Smile Politely

When Faith Speaks in the age of Coronavirus: Judith Valente and Rabbi Alan Cook

In the midst of this third week sheltering at home, our family — like hundreds of thousands of other families across Illinois — received word that schools will be closed for at least another month. It has been a sobering moment to reflect on all that we are experiencing.

Yet, despite the fact that I was doing exactly what was asked of me: washing hands, washing surfaces, sneezing into elbows, cooking, cleaning, home-schooling, reading and writing, checking on family and extended family, I still felt that there had to be more that I could be doing.

The matter that has shaken me most is the fact that houses of worship are closed. I understand completely and agree with this decision, but cannot think of a moment in my lifetime when I couldn’t worship in community in person. What does this mean? How are faith communities managing in the wake of such restrictions? What are faith leaders doing and how are they making sense of this moment?

And then, that still small voice said to me: Reach out to some of those faith leaders you’ve been interviewing all year to see how they are doing.

Thus, by way of installments, I will share the responses of those who generously shared their thoughts and experiences of this pandemic. Hopefully their words offer opportunities for reflection as well as comfort and support during this time.

We begin with author and Benedictine layperson Judith Valente and Rabbi Alan Cook of Sinai Temple.


Smile Politely: How are you doing?

Judith Valente: My husband and I are both well, thank God. Normally at this time, I would be running all over the country giving talks, presentations, and leading retreats. Lent is always a busy time for me as a spirituality author and retreat guide. Because of the crisis, all of my many events through March and April have been canceled. So instead of being in a whirlwind of activity, I am using this time to slow down, rest, read, do research, write and prepare for the scheduled presentations I hopefully will still be able to give later in the year.

I just learned my latest manuscript has been accepted by my publisher and needs to be finished by Sept 1st so the respite from travel to be able to write is a welcome side benefit of this otherwise sad and troubling time. Writing is a kind of monkish activity so I am used to working in solitude much of the time.

I am also grateful to have my husband as a companion during these days. I was single for many years, living in a small one bedroom apartment in Chicago. I feel so grateful to have a home to be in at this time, and someone to share meals with and talk with. I especially try to check in by phone or text or email with friends who live alone. I know all too well the kind of loneliness that can set in, and the current situation must be very hard on those who live alone, especially in small spaces! I know that from experience.

A man with dark hair and glasses is standing in front of a wall length bookshelf, filled with books. He has a white shirt and black pants. Photo by Nicole Anderson Cobb.

Photo by Nicole Anderson Cobb

Rabbi Alan Cook: We are doing as well as we can, given the challenges of the moment.  Like most, we are adjusting to what it means to be at home constantly, to adapt to technology replacing face-to-face meetings, to balance work time and family time, and to stave off bouts of cabin fever.

SP: How has required social distancing and sheltering in place changed your congregations?

Valente: For more than a year, I have been attending the 7 a.m. weekday Mass at a local Catholic parish here in Normal. All the Masses were canceled earlier this month. There will be none of the traditional Holy Week or Easter services probably for the first time in the history of this parish and so many others. There is a community of “regulars” that attend weekday Mass. We look for one another each day and are happy to see each other in the morning. I miss that community. One of the men who attends Mass regularly calls me every day to check in. It’s nice to keep up that connection. If I have an email or phone number for someone from the daily Mass, I’ve tried to check in with them at least once to see how they are doing and to let them know someone is thinking about them during this crisis. It’s especially important for the people who live alone.

Cook: We have been doing remote broadcasts of services and programs since the second week of March. It is challenging because we recognize that not all of our congregants are familiar or comfortable with the technologies we are asking them to access. A plus is that we are seeing people connect and interact with our programming from the comfort of their own home who previously did not feel they were able to participate by coming to the Temple.  Many people have remarked that “it’s just not the same” (to connect online) and that’s true, it’s not. There’s a beauty about worshipping as a community, in the same physical space as others. But we adapt and make concessions and find new ways to celebrate and worship and learn together.

SP: What is this pandemic teaching you about faith and your faith community?

Valente: Since we cannot go to a traditional church building at this time, one thing I am reminded of is the phrase “the priesthood of  all believers.” Church isn’t a building. It isn’t even the clergy. We are all called to priesthood. Now that I can’t “attend” Mass, I still participate in the Mass at home by following the Mass readings for each day and the prayers that we would normally say at Mass.

There is a wonderful prayer booklet called Give Us This Day that I use. Give Us This Day also contains Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer in the tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours — prayers said at monasteries at various times of day. I had been praying the Liturgy of the Hours on my own, but now I call fellow lay associates like myself of Benedictine monasteries and we recite the prayers (mostly Psalms) together. This has been a wonderful source of comfort because it puts me in touch with others who like me love the monastic prayer tradition. And, these prayers, like those of the Mass, are meant to be said communally.

The Catholic Church has always stressed that the sacraments — baptism, the celebration of the Eucharist, anointing of the sick, confession, etc — have to be somehow mediated by ordained clergy. A thought that keeps coming to me is that we have to now, in this time, be sacrament for each other. We have to be Eucharist for each other, which means being Christ’s presence in this world. For that we don’t need a formal church building.

We maybe don’t really need a clergy in the final analysis. We need people who will be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears and overall presence in every situation, in every environment. This kind of talk isn’t going to please the bishops and cardinals. But maybe we need to become more like the early church where the distinction between priests and the “priesthood of all believers” was not so sharply delineated. Tradition is always open to reform, and like any plant or tree, will eventually die out if not re-formed from time to time for its own good. In terms of traditional religion, I don’t know if things will return “back to normal” or a new normal will emerge. It remains to be seen and for the Spirit to guide us

Cook: I think I am seeing underscored some of the beautiful things I already knew about my community: our decency, our desire to help one another, our desire to be connected in a sacred community. To give one example: I called a congregant I was concerned about because she’s elderly and lives alone. We had a nice conversation and I checked in on whether she needed anything. She ended our call by saying, “I have to go and call my neighbors to check on them.” All of us are working to help and look out for one another, and it’s not being limited by age or ability or resources.

SP: As a faith leader, what advice would you give to those in our community struggling with questions of faith in this moment?

Valente: I am not in the clergy, thankfully. However, I think this is a good time to go back to Scripture and review the many trials that ancient believers endured. This time leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, show us that Christ too endured nearly unimaginable cruelty, injustice and suffering. It is part of the human condition. Why would it be any different for us? The Buddhists are wise to remind us that our suffering results largely from our attachments. Now is a good time to reflect on what those attachments are. Which of them are holding us back from being truly loving? What has to be jettisoned so our spirits might be free and we can be the person that we were created to be?

Cook: A few congregants have asked me where God is in all this, and wonder whether God has abandoned them. My personal theology doesn’t include a concept that God would do such a thing. I think that one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity — our free will — is also one of our greatest weaknesses. Because people are exercising their free will — sometimes by not heeding the advice of doctors and scientists — they have exacerbated the current situation. I think God is just as sad, frustrated, and frightened by that as the rest of us are. God calls us to stick together, to treat one another with compassion, and to work to bring this crisis under control.

Top photo by Carleigh Gray.

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