Building a Mystery: The New Normal

By The Reverend Dr. Daniel Tatarnic

It seems like it was only yesterday that Sarah McLachlan’s song, Building a Mystery, topped the summer charts. In fact, it was 1997. I was in the middle of undergraduate school, studying philosophy, drinking way too much coffee, and smoking too many cigars! McLachlan’s song peaked when I was struggling to understand what I would do with my life. In my personal repertoire of iconic soundtracks, I’d include it in the top ten. 

Would I follow a still small voice and venture into unknow waters? Or would I stay on a familiar track that was more certain and lucrative? Both options came with their own set of challenges and sacrifices. A friend of mine says that “God has a million plan As; choose plan A”. With no clear sense of the outcome, I chose plan A: “cause you’re working, building a mystery. Holding on and holding it in. Yeah, you’re working, building a mystery, and choosing so carefully.” 

Now, if you had told me last year at the end of the annual vestry meeting, that my priestly ministry in 2020 and 2021 would be mostly digital, I would have laughed. It wasn’t long before I stopped laughing, falling head-long into unchartered waters. As 2020 went on, and as digital expressions of church became ‘the thing’, as six weeks of pandemic became six months, and six months became a year, reality set in: we crossed a threshold and entered a new age. Now, there’s no turning back. 

I think back to life at the Cathedral on March 14th, 2020. Finding ways to address a pastoral challenge for a six-week lockdown sounded inconvenient but manageable. I remember how we rationalized it all, “remember, we’re not starting anything new”. Then we hit the six-month mark, and it became obvious that we had started something new. No need to deny it, we had developed new gifts and new insights, we saw new horizons open up. And now we’re crossing the one-year mark, and I think it’s fair to say that digital ministry in a digital age is normalizing. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that the value of in-person events is in any way diminished by this. I am not proposing that the deep, incarnational value of being together is any less important. What I am suggesting, however, is that the way we engage with faith has opened in new ways: “did you listen to the podcast from Washington National Cathedral yesterday?”; “You should check out Pope Francis’s speech last week”; “Did you see that cat interrupt the poor Vicar of Canterbury’s tea?” 

“the digital platform has brought the global Church to the local, and the local to the global.”

It might be argued that this all verges on the edge of digital voyeurism. And there might be some credence to that argument. But, in another sense, the digital platform has brought the global Church to the local, and the local to the global. I think the Creed refers to it as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. 

In the midst of the isolation of the pandemic, there have been many, many times that I have ‘felt’ more connected to a wider community than I ever have before. And there is some precedence for this. In the ancient church, the practice of sending relics of saints and martyrs, of the practice of including relics in the sealing of altars was the way the church affirmed it’s catholicity. Relics were sent to local communities far and wide as a visible sign that the Church was One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. 

In other words, no community was too small, and no altar was too insignificant to be united in prayer and devotion to the universal Church. The Ever-Greater-God bestows grace whenever grace needs to be bestowed: God will sort it out! In the meantime, continue to err on the side of building a mystery and remember, we’re not starting anything new.