. Not, at least, carelessly. It is a kind of asceticism that with every decision reaffirms the reality of the physical.
But that asceticism is, still, pain. Micah Latimer-Dennis’s “Ten Theses on Digitally Mediated Worship” reminds us that the Zoom church experience that for so many of us has substituted for gathering on Sundays should not be comfortable. It should not feel normal. We should not get used to it, though we can be grateful for it.
A mixture of practical tips and existential meditations, Latimer-Dennis’s piece brings us back again and again to the place of attention in worship. The technologies that allow us to “meet” also tend to fragment the attention: true attentiveness has a bodily aspect it’s easy to miss—until you experience the difficulty of attending, in a service without kneeling, without standing to sing, without the kiss of peace.
“Before screens,” Latimer-Dennis writes, “we revert to the role to which we’re accustomed. We become voyeurs, critics, consumers. But worship is not entertainment: it requires an act of attention. And as Simone Weil writes, ‘there is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue.’”
But we must resist this. In the fourth segment of Breaking Ground partner Bittersweet’s series of interviews with Walter Brueggemann, the theologian notes that “the formation of a Christian person is a very slow process, and requires great attentiveness.”
Repentance, the topic of this segment, is a kind of attention: it is allowing your attention to be caught by reality, allowing yourself to be drawn out of self-deception and solipsism, drawn away from the excuses you make, and to see what is really there. In this week in which we remember the United States’ dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Brueggemann’s call to national repentance, and reflections on ways that we can personally reckon with national sin, is particularly timely.
We don’t make the world: we find it. Both the physical reality of our vulnerable bodies in a real external world, which has imposed itself on our experience in this pandemic, and the moral reality that stings our conscience and turns us around in the act of repentance, are uncompromising. And when those realities bite back, refuse to yield to our wills, it can be painful.
But that pushback from reality—physical and moral—is a gift. It is good that there is a world outside us. And maybe, in the constraint that we feel as we still reckon with the restrictions required by the pandemic, we can recognize the gift of that outside world, both moral and physical, which pulls us up short, imposes itself on us, and commands our attention.
Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.