The day the music died

July 23, 2020 by Catherine Rowan

Don McLean’s immortal words echo inside me today: “Something touched me deep inside, The day the music died”.  This week I returned to my church – the first service there in 18 weeks. I knew it would be different. I knew it was liturgy with sanitising regularly! All of us 2 meters apart. I even knew we would not be singing. What I didn’t know was how this would feel –  like a body blow to me. 

In the first couple of months of lockdown I missed church terribly despite the streaming of the Mass on Sundays, Holy Days and also some (random) saints’ days. I could not watch the visual stream – I found seeing Chris, the chaplain, in an empty church too difficult. So I would just shut my eyes and as I listened to the liturgy my body was in the church, feeling the immense peace there that has accrued from over 160 years of worship. 

Gradually I adjusted to the online version of our services. I still did not watch the video but just listened. And more and more I found spiritual nourishment in nature all around me – it has always been a great source of spiritual comfort for me. However with Covid-world it has become so even more. The trees still leafed, the flowers bloomed and weeds ran amok no different to any other year – the one constant in a world in turmoil, uncertainty and change. 

Then, finally the Government said the churches in England could reopen from July 4th. It took my church, a private church of Anglo-Catholic persuasion, which has a set of alms houses attached to it for retired clergy and others involved with the church, a further two weeks to get ready to actually hold a service. 

It was a big undertaking as nearly all the congregation, from the community itself and from the “wider congregation” (that is people like me who do not live there) are older and many, if not most, have pre-existing health conditions. Trying to create a safe environment then was a big undertaking: we had to pre-book our attendance, we were required to wear face-masks, sanitise on arrival, and we were directed to our allotted seats from a huge master plan.

Sunday Mass is sung but not this time as no singing was allowed (despite the face masks). The  communion was the final “event” and involved going up to receive the wafer dropped into our outstretched hands by a long handled pair of serving tongs without a word being spoken. Then we just had to leave via the side entrance, having re-sanitised ourselves again. No re-joining the community for the final blessing. No saying hello and goodbye to friends after such a long time apart. 

I went home feeling all wrong. The whole of me felt all wrong. I sat with this for the rest of the day and as I allowed myself to just listen to my body I realised I felt as if I had gone to some strange religious factory processing plant that was without soul, just mechanistic following the rules and regulations of health and safety. The peace and love that attracted me to this church just under four years ago had gone. Instead there was fear and sanitising. God did not seem to be there anymore. Just a church full of scared thoughts. 

That evening I went for a walk and came across this most beautiful rose – it smelt divine. Literally and I realised here in this rose was God and with it came some more words from “American Pie” – “Can music save your mortal soul?” And I realised that for me it was the music, the sung Mass that, along with the warm friendliness of the community that had most unexpectedly drawn me back into church going after a 20 year gap.