Dora Guo

For Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, the most difficult part was the darkness. Although one day he would be canonized as Saint John of the Cross, he felt anonymous in his soot-black jail cell. Deprived of human contact, he spent most of 1578 writing poetry in the hopes of understanding why God had left him so alone. He wrote his most famous poem, “Dark Night of the Soul,” by the light of a coin-sized hole in the wall on paper smuggled to him by a sympathetic guard. The poem says that every person, at some point in life, encounters a “dark night” — a period when all physical and spiritual pleasures are taken from them. Saint John believed this darkness was a crucial step on a believer’s journey toward God’s light.

These past few months of pandemic isolation have been, to some extent, a worldwide dark night. Whether or not we’re religious, we’ve been without friends, family, community, closeness — all of the things that root us in something greater than ourselves. For religious people, quarantine has meant the loss of in-person spiritual gatherings. The Vatican was closed for Easter mass. The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, traveled by millions of Muslims each year, was canceled. Synagogues were closed for the High Holidays; mosques were empty for the entire month of Ramadan.

To some, it seemed like God was on a coffee break for most of 2020. And yet, Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of Americans say the pandemic has deepened their faith. How does that statistic stand up against the lived experiences of religious Yalies? As Saint John’s poem predicts, have they walked through the darkness and come closer to the light?

Translating the Transcendent

 When Syd Bakal ’22 thinks of Judaism, they think of carpools, praying together, a synagogue community so tight-knit it’s basically a family. “Everybody at my synagogue was like extra aunts and uncles. Their kids were like my cousins. I’d go over to everyone’s houses and I knew where everything was in the cupboards,” they said.

However, as the pandemic surged this spring, synagogue went online for Syd – as did Buddhist Sangha meditations for Anna B. Albright ’22, church services for Bradley Yam ’21, Bible study for Sharla Moody ’22, Hindu temple for Malini Wimmer ’22 and Muslim Students Association gatherings for Yousra Omer ’22. When all Yale students transitioned to online classes, religious Yalies also switched to online services.

Religious gatherings are, generally speaking, very tactile. People hold hands for the Our Father, kiss the Torah, sit close together, sing and share communal food and drink. These in-person acts have real, spiritual significance for their participants. Without them, a person’s faith can suffer. For Bradley, one of the hardest parts of online church was not being able to receive the Eucharist, the sacramental bread and wine embodying Jesus’s sacrifices for His followers. Syd missed sharing music with their synagogue. Their faith has always been closely intertwined with singing — in fact, the first song they wrote was Jewish worship music. Internet lag time prevents people from singing in unison, and, as a result, Syd struggled to meaningfully engage.

“So much of spiritual connection for me is about singing with other people — feeling their energy, hearing their breath, hearing their voices,” they said. And Syd is not the only one who feels this way; music is important across many faith traditions. As Bradley put it, “Tiny lags take a lot away from the common experience of worship.”

Even when delays aren’t a concern for the music, it’s difficult to capture a transcendent event over a two-dimensional medium. Anna, president of the Yale Buddhist Sangha said that, even when the group did the same meditations together over Zoom, something was always missing. Under normal circumstances, the sangha meets in the echoey shrine at the base of Harkness Tower, first for meditation and afterward for a mochi-fueled social hour. “There’s such a feeling of intimacy when we’re together,” Anna said.

Maybe because we’re so used to consuming media on screens, online services run the risk of becoming more entertainment than worship. When Syd led musical worship this summer, all the other meeting attendees were muted to avoid a Zoom cacophony.

“It felt more like performance than prayer. That was really, really hard for me,” they said.  The technology connecting like-minded believers is, perhaps predictably, flattening the ephemeral. “The question on our minds during services of ‘Who’s watching?’ shifts more towards the audience of the world, rather than the audience of God,” Bradley said.

Despite the drawbacks, online gatherings have expanded people’s concept of what a religious community can be. Since her election in the spring, Yousra has conducted her entire presidency of the Muslim Student Association, or MSA, over Zoom. In some ways, online events have deepened the group’s intimacy. During Instagram “take-overs,” MSA members got a glimpse of each other’s hometown Ramadan festivities everywhere from Palestine to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now that Zoom meetings are the norm, religious student organizations are broadening the scope of their programming. Due to the low overhead of telecommuting, the Hindu Students Organization was able to host guest speakers ranging from a MasterChef contestant to a Bollywood Fusion TikTok dance star.

Due to the rise of online services, Malini Wimmer ’22 can attend her Hindu temple in Queens from her living room in Connecticut. Every night at 7 p.m., she and her family join the temple for aarti via Facebook Live. In honor of the Ganesh Chaturthi holiday in September, her temple held a multi-day, nearly round-the-clock livestream. Online services can attract people who might not otherwise be willing or able to attend. Malini’s grandmother joins multiple temple events per day, something she’d normally have to live in Queens to do. Members of a Jewish Facebook group (of which Syd is a member) commented anecdotally that there were many more first-time attendees at High Holiday services this year than ever before. Maybe online services induce less anxiety in newcomers, since no one will notice if they sing the wrong melodies or fumble the prayers. “Lower barriers to entry might have increased interest in spirituality,” Syd said. “I hope it will be meaningful.”

 Faith in Isolation

 For many religious students, heading home for quarantine meant leaving their “spiritual homes” on campus behind. After more than a year spent “church hopping” in New Haven, Sharla had finally found the right fit when the campus closure forced her to return home. Life back in Ohio meant that Sharla’s personal faith development was more or less entirely on her. Self-studying Christian texts was isolating, so she’d call friends from Yale to talk about her readings and the new questions of faith they raised. In Anna’s case, no one else in her family practices Buddhism, so outside of Zoom calls with the Yale Sangha, she was on her own. “[Spiritual] community is a really good way to remind yourself of your morals, so when you’re trying to practice by yourself, it’s really hard to keep it up,” she said.

The pandemic was a season of disappointment for many religious students. Like everyone, they spent the bulk of the quarantine physically separated from the people they love. Sharla spent her first month home upset with God. “Everyday I was in a really bad mood,” she said. “I kept asking God, ‘Why did this have to happen?’” Bradley, too, had to reckon with all the joyful things God took away. He questioned God’s goodness. But it’s often precisely those lines of inquiry that deepen a person’s faith. “The counterintuitive thing about most religious persuasions is that, if you stick with it and you try to work out the inconsistencies and difficulties in the face of trial, you come out on the other side with a stronger sense of why you believe what you believe,” Bradley said.

Isolation pushed some students to seek out their faith in new ways. After Syd’s summer internship was canceled, they got a grant to write and record an album of Jewish music. Syd’s mother used to say a Hebrew blessing for a child over them, but because Hebrew is a gendered language, she would always bless Syd with the female prayer. As part of this grant, Syd is currently writing a melody for a gender-neutral version of the same blessing. The album has been their way of making new sense of old prayers.

Even some aspects of the loneliness of quarantine have felt holy. “Just singing alone and repeating the same musical phrase again and again is a very spiritual thing,” Syd said. As crucial as the Buddhist community has been for Anna’s faith, isolation helped her develop new daily practices. She built a small shrine in her room and, for the first time, spent each morning reflecting on her Buddhist morals.

Perhaps St. John of the Cross was onto something when he said that sometimes things get spiritually worse before they get better. Most of the students I spoke to had their faith deepened by the crisis of the pandemic, just as Pew reported. Bradley is leaving his “mini-dark night of the soul” with a reminder that faith is about trusting God “in spite of” events, not just “because of” them. This summer clarified people’s priorities. “As a Muslim community, we said, ‘This is important enough to us that we’re going to find different ways to do it,’” Yousra said of adapting prayer gatherings to a digital format.

Something Saint John’s poem doesn’t talk about, but nearly every student I talked to mentioned, is that believers need to walk through the darkness with other people. This pandemic reminded Syd that there is holiness in the connections between human beings. Sharla now thinks of the church less as a physical location and more as a “body of believers.” Religious conviction isn’t only sustained by quiet contemplation. Maybe as much as faith is about connecting to the divine, it’s also about relating to other people in the mundane. And maybe it’s only after being separated from our neighbors that we’ve learned how to love them.

 Nancy Walecki | nancy.walecki@yale.edu