March 2020. News of the new, highly infectious, and potentially fatal coronavirus lodged itself at the top of the BBC news. At Christmas, I had viewed footage of emergency Chinese hospitals being built at breakneck speed, brightly coloured industrial diggers resembling toy trucks from the video’s bird-eye. Everything had seemed very far away. But now things were serious, almost unbelievably so.
Boris Johnson announced our first lockdown. I lay sleepless and increasingly comfortless in bed, terrified at the thought of this plague sweeping over everything and everyone I held dear. The hard stop of office-based work and social life, so unprecedented, felt more like an ending than a pause. Our social and cultural contexts pixelated out of sight. Confronted by the fragility of all human life, I was desperate for comfort, some semblance of solidity, security. And without recent regular church attendance to bolster me, I was flailing, and spiritually rudderless.
That night I was lucky to have my husband comfort me. He helped me master something on my phone I’ve not previously been very successful at: downloading apps. Because I was groping for reassurance, I found a rosary app: Rosario, which allows me to listen to one or all four sets of mysteries recited by two calm if prim-sounding women with British accents. It lifted me up immediately: I had the sense that I was participating in something not just for me, but of intangibly wider value. I didn’t need to extemporise; instead, I said the prayers that have been said for generations. Those prayers carried me as much as I carried them. (Subsequently, I’ve discovered Neumz, a wonderful resource for each day’s monastic round of prayer in Gregorian chant.)
I saw anew that formal prayer is not just a collective custom, with silent contemplative prayer much the superior, but rather is vital in itself. As my awareness of our mortal span grew more acute, I also became increasingly conscious of the finite nature of hours in the day and days in the life. Time re-presented itself as a terribly limited resource. Time is mine to spend as a daily allowance, but is not endlessly renewable.
I started to gain a proper understanding of set daily prayer as both a calling, and a work—the Divine Offices and attending Mass just as the liturgy puts it: a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Not a sacrifice as in something bloody and painful (not usually, at any rate) but a giving of time and self. Of course, grace is often given too: by dedicating set, regular time to the work of prayer, we are able to re-establish our orientation towards the divine. But this is never guaranteed, and prayer has a wider, less individual purpose than anything narrowly transactional. It dawned on me that the discipline of praying is both joy and work (or our duty and our joy, as the liturgy puts it) because is, albeit mysteriously, for the good of humanity and the world. Here was something I could do, and it wasn’t just (or at least not obviously) for self-shoring purposes. It didn’t matter whether I felt the presence of God or benefited mentally from my prayer commitment (although I usually did). I rediscovered the value of trusting tradition, spiritual tradition, and concomitantly, of establishing a rule of life for my otherwise restive and unruly twenty-first century self. Traditionally, a rule of life comprises both private prayer and real-time participation in some or all of the offices of the Church, especially Mass. But how can one take part in real-time community worship when church buildings are restricted or closed?
Covid-19 has been a plague of the internet age. The whole world is on Zoom. Upon lockdown, plenty of churches moved their regular worship to Zoom too. But I would particularly like to acknowledge the value of—and the graces gained from—being a reclusive along-sider. Facebook, Vimeo, and YouTube allow you to sit and watch a livestreamed religious service without wondering whether to turn on the camera, smooth your hair or do that little Zoom-box wave. For me, this greater hiddenness, this veil between me and the church, didn’t feel like my worship was turning into a spectator sport—a frequently voiced concern of sceptical ministers. On the contrary, I found my commitment to hidden attentiveness a powerful, proactive experience. The laptop screen became a virtual window through which I could view and participate in real-time sacraments. That it is a one-way window invited me to perseverance, and humility too. Though hidden from priest or lectors (and later, from returning congregants in situ), God saw and held me along with them.
Perhaps ironically, I am reminded most closely of the medieval anchorite or anchoress, who would dwell in secluded enclosure adjoined to a church and watch the Mass through his or her squint window onto the altar. Being Norwich born, I already had an affinity for fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich. She lived as an anchoress through several waves of bubonic plague. I took her on anew as my pandemic role model. I thought also of the even earlier Saint Clare of Assisi, associated with the miracle of spiritual tele-vision; having witnessed, in her illness and seclusion, a Christmas Mass “broadcast” on her cell wall. The essence of this miracle wasn’t one of human fellowship, but a vision of the mystical sacrifice.
And so, I became a sort of twenty-first century, lay anchoress, devising my own rule of life, and finding new glimpses of God as I went along. I’d like to acknowledge, in the rest of this essay, some of the anchoritic witnessing that got me through the most severe phrases of our UK lockdowns and identify the livestreaming approaches that I found (and still find) particularly nourishing. Gustate et videte.First port of call is the rosary. I mentioned the Rosario app which I listened to via my phone in the dead of night, when my usual fare of chuntering news podcasts didn’t cut through the existential fog that sometimes descended. Soon after this early find, I discovered daily 6 PM shrine prayers from the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I watched via Facebook as shrine staff’s phone cameras peeped into the Holy House, flickering candlelight illuminating the much-venerated statue of OLW, as she is affectionately known. The livestreaming tech has been upgraded and the daily rosary continues—just as it has, in person at the shrine, every evening for a hundred years. The leader, generally either shrine priest Fr. Ben or priest administrator Fr. Kevin, out of sight, welcomes and leads us through the five mysteries of the day. Mystery by mystery, we pray, often by name, for the sick, those in spiritual and temporal need, the departed, and the shrine itself. The leader recites the first half of each Hail Mary, the short silence to be filled by those viewing with the rest of the prayer: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
I was very moved by this service during our severe first lockdown, when the intimacy of live prayer shared over distance felt new and vibrant. Each Ave was broken like bread and shared beyond physical bounds. Like other regular “attenders” I’d post a “good evening” and a “thank you” in the accompanying chat; my way of offering public witness and gratitude in some way, while hidden behind my screen. I imagined those of us who prayed together lighting up the map like gleaming fireflies dotted over a darkened land.
The shrine livestreams other events too, more recently including a 7:30AM Sunday Mass. But it’s their daily rosary I’ve felt the most affinity for over these last two years. When I’ve been unable to make the livestream at 6:00, I’ve caught up later in the evening, often with my husband already sleeping by my side. I place my everyday scarf over my head as an ad hoc mantilla, a veil for no-one but God to see. The deep silence of the advancing night is threaded with the silver gleam of intercession.
Feeling my way towards further liturgy, I had a longing to go to Mass, to witness and participate in that Eucharistic mystery that is at the core of sacramental Christianity. This was painfully unavailable in person during the pandemic. What online resources were there for Anglo-Catholic pandemic anchoresses?
My first livestream Mass was with St. Mary’s, Bourne Street. The highest Anglican church in London was streaming online weekday Mass at 6:30PM (directly after the rosary, thus constituting an ad hoc home hour of anchoritic devotion). The solemn liturgy (just once, inadvertently accompanied by Fr. Andrew’s dog), and, most movingly of all, the large wooden crucifix above the altar, made this a memorable, often poignant, online Mass. I prayed avidly. I whispered the prayer of spiritual communion offered as text after each consecration, its clear language fostering alignment of mind, heart and soul.
Frs. Andrew and Sam persisted in their liturgical livestreaming during Lent and Holy Week of 2020, when government and church leadership obliged the complete closing of church buildings. The livestreams moved to an adapted room of the vicarage. The watch until midnight on Holy Thursday was touching in its humility. But it was glorious to return to St. Mary’s nave and altar, as the May Devotion involved camera footage transferring from vicarage back into the church itself.
Daily livestreaming of St. Mary’s weekday Mass was suspended when lockdown restrictions were lifted. But they continue to livestream Sunday Masses. There is, in addition to beautiful singing, something remarkable about the daytime light in this church. As it moves across the interior, it blanches, and blesses, and seems a living thing—difficult to capture the full force of its grace in a screenshot, although I sometimes tried.
There remains, another daily London-based Anglo-Catholic livestreamed Mass, at All Saints Margaret Street. Their livestreaming was also established during the March 2020 lockdown—during an interregnum, too—and subsequently has become a permanent fixture of the church’s worship and outreach. All Saints is another beautiful church: even the sacristy where the “exiled” Masses of Easter 2020 were held is notable. The only downside of their lockdown livestream was the lack of that visual focus of a large crucifix, so prominent an aspect of St Mary’s. Now All Saints is open and restrictions lifted, midday Masses are held in the Lady Chapel, its blue and gold background makes viewing this livestream a richly gilded privilege. I “participated” in Holy Week and Easter with All Saints livestream during 2021, still not feeling safe to attend a central London church in person at that time. It was a memorable experience, with candlelight and clouds of incense sometimes seeming to bloom through my screen and into my own physical surroundings.
I made another find during the lockdown months. Comments from a couple of Facebook regulars at shrine prayers directed me to 9PM online Compline and Adoration at All Saints, Twickenham. I didn’t know of this church, but felt the draw of Adoration, that simple dwelling in Christ’s Eucharistic presence. I started attending the Facebook livestream whenever I could. I was surprised at how well this reverent, simple service worked for an online attender, how it drew me in over the miles to a unique still point in time and space. Mother Julian once saw “God in a point”; and I thought of this phrase often as I adored from behind my screen—I still do.
Fr. Alex leads Compline accompanied by unobtrusive organ music and gives Benediction direct to camera. Perhaps it shouldn’t work online—but my experience is that it does; online Adoration is both a fixed Eucharistic anchor and a portable grace. Just as with shrine prayers, I do sometimes watch this service recorded—often later the same night. With a God who transcends all temporal boundaries, nothing limits my access to the Eucharistic presence. I use the time sitting silently before this virtual exposition to calm and unburden myself of anxieties, and to pray for others. In my own “cell”, on my own time, I experience that which binds together all Christians and even the world.
I don’t want to sound like a crazy Mass-hopping lady eager for my next fix of virtual liturgy. Nor did I ever quite have the fervour of a newly converted (to Roman Catholicism) Thomas Merton, who, in the late 1930s, staggered in a holy daze from Mass to Mass in the Catholic churches of New York. Throughout the pandemic, I still had work to do, and a domestic life to lead. However—I did also watch a livestreamed Mass from Twickenham and found its quiet holiness sustaining; I often still “attend”. Uniquely in my experience, Fr. Alex acknowledges by name anyone who has chosen to post a hello. If you don’t post a comment, he simply includes you with “hello to anyone else watching with us”. This concluding greeting, breaking the fourth wall of the broadcast, is greatly valued. Rather than prolonged Zoom niceties (which certainly have their place) it offers a distilled instance of fellowship, eloquent in its simplicity, and reflecting the Benedictine hospitality of Fr. Alex’s monastic tradition. When I’m up in Norfolk looking after my elderly mother, we’ll watch Fr. Alex say Mass with my laptop on her little coffee table. I tap in our names, and she is delighted to be greeted in person by a priest from “the telly”. It’s one of her few remaining sources of spiritual uplift.
I should say that my theology is liberal, even as my spirit hungers for the sacramental. I sometimes do look for a female president at the Eucharist. All Hallows by the Tower had already been broadcasting its Sunday Eucharist on Vimeo, with thoughtful incumbent Rev. Katherine presiding (during the lockdown the church used Zoom rather than public access, so I didn’t participate). The church does so again now, as well as a Wednesday evening Taizé service where lilting chants, candlelit icons, and periods of silence feel peaceful and genuine, working well beyond their geographical confines.And now I will draw this essay to a close, not least because I’m at my mother’s as I write, and would like to attend a recently recorded Compline, quietening my soul before sleep. I grew spiritually—you could say I flourished—dwelling within my pandemic anchorhold, and even though I go to Sunday Mass in person now, I still often attend rosary, weekday Mass and Compline online, and continue to regard regular online worship as both my duty and my joy. Perhaps, in this strangest of ways, then, I have recaptured or reimagined something of that ancient anchoritic spirit. The pandemic has been darkness—but we must never forget the light God draws out from it.