Religion in Quarantine: Donnalee Dox on “Transformation in and from Religion during Quarantine”

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

Transformation in and from Quarantine
Donnalee Dox

Religion and social quarantine together provide an open space for social transformation by moving attention from the abstractions of transcendence to in-body experiences of health.

Transformation and Disruption
Responses to the COVID-19 quarantine thus far have focused on how social necessity has disrupted religion. We focused immediately on adaptations of Spring rituals: Easter services held in drive-in movie theatres, Seders shared virtually over Zoom, and the Hajj pilgrimage cancelled (Wikipedia, 2020). In April 2020, critical distance from the transformative potential of transcendence is as instinctive as social distancing. Yet, in such an uncertain time, religion’s proposition of transcendence offers potential for regeneration, renewal, and transformation.

As we ask how religious practices are adapting to socially imposed constraints on human contact and move online, we might also ask what the sense of transcendence, that fundamental unknowingness, offers for reconceiving social organization — from factory farms that incubate viruses, to production and distribution of medical supplies, to religious institutions themselves. Appreciating the potential for religion to transform a crashing social order requires taking transcendence as a proposition, examining ways humans interpret that proposition, and following where those interpretations lead. We might reflect on transcendence as the virus reveals, in the Greek meaning of apocalypse, new relationships between bodies and societies.

Embodiment and Transcendent Health
As quarantine disrupted visible body-to-body religious gatherings, it also disrupted the ways those gatherings bind people’s bodies — eyes, mouth, skin, nose, ears, and organs — to a shared sense of transcendence. This sensory dimension undergirds what Anne Taves (2009) calls the “special things” that identify religious experience. Quarantine immediately disrupted this embodied sense of transcendence, but also by rearranging familiar sensations in virtual environments invited new associations and new engagements with old knowledge.

The disruption of quarantine also brought out a subtler aspect of sensation in religion, toward which this essay now turns. Religion, broadly construed, may emerge from a sense of body and spirit intertwining, corporeal sensing itself becomes humanity’s encounter with divinity, the human body the site for the encounter. Contemporary thinking about religion tends to construe body and spirit as a duality, as mapped by Haag and Bauman (2012), among others. In this framework, transcendence is a discursive problem to be solved by discourse. However, as my own inquiries have shown, people’s sense of the interplay between embodiment and transcendence may not be oriented in this dichotomy. This religion proposes bodies, with all their sensory capacity, as the point in which people unknow the familiar to know divinity.

The pandemic has placed the human body everywhere in people’s awareness as we are surrounded by death and suffering seeking in our uncertain ability to restore health and life. A variety of spiritually oriented physical practices in America link bodily health with transcendence. Such practices are subject to critique, especially around issues of culture, social class, and solipsism. Critiques notwithstanding, I think we will want to take more seriously the various ways people in America link bodily health with transcendent spirituality. Bodily health may become more central to religious belief and practice as we move through this pandemic.

These practices are also adapting to quarantine. Their response has been to grapple with the virus as a human condition with transformational, if not transcendent, possibilities. Of the many and varied practices, these few give a sense of that response. The nonsectarian Garrison Institute, a meditation center in western New York state, offers a “Virtual Sanctuary,” addressing the problem of physical distance with an invitation to a deeper meditation practice:

How do we use this time to move towards connection and intimacy, rather than recoil in fear and further emotional isolation? How can we find the intimacy that is always available moment to moment? (Garrison Institute, n.d.)

Across the country, Spirit Rock, the well-known Buddhist retreat center in California founded by Jack Kornfield, aims for a skillful response to quarantine. Spirit Rock’s programs, resources for self-care and sangha (community), have moved online as Digital Dharma, which includes nonresidential retreats. The idea of a nonresidential retreat redefines the traditional religious experience of retreating from familiar activities and surroundings into solitude. Quarantine itself is already a form of enforced retreat from social interaction. A nonresidential retreat becomes a way of “practicing deeply in our living spaces” (Spirit Rock, 2020).

The sense of embodied spirituality in these practices intervenes when bodies are vulnerable, with full awareness that some bodies are more vulnerable than others. While the physical closeness of shared practice and retreats so often described as “energy” has been disrupted, these practices take a transformational attitude toward the present moment, social as well as individual. Health, as a soteriological aim, compels meeting the suffering of others with one’s own body, and the willingness to perceive in one’s own body an order with the status of the sacred. Taken seriously, this proposition of ordered corporeality and sacred bodies may reveal epistemological and experiential grounds from which to address the current social chaos centered on suffering bodies.

I encourage us to look for how physical health becomes more prominent in religious thinking and practice, to seek in religion’s proposition of transcendence ways to mitigate the human-predicament ways of chaos, death, and suffering, and to remember that in the world’s mythologies, humans oscillate between chaos and order, knowing and unknowing, life and death.

Donnalee Dox is Professor of Performance Studies and Interdisciplinary Religious Studies. She has published on medieval intellectual history, contemporary spiritual practices, dance, ritual, and contemplative practices.

DanceMeditation. (2020). Retrieved from

Garrison Institute. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Haag, J. & Bauman, W. (2012). De/constructing transcendence: The emergence of religious bodies. In D. Cave and R. Sachs Norris (Eds.), Religion and the body: Modern science and the construction of religious meaning (pp. 37-55). Leiden: Brill.

Spirit Rock. (2020). Nonresidential programs. Retrieved from

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building-block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wikipedia. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religion. Retrieved from–20_coronavirus_pandemic_on_religion.