Local faith communities feeling absence, finding hope this holiday season
Abbot in Old Snowmass: “We have a sense of solitude under normal conditions, but not like this”
Some may find it hard to imagine a Christmas without packed pews and festivities in places of worship filled to the brim with family and friends: attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service can be a hallmark of the holiday, a tradition nearly inextricable from the day itself.
Those faith-driven traditions (like nearly everything else in 2020) look different this year due to the ever-rising number of COVID-19 cases in the valley. The monks at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass are in a state of near-isolation; Aspen Chapel and Snowmass Chapel pre-recorded Christmas specials to broadcast online; St. Mary Catholic Church accepted reservations for eight in-person Christmas masses.
But for all the absence, change and loss, local religious leaders say there are signs of hope, too: compassion, community, a greater care for one another.
“We’re in prayer together,” said Father Charles Albanese, the abbot at St. Benedict’s. “We’re doing this as we can.”
Monastery isolated from visitors, “together in spirit”
“It’s been quite a year” for the monks at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Old Snowmass, Albanese said.
COVID-19 restrictions have made life at the trappist monastery a particularly solitary experience this year, the abbot said. Most monks are older and more vulnerable to severe illness if they were to catch the virus, so their community has existed in something of a bubble since March. The retreat house is open only to private retreats, the bookstore is open by appointment only, and mass is now a virtual experience held on Zoom.
“We have a sense of solitude under normal conditions, but not like this,” Albanese said. “That absence of allowing people to come and share our prayer life is a big absence.”
The Zoom masses have been popular, according to the abbot. People still walk the country road in Old Snowmass that passes by St. Benedict’s. And the monastery regularly receives words of encouragement and support in the mail.
But that doesn’t mean the monks have not noticed the lack of visitors.
“We miss our friends and guests,” Albanese said. “They can’t just come when they want to visit. … It’s too risky.”
The holiday season is typically a busy time at the monastery, filled with Advent celebrations and Christmas festivities. This year, all of that is taking place through a screen: in addition to virtual masses, two of the monks hosted a weekly Advent reflection series from Nov. 25-Dec. 16 on Zoom.
“We would usually have quite an influx of guests, especially this time of year,” Albanese said.
That, too, is a deeply felt absence: though the monks’ prayer life has remained consistent since the pandemic began, their ability to share that experience with those who visit the monastery has been severely impacted by COVID-19 precautions and restrictions. The virus has also made it significantly more difficult for people who feel a calling to the monastic life to stay at St. Benedict’s and discern a vocation.
“It’s a big part of what we’re missing,” Albanese said. “It’s a very important part of our life.”
Albanese recognizes that the monks have been lucky, in a sense: none of the monks, nor the monastery staff, have fallen ill from COVID-19.
“We’re not as bad off as a lot of people who are taking the brunt of this — restaurants, service workers and people out there, because they have to be even more cautious,” he said.
Even so, the lack of connection to the community and the disruption of this year has not been an easy experience.
“I don’t want to fight it — I’m disappointed and I’m sad at times,” Albanese said. But there is value, too, in a sense of communal hope, even if it comes from a distance.
“I think if we pray together, there’s a new kind of spiritual experience that’s kind of available to us,” he said. “If we’re praying and people are praying with us, I think in some way God can connect with that… We’re together in spirit.”
Aspen Chapel emphasizes compassion, service amid challenging season
For the first time in 25 years, Nicholas Vesey has the entire Christmas holiday to spend with his family.
By nature of his role as the minister at Aspen Chapel, Vesey usually leads multiple services on Christmas Eve. This year, the celebration went virtual due to COVID-19.
The pre-filmed service was a “family affair” that included Vesey’s wife, Heather (the chapel’s contemplative work director), and their children Samuel and Jessica.
But “sometimes, it’s just not good enough to have a video,” Vesey said. He misses the crowds of 300 attendees at Christmas Eve services; to forego that experience this year “a huge loss.”
In addition to virtual services, the chapel has placed even more emphasis on serving the community and maintaining connections amid a challenging year for many, Vesey said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he and dozens of volunteers made somewhere between 600 and 800 outreach calls to community members. The chapel has also been home to a number of support groups in need of space; the parking lot often serves as the distribution site for the Aspen Family Connections food bank.
In a holiday season defined mostly by separation and distance, Vesey hopes that a sense of empathy will emerge from challenging times as people find ways to recognize the “preciousness of family and friends” and care for others.
“The idea (is) that at Christmas, something new is born,” Vesey said. “It’s important to look and see what new things are born out of it.”
“I think we can reach out to those around us with a sense of compassion… It’s a way of being part of the community.”
Catholic church maintains physical joy of Christmas — from a distance
St. Mary Catholic Church is among the few local faith communities that is offering Christmas services in person, though there, too, the celebration looks different from years past.
The COVID-19 pandemic has “really changed how we do everything,” said Julia DeBacker, the director of faith formation for the church.
For the holiday season at St. Mary, that means a reservation system, mask requirements and distancing between parishioners who signed up for one of eight masses offered between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (Extra services were added to the schedule to help disperse churchgoers and mitigate crowding.)
Offering in-person Christmas services is a key component in sharing the church’s message and encouraging the community to “open (their) hearts to the joy of welcoming the savior,” DeBacker said.
“We want to spread that joy,” she said. “We want people to physically experience the joy of Christmas.”
The church has been open for daily mass since May, providing what DeBacker sees as a much-needed and much-appreciated space to share the faith in a clean, safe environment.
“The overarching thing that we have seen here at St. Mary’s (is that) the families and the children still want to be here,” she said. “The church is their home.”
Snowmass Chapel offers messages of hope
In a normal holiday season, the Snowmass Chapel might welcome as many as 1,000 parishioners through its doors on Christmas Eve.
But by the fall of this year, it was clear to chapel staff that would not be the case come December.
“In September it was obvious this was not going to happen,” said senior Pastor Robert de Wetter. “We knew … it was likely this whole thing (COVID-19) was going to get worse.”
The light display still is on outside the Snowmass Chapel, but the pews indoors will be empty: instead, the chapel is going virtual with an hour long Christmas special online. It’s a project more than three months in the making, de Wetter said, with music, messages and scenic filming that aims to capture nostalgia and hope for the future.
“The last thing that we wanted to do was turn people away,” de Wetter said. “We just want to protect people.”
That long standing tradition of community gathering at Christmas will surely be missed this year, he said.
“It’s been sad for all of us on our team,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
But there been upsides to the virtual offerings too, the pastor said. This year’s online services have already drawn a wide audience of attendees from locales far and wide.
And the chapel has continued a “large program of care” in the Roaring Fork Valley: a team of nearly 30 people regularly make phone calls, Zoom meetings and porch visits to check in on members of the community. The chapel also provides support to a number of local nonprofits in their charitable work.
Amid a challenging holiday season, the pastor aims to spread a message of hope and optimism for the future.
“Despite the terrible pain that a lot of people are in right now there will be some things that will be positives,” he said. “Know that you’re loved and know that there’s great, great reasons for hope.”
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