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Livestreaming may have transformed the rites of Easter, Passover, the Persian new year and other days of worship, but the spirit is the same

Illustration by Myriam Wares

Whatever else you call it, this is some kind of quiet heroism.

Six days a week at 7 a.m., in a front room of his house, before an altar and two candles, with his cellphone perched on a tripod, Father Aaron Orear, rector of St. Alban the Martyr, an Anglican church in the hamlet of Glen Williams, Ont., an hour northwest of Toronto, delivers unto his flock the daily ritual of Morning Prayer. Before COVID-19, he did it in the church, occasionally with live congregants. But the lockdown has closed St. Alban’s for most of a year. So Father Orear now performs Morning Prayer alone, livestreaming on Facebook.

A growing flock of believers now prays online, thanks to the pandemic. Supplicating to God is always popular in a time of crisis: Benedictine monks built their monasteries during the long, dangerous collapse of the Roman Empire. But these days – with Passover and Easter and the Persian new year crowding the calendar, and the pandemic showing no sign of retreat – beseeching the Big Guy is trending mightily. Praying is back, and while its form is changing, it isn’t likely to disappear.

Father Orear tries desperately not to look into the camera – the attention is supposed to be focused on scripture, on prayers, on reaching God – but his WiFi is sketchy, which means he sometimes has to stop praying and reconnect and then pick up the liturgy where he thinks he left off. Morning Prayer takes roughly half an hour: he can tell he’s going quickly if he hears the commuter train whistle during the Apostles’ Creed, slowly if he sees traffic building on Highway 7 out his front window. Not the holiest images, he often thinks to himself.

Today’s morning prayer service consists of Psalm 107 (“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good”), and a reading from the Book of Jeremiah (chapter 24, about good figs and bad figs and God’s fury), followed by a reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans (about the potter and the clay and the pointlessness of non-stop judgment).

The psalm is long, and it is early in the morning. The technical challenge of livestreaming to a phone screen produces a tension in Father Orear’s gaze, as if he is expecting the worst. Sometimes he stops for a sip of water, and sometimes he goes silent, as is occasionally required in prayer, and sometimes he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, as if he has a 2000-year-old headache. The meagre light lends his skin a slightly sallow tone. With his clerical collar, he’d fit right into a Durer woodcut of a suffering 16th century anchorite.

“Grant your people grace to live what you command and desire what you promise,” Father Orear prays. He has a talent for language: his Sunday sermons (pre-recorded) are popular with the modest but enthusiastic and – during COVID-19 – mostly invisible congregation of St. Alban’s. He has regular online viewers as far away as Jamaica and Australia and various countries in Africa.

He prays for the church and for “those set in authority over us,” for “Elizabeth our Queen” and “Justin our Prime Minister” and “Doug our Premier.” He prays for “those distributing and administering vaccines.” He prays it all into a dim empty room. “Surely the Lord will hear me,” Father Orear intones, concluding a prayer.

But will anyone else? His Facebook feed reveals two people are watching live. That’s about average for Morning Prayer on a Thursday during COVID-19 in Glen Williams. It’s a challenging gig. The Very Reverend Dr. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral (one of the most famous churches in Britain) livestreams Morning Prayer from the deanery, the extensive ramble of meadows and gardens attached to the cathedral. The dean went viral last spring after his cat Tiger started lapping cream from a tea tray while its master prayed blithely on. The dean has since gone full barnyard. Last Sunday – Palm Sunday – he was praying the words “set our hearts on fire with love for you” when two swine started rutting in the background.

In Mulanay, Philippines, Catholic devotees dress as Roman soldiers for a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus on March 31. Holy Week is a major event in the Philippines, Asia's only predominantly Catholic country, which is under one of the world's strictest and longest COVID-19 lockdowns.Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Catholics refer to online COVID-19 praying as “the domestic church.” Fifty-five per cent of Americans pray every day, which is a lot for a rich country; only 25 per cent of Canadians admit to it.

But the pandemic has goosed everyone’s anxiety. Thirty-six per cent of Americans who claim to have no particular religion say they’ve prayed during the pandemic, as do 15 per cent of people who say they never pray. Women do it more than men, Blacks more than whites or Hispanics, the old more than the young. In March, 2020, as the world went into lockdown, the number of Google searches for prayers skyrocketed.

Now the internet is awash in new COVID-19 orisons. Some of them are so awful you wonder if prayer-writers have ever heard of not writing directly on the nose. “Holy God,” one begins, “you see me and you hear me. Through my mask, you see if I smile or I scowl.” Ack. Others are better: Cease from travel./Cease from buying and selling./Give up, just for now,/on trying to make the world/different than it is.

Prayer calms people down because it’s incantatory and ritualistic, a form of extended repetition, like reggae. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine compared secular meditation (focusing on the breath) to spiritual meditation (focusing on the word “Love”). The spiritual version was more calming.

Some psychologists believe the iambic rhythm of a lot of prayers evoke memories of being rocked as a child. Another theory, according to Dr. Norman Farb, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who studies the neuroscience of identity and emotion, holds that the brain’s main job is to make predictions that map onto sensory inputs. When the predictions are violated – as they have been during COVID-19 (can’t touch, can’t go outside) – people get antsy. “From this lens,” Dr. Farb says, “repetition is a great way to enter into a ‘low energy state,’ where predictions of the next moment are deeply (and accurately) informed by the prior moment’s repetitive act.” This so-called “relaxation response theory” underpins “much of the science around contemporary meditation or yoga benefits.” Herbert Benson, one of the scientists who formulated relaxation response theory in the 1970s, was convinced deep religious practice could produce the same effects.

Jewish worshippers recite the priestly blessing from inside glass cubicles at Jerusalem's Western Wall on March 29, part of the annual Passover rites. Israel is farther ahead than many countries in vaccinating its population but safeguards against COVID-19 are still omnipresent at this year's religious services.EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

Up to forty people show up online these days for the 7:30 morning prayer at Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto’s oldest reform synagogue – which would be four times as many as showed up before the pandemic. The same pattern has been repeated at Holy Blossom’s more conservative neighbour, Beth Tzedec. Before the pandemic, 15 to 30 people wanted to learn more about praying. These days, online, the number can hit 75.

Yael Splansky, Holy Blossom’s senior rabbi, understands the appeal of praying on Zoom. There’s an eagerness to connect among the temple’s 1800 locked-down families. “It’s intimate and warm,” she says. “Everyone feels they have a front-row SEAT, and can see and hear, and they don’t have to fight for a parking space.” They can even have a cup of tea. Last year, during her first pandemic Passover seder, “I had nearly 500 people [on Zoom] in my dining room. That’s just wild.”

But “it’s not the same as being together in person.” She misses three things: the “awe and wonder” of the gorgeous, lofty temple (“you can’t get that in your own dining room, no matter how big your house is”); the presence of other bodies nearby, “the kind of intimacy you get from sitting next to a friend, and being in proximity to one another;” and “the knowing that you’re part of something that’s really bigger than you.” She pauses. “You look out at the congregation. We have elders and little ones running around and teenagers flirting. Everyone’s there. It’s a scene. But when we log in, we’re only calling up memories of knowing that we’re part of something larger. And I guess that’s kind of a physical metaphor for one’s relationship with God.”

Praying online automatically underlines the physical solitude of the person praying. “For some people, that leads to loneliness and depression,” Rabbi Splansky says. “Other people have found that it has opened awareness of matters of the spirit. That’s why I think we’ve seen an uptick in people logging on for prayer of all kinds.”

Will people keep coming to pray in person after the pandemic plays out? “I think the patterns will go back, except for the online streaming bit. And that will stay.” Rabbi Steve Wernick at Beth Tzedec agrees. A livestream of its Rosh Hashanah new year service last fall allowed one of Rabbi Wernick’s congregants, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s, to attend the ceremony before he died. “He would never have been able to experience the high holidays had they not been online,” Rabbi Wernick says. “The evangelicals have been doing this for decades. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same.”

A Kashmiri Shia family lights candles at a relative's grave on the outskirts of Srinagar on March 29 for Shab-e- Barat, a night when Muslims believe God decides a person's destiny for the coming year. It is customary to pray for one's recently departed loved ones on this night.Dar Yasin/The Associated Press

Three kilometres south, in busy downtown Toronto on a Thursday afternoon, ten men unfold their prayer mats and face east with Dr. Shabir Ally, the imam of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre International mosque. The mosque’s website has instructed them to “make wudhu before arrival,” as the restrooms are a COVID-19 no-go zone. Before the pandemic, as many as 100 people gathered here up to five times a day for weekday prayers, while 400 showed up for the all-important Friday session. Until recently, under pandemic rules, attendance in the mosque was limited to ten. “The problem as always,” Dr. Ally says, “is how do you select the 10 out of hundreds? The eleventh will always be knocking at the door.”

Dr. Ally’s problem with praying during COVID-19, beside the steady fear of mass infection, is “it doesn’t feel like it is supposed to feel. The serenity is gone. It feels better in these circumstances to pray at home.” That worries the imim. “The pandemic can cause people to get close to God,” he admits. “But my fear is, mostly people will get distracted. Coming to the mosque is really important to reaffirm each other’s convictions, to avoid what is evil and do what is right.” Without a crowd around, it’s easier to stray.

Still, he conducts the all-important weekly Friday service online, in what he has dubbed the mosque’s Zoom Room, where 17 to 20 families connect online to pray. “I came to see that there were certain advantages to the Zoom Room,’ he says. “It brings those far away closer. And two, I have always found that the Muslim community is quite conservative. And so women do not come to mosque as often as men do. But in the Zoom Room, we find that there are often more women than men. Maybe it’s more convenient with kids.” Maybe online prayer is more democratic.

This afternoon in the mosque there are only ten men praying. With the exception of the imam’s calls to Allah at the opening of each tranche of prayer, the silence is total: the men recite memorized verses of the Quran to themselves. The prayers praise Allah’s greatness over and over again.

The ceremony’s over in half an hour. Hassan Haider, 57, heads back to his store down the block, past the Middle Eastern restaurant next door and just beyond the All You Want Boutique. Did his prayers make him feel any better? “Oh, yeah,” he says instantly. “One hundred per cent! When I pray I feel safe inside. Safe from the pandemic, knowing that God is looking after me.”

Churchgoers pray for COVID-19 patients outside a field hospital in Belem, Brazil, on March 26. The Brazilian pandemic has gained new strength this year as a more contagious variant, P1, has spread locally and in neighbouring countries.TARSO SARRAF/AFP via Getty Images

This is an interesting detail about praying: it doesn’t matter who or what you pray to, as long as you do it intentionally, and regularly, as if you owed it some duty.

I know a man, for instance, who alternately prays and meditates dozens of times a day, in “short little gasps.” He has ever since he stopped drinking because he didn’t want to become a drug addict. He thinks of it as a form of repetitive submission. “Prayer takes you out of street level and takes you straight to 10,000 feet,” he says to me one afternoon, over the telephone.

If he misplaces his wallet and mutters “Jesus Christ!” to himself under his breath, he thinks of it as prayer, an admission that he is panic-struck and needs help. If he’s depressed, or desperate or down, he drives a private prayer out into the universe: “Would you mind showing me a few ideas here, God?” He claims “amazing things” then happen; nothing orchestrated, “just that I’m more open to the energy of the universe.” The complex calculus of living is simplified by admitting that he needs help, that he’s fragile, that he can’t control every aspect of his existence.

It’s that simplicity that the non-praying ridicule, the naive faith that prayer might work. You’ve heard the jokes. Prayer: how to look like you care while doing nothing. Christopher Hitchens, the now dead atheist, claimed he prayed only once, for an erection. The poet Philip Larkin had his doubts too, but he kept visiting empty country churches anyway, serious houses on serious earth, “since someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious,/And gravitating with it to this ground,/Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,/If only that so many dead lie round.” Prayer is the younger, more optimistic cousin of death. They both intrigue us in this time of sickness.

I don’t pray because I don’t believe. Instead, I read, trying to find the discipline to make it a habit: an hour every morning, first thing. The books let me step away from myself into the minds and lives of others, which makes the world seem bigger and nobler and worth defending, which makes me grateful.

Father Orear thinks this too might qualify as a form of liturgy. “It may not have any of the marks that other people would call ritual. But if you stayed in the same chair, and read the same basic amount of time, if you take notes in margins, these are all forms of ritual. You talk about the minds speaking across time thing. That’s what I am suggesting about God speaking through scripture. It’s like the meeting of minds, but one of those minds happens to be the mind that conceived the universe.” You don’t have to believe that to admire the audacity of its imagination, which is part of the appeal of prayers in the first place: they think big.

In his makeshift home chapel west of Toronto, as he waits and longs to pray next to people again, Father Orear has been examining his own one-way COVID-19 prayer habits, his chanting into the Facebook void. The problem with self-isolating in a pandemic, he points out – agreeing with Rabbi Splansky – is that it removes the lateral connection people feel when they gather together to pray in a church or synagogue or mosque. You can’t see or hear your neighbour standing and kneeling and singing off-key beside you. Even the limited-attendance worship allowed between October and December last year felt stilted to Father Orear – 30 perc ent capacity, masks, no singing. “It was like going out for coffee with your ex,” he admits. “It’s familiar, but there’s stuff you used to do that you can’t now.”

Father Orear suspects that in the absence of side-by-side lateral human connection, a more siloed vertical introversion has taken root. In place of praying (or at least engaging) with others, he finds people turning to meditation, to rituals (hosanna to the sourdough!), to conspiracy theories, to mysticism, even to mystics like Julian of Norwich. During an outbreak of the Black Plague in the 14th century, Julian cut herself off from human contact and moved into a cathedral in Norwich to pray and write Revelations of Divine Love, her account of sixteen visions of Jesus she had on what turned out not to be her deathbed. It’s an unusual text. At one point she holds up a hazelnut, and Jesus describes it as containing the universe.

But Julian of Norwich has her uses. At the outset of the pandemic, Father Orear posted a message in the public announcement box that sits in front of St. Alban the Martyr. Public Liturgy Cancelled Until Further Notice, it read. “It was out there for a few weeks.” Father Orear admits, “until a parishioner who lives nearby said ‘that’s really getting depressing.’ So I put in Julian of Norwich’s quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Which probably should be the defining quote of the pandemic.” Somehow, for reasons that are difficult to fathom, the more often you read it, the better you feel.

Illustration by Myriam Wares

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