We are in an unholy mess. Each day reveals more disease, more anger, more flaws in our culture than anyone could have anticipated a year ago. This season’s inscrutable fears are uniquely human. In the past, we would come together, comfort and strengthen each other, in communities, in families, in churches.

But part of our mess is that being together can harm, rather than comfort, under the specter of COVID-19 infection. We cannot be in closed quarters physically, so we simulate spatial and bodily connection by looking at screens and seeing, hearing, and talking alone in our rooms. We “Zoom” church. For many of us this is a full buzzkill via simulation. In “virtualization” the essential realities of space, light, sound, temperature, and smell are gone — forget about the forbidden touch. As an architect who helps create Sacred Space, the vice-gripping 2D rectangles of phone and computer screens are soul-crushing.

When we are hungry, we appreciate food, and in this time of “keep away,” Sacred Space takes on new meaning. Our forbidden Sacred Spaces force us to encounter two realities beyond their physical presence. Like any building, the history and associations of our being part of any place are part of the joy we take in connecting with it — that reality cannot be simulated on any screen. The second element of Sacred Space is what makes its absence beyond painful. It is simply the loss of the ineffable joy of being together. Kinesthetics — the beauty of movement and sensory perception — are laughably dulled by the reality of video.

In architecture school, someone coined the word “aspatial” for designs that lived only in two dimensions. Right now, much of our religious presence is “aspatial.”

Sacred Space may be spiritual, even inspiring, but not all spiritual or inspiring spaces are Sacred. We built our own home, and it embodies the lives of a family over 35 years. It gives unending joy. But it is not Sacred. Sacred space is where God is undeniably present, and that presence is not limited to the places that we build.

Whether human-made or springing from the natural world, Sacred Space connects us to a reality that transcends our fears. The ocean, the forest, the rising or setting sun may all define “Sacred” to any of us. But humans can make places that hold and extend the best in us beyond the world that inevitably threatens and saddens us. In a Cyber Service, I am sadly unable to find the connection to a greater reality beyond my laptop.

In our endless Zoom simulations, for the cause of separation, we listen to tiny speakers in front of us. We focus upon flat, confined images. So even when we see a service in real time, we are starved for direct contact. A screen can only offer sound and imagery, over which we have control. But architecture engages all our senses and exists on every corporeal plane we humans do. It is as universal in our perception as the natural environment all around us. Our Sacred Spaces are not two-dimensional: they are of and by us, they harbor our bodies, not just focus our eyes and ears. Zooming cannot hope to fulfill the gifts offered by Sacred Space, so our longing for it is as real as any thirst that cannot be quenched by a video of someone drinking water.

In every life at every time, control is as illusory as any streaming service, and as real. We do not touch each other in these simulations of space, light, and movement, but they are triggers. Just like any art form can thrill or disappoint, our Year Of The Zoom is a zipless, decaffeinated, low-calorie version of being together. If I was better at being one with God, and in love of humanity, the Zoom Reality would be enough. But, alas, for me, it is not. Not tragic, or corrosive; it’s just frustrating.

We are together in unsatisfying separation. At the risk of full-on channeling Pollyanna, this absence simply underscores one reality that I cannot avoid. Jesus is with me no matter where I am, or wherever I cannot be. Silence is as powerful as any music. The words in my heart are there, even when unread by anyone else.

I just wish that we could gather, and sing.