Mass is livestreamed on Facebook. A question arising is whether such cyber events can fully substitute for human presence in uniting us spiritually as communities of faith. CNS photo/Katie Rutter

Peter Stockland: Serving up a hearty helping of faith

By 
  • April 4, 2020

In his recent letter to Register readers, Publisher-Editor Jim O’Leary reminded us all that “the need has seldom been greater for us to unite spiritually as communities of faith.”

Truer and more directly eloquent words have seldom been written. Yet day after day, as we hunker at home in self-isolation, the pandemic we’re living through seems to be doing its vicious best to keep us apart. One thing we now take as a matter of faith is that event after event will fall victim to cancellation.

Such was the case when organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast announced its 55th annual iteration, scheduled for May 7 in Ottawa, would have to be scrubbed. This year’s event chair, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall, told me it was no easy call to make.

The Breakfast is the oldest continuous event on Parliament Hill. It grew out of regular weekly prayer breakfasts attended by parliamentarians when the House and Senate are sitting. Without being shy about its Christian nature, the event welcomes all people of good faith. Guests travel across Canada to attend. Keynote speakers invariably mix powerful personal stories and genuine wisdom, though at least one regular attendee (hi Mom!) has been known to flinch when hand-waving whoopery breaks out during some musical interludes.

The disappointment was audible in Wagantall’s voice when I spoke with her by phone. She was in her Saskatchewan riding rather than in Ottawa putting the finishing touches to the Breakfast, which takes a sizeable team working extremely long, hard hours to host. Reality had just bitten.

“I was holding off and just hoping and praying that we would be able to go ahead. But no. This will be the first time in its history it’s been cancelled,” she said. “The reality of the times makes it impossible for people to travel across the country to come together.”

There will be an online event on May 7. It will actually have the positive aspect of being open to anyone who wants to sign up. Even those who didn’t originally buy tickets, and had no plans to travel to Ottawa anyway, are welcome. Alas, not even 5G high speed Internet makes it possible to serve bacon and eggs over broadband so those who log on will be able to join the prayers but will have to rustle up breakfast for themselves.

A question arising is whether such cyber events can fully substitute for human presence in, to borrow O’Leary’s words again, uniting us spiritually as communities of faith. Without question, there is a loss when a venerable, highly successful, indisputably important public gathering of faith is postponed in the nation’s capital.

Yet Wagantall’s wisdom is to see such a circumstance not as a loss but as a test of faith. If what we have in front of us for the moment is a virtual representation of His creation, then it’s what we must make use of to keep us united in spiritual community. She pointed out that Scripture refers to “two or three gathered together” but adds no specifics or limits on how such gathering takes place.

“Obviously, when those words of Scripture were written, no one had any concept of His ability to connect as we’re able to virtually now. I thank God that we have this opportunity in the midst of this difficult situation so that our spirits are connected,” she said.

Reflecting on life crises that have arisen in her own progress of faith, Wagantall compared herself to “the Israelite who says ‘God, you’re so good’ and then panics and says ‘we’re all going to die!’ ” But it’s in the lived experience of crisis that the experience of God grows richest and deepest, she said.

“You get to where you have experienced enough of God’s faithfulness during crises that you put your faith where it needs to be. You begin to understand that richness has nothing to do with earthly wealth or convenience or whatever privileges we have as Canadians. It has everything to do with connecting in our faith. Yes, that’s being challenged right now. But it’s the most important thing we have. It’s right there for us.”

The need has seldom been greater. And the answer never more present.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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