For our collective safety against COVID-19, we now embrace social distancing and turn inward to cloister ourselves for an indeterminate amount of time. At the very least, our traditional and casual bonds of community and when and how we interact are being suspended. In fact, at a deep, societal level our use of time is now completely disrupted. It is genuinely disruptive and unnerving. Collectively, we hesitate, unable to expect what will happen to us, our loved ones, our communities, our world.
Yet against this anxiety and the chaos of uncertainty, we can create something set apart and meaningful, the very qualities of the holy and sacred. In the forms of ritual and liturgy, we can create new, miniature kinds of time. These practices can be productive, reflective, and flourishing and can create for ourselves expectation – if only that expectation is the reassuring recurrence of something familiar we have created. As we create and shape these practices, they then shape us to prepare for a future we cannot yet envision.
As we determine how we will spend these long hours and many days, our daily routines now become more our deliberate management of how we move through each day and less something of mere habit. Within these routines, we can focus on particular reflective moments when we pause, consider who we and our loved ones are and take stock in what we are doing, alone and together. Now in this time of uncertainty is the opportunity to recapture the power and agency of the ancient practices of ritual and liturgy.
Ritual, a meaningfully repeated performed practice, is a word that can seem distant, reserved for the esoteric or the eccentric tics of the obsessive-compulsive. But really, rituals are small reminders about who we are. They are our reflections in our actions. Each of us has rituals within our daily routines. A daily coffee made a particular way. A quick examination of one’s bag before leaving the house. Reading a book before we go to sleep. We perform rituals so readily and nonchalantly that we ignore how important they are to and for us. They are our special spaces.
Liturgies are more determined things, the “stuff” in ritual’s form. They are the sequence of meaningful words and actions commonly found in formal rituals, often most visible in church services. They are creations for a community. They are things to be performed and shared together. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As long as we keep the structure, we can change the contents of a liturgy to suit our particular needs. Liturgies are special forms of created time.
In our new, restricted spaces we can create new space and time with rituals of “micro-liturgies”. Micro-liturgies are bespoke collections of meaningful words and activities created and ordered for meaningful interaction. Rituals help us focus. Liturgies help us create order. They keep us from distractions, from obsessively reading the news, from letting our thoughts get out of control. In this time of disorder, let us find new ways to spend our time not distracting ourselves, but engaging each other in meaningful ways.
When ritual is performed and liturgy created, there is the construction of new, certain time within this age of uncertainty. COVID-19 is invisible, but we can see each other gather together here in our particular space or online. We may not know when COVID-19 is at our door, but we know what comes next in the liturgy. We know we can perform this ritual again.
The regularity and anticipation of ritual is a reassuring thing to look forward to. Ritual and liturgy can remain fresh and alive. These are liturgies of our creativity, our own devices. We set them aside and tailor them for where we are and who we are. But when we create something for ourselves, we have focused power over our circumstances even if only for these few minutes, this one evening. And this is what is holy and sacred.
Often, the best rituals are the organic ones, the ones that are intimately created and shared. To share in this creation means that it is remembered and performed together. We see in person and online the ritual in our neighbor, in our family member, and friend as we, ourselves, perform it. We create something new and shared. We take the time to learn it, to practice it. It is the movement of our bodies and the sound of our voices. We embody and share what is important, what becomes essential. We learn to perform it a particular way and we work out the kinks. We allow flexibility, error, and the unexpected and we are gracious to each other and ourselves.
What we create through our hands together is what we set apart and make distinct. We create the holy and sacred. In ritual, we create a place and space for mystery. Creating mystery for ourselves has a power that uncertainty from the outside cannot overcome. Yes, illness is coming, but we are here together, even if we are cloistered in our small homes. We can create something for ourselves from ourselves. When illness, sorrow, and death enter our lives, we already have our created structures to face it. If or when we want God to be acknowledged, we can adjust our liturgies as appropriate and necessary. Our ritual will be performed again.
Such intimate creativity requires new vulnerability – yet another risk in a time when we take every precaution for self-preservation. In sharing this vulnerability, new solidarity is found in the creation of the form that is strengthened through the repetition that is ritual. Repetition of micro-liturgies is a kind of spiral forward through time. This is continued praxis of relating to each other through meaningful word and deed. We affect each other. It is impossible to not be affected.
To create liturgy is a kind of power, a sort of ability that most people are unaware that they already possess. Creating liturgy can be a restful, restorative power, creating a small world where sickness and suffering can be encountered and addressed. So often we are caught off guard by the turmoils of life and so easily derailed by disruptions to our routines and expectations. But our liturgies can be safeguards against this. They are things to look forward to, practices to be refined and reconsidered.
What does a micro-liturgy look like? It looks like what people gathering together make it. It requires planning of what and when it will be performed. Maybe after a meal or the most tedious or most stressful time of the day. It begins with an opportunity to leave tumultuous time and enter not a chosen time, but a time chosen, a time of the ritual. It requires agreeing upon who will take on which parts and when. Micro-liturgies are a kind of stone soup: everyone brings something their own, something meaningful to add to it.
This micro-liturgy begins with a kind of attenuation, a call away from disorder and uncertainty. Perhaps, it begins with a poem, a favorite book passage, or merely a calm word of encouragement or love. In responding by listening, we demonstrate that we hear this call. We begin this way and can begin to move forward in our created time. We bring actions and symbols that inspire and give us comfort, those things that reassure us and those things we would like to remember outside our ritual space. Micro-liturgies have a shared activity, perhaps telling stories or drawing or singing, even a small game. Whatever your intimate community finds strength and growth in doing together, add these things.
Micro-liturgies create short times of silence for reflection, mourning, rest, prayer, whatever is needed at that time that day. We remember aloud and in silence those people, things, places, and events that are important to us. Then we reach the part in our little liturgy when we acknowledge the end of our ritual for this time. Our special time together is ending, but only for now and only in the liturgy. We remain with each other in our hearts and minds until we meet again. We acknowledge aloud the end of our time and we say our goodbyes. Perhaps, a sign of peace is given to each other.
We now reenter the tumultuous time and space of our greater, chaotic world. That world was waiting for our return. It is the world in which we live, the one that feels like it is collapsing. We have not ignored, abandoned, or denied it. We have only turned our focus for a short, ordered time. We have found community, strength, and hopefully a moment of peace. Perhaps, it is enough if only until the next time we gather. Liturgy can only survive if it is repeated. It is the stuff of ritual. Ritual must be repeated to become ritual. In order for our ritual to continue, we must look forward – if only to the next time we gather to perform it, together.
We must create these healthy, self-created, self-sustaining rituals and liturgies of constructive repetition so that we do not succumb to a chaotic, downward spiral of despair. We find ourselves waiting for when sickness comes into our lives and for the time afterward when we must determine how our lives must change. In this time of transition, while we wait, we can create new practices.
Though this part comes first, I am saying it last because it is so important: to create rituals of micro-liturgies in this fraught time when we are together alone, we must prepare the place we are to meet. One of the few things we can anticipate now is where our ritual will take place for us. It may be a kitchen table or a living room or a laptop camera, but let us make cleaning and preparing where this ritual takes place part of the ritual. It is a way in itself of preparing for the time and place we share, even remotely.
Micro-liturgies do not change the ravages of this virus or the turmoil it is wreaking on our lives, communities, and countries. Micro-liturgies do not stop suffering and death. Micro-liturgies do not provide any solutions to our current global crisis. Micro-liturgies do not stop this pandemic or cure the sick. They are not meant to. It’s not part of our ritual. It’s not part of liturgy. Micro-liturgies are ways to intimately relate in this time of anxiety and sorrow. They are what we make them for each other and ourselves again and again and again until they have fulfilled their purpose through the end.
Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor living in Brooklyn, New York. As the Classics Digital Reference Editor at Oxford University Press, he launched the online Oxford Classical Dictionary. Burke has written for such publications as Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and Extra Crispy. He earned his MDiv at Yale Divinity School and his BA in Classical Civilization at the University of Texas at Austin.