Congregation

Although we decided last autumn to focus this issue of Humanities on gathering and what we gain when people come together, we are, as I write this, experiencing a pandemic that has made the theme much more relevant. This was recently brought home to me in a poignant way. 

It has been my privilege for the past five years to enjoy weekly BYU devotionals and forums seated on the stand at the Marriott Center. Being short, and opting to sit on the back row, I have been unable to see the faces of the speakers projected on screens directly above our heads or on the floor at the front of the stand, so I have come to view these uplifting and edifying experiences from a very different perspective. Although I could only see speakers from the back, I could, for example, follow along on the teleprompter to see where they improvise and if they include pronunciation cues. I also have had the chance to observe audiences, both to gauge attendance as well as to see individual faces as they respond to the message. Often, when I have been moved by something the speaker says, my feelings have been mirrored, and even validated, by the emotions I witness in some of the faces of those sitting in the audience.  

That privilege evaporated around the Ides of March, when the pandemic touched campus in dramatic and challenging ways. On St. Patrick’s Day I sat in my office watching the first “livestream” devotional and, although the message was uplifting, I missed the ineffable but very real presence of what is so often referred to in scripture as multitudes.  

A number of years ago International Cinema was suffering a lack of attendees, given the increase at the time in new ways people could enjoy films without needing to go to a theater. I was involved in discussions about how we might better lure patrons to attend. Out of those discussions came the realization that watching a film on a small screen, especially alone, was a very different experience from watching one on the big screen in a packed theater. Granted, the visual and aural dimensions were certainly superior in the latter case, but there also is a value added to film by the presence of, and being embedded within, a large audience. Musical performance is no different; listening to a piece on even the finest quality headphones is fundamentally a very different experience from participating in a live concert. If that were not the case, why would we pay much more than the cost of an album to attend? Being surrounded by other people simultaneously means we are influenced in subtle and profound ways by their laughter, their silence, and their sobs. We leave the venue having had both personal and communal experiences.  

President Worthen began the 2019–20 school year with a nod to the power of assembly, presciently underscoring the unique opportunity gathering at BYU represents. Now that our congregating is virtual rather than physical, we are learning more of what he was talking about. Well before the advent of social distancing, Woody Allen suggested that “80% of life is just showing up.”1 I think he was implying that, in normal life, sometimes it takes great effort to assemble, to gather, to “show up” to things, so that by “just showing up” we have advantages over those who fail to attend. Through today’s (socially distanced) looking glass we may think back with nostalgia on gatherings that, at the time, we may have begrudgingly attended, or skipped altogether. 

It occurs to me that, by the time we reach adulthood, we have logged tens of thousands of hours sitting through myriad types of meetings and gatherings. Some would say that such a number would make us experts in attendance! However, given an abundance of distractions and remote technologies, the easier it is to attend an event the less we may be prone to “just showing up.” We often make our choices about attendance based upon the personal value the meeting or event will have to us, but that should only be a minor fraction of our concern. When, such as now, we are unable to attend a wedding, funeral, or baby’s blessing, we learn that showing up does much more than feed us information. It also, for example, reveals things about us and our relationships with other people: that we care, that we support them, that we want to share their joy, or their sorrow. There are social dynamics involved in gatherings that go far beyond the personal value of appearing live at a particular event. We are showing support to one of our network of interconnected communities that serves as a precious social resource, and that also is part of what makes us human. 

In mortality, gathering is an internship we experience to prepare us for our divine vocation: connecting, creating, assembling, and, ultimately, sealing. As Walt Whitman intimated, we all contain multitudes.2 The essential presence of others in us may be hidden during our frenetic interactions as large congregations, but is reinforced by the loneliness and clarity of thought that comes through solitude. May we emerge from our respective isolations more committed to community, more eager to gather and to enjoy the blessing of being part of the multitude of humanity. 

  1. 1977 August 21, New York Times, Section 2: Arts and Leisure, “He’s Woody Allen’s Not-So-Silent Partner” by Susan Braudy, Page 11 (ProQuest Page 83), New York. (ProQuest)
  2. Walt Whitman: Song of Myself, Part 51