One of the inevitable consequences of the world’s focus on COVID-19 has been the barrage of comment and advice, both good and bad, freely meted out online, via radio, TV and traditional print media. By this stage of Lent we generally want to be a little quieter, a little more intent on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but it seems we can’t. We had been hoping for some ‘quiet time’ but instead we seem to be steeped in even more noise and activity than usual. Then we remember. Christ’s ‘quiet time’ was spent in Gethsemane and Pilate’s palace, being questioned, mocked, abandoned by his friends. Then came the long, exhausting trek out to Calvary, where the taunting continued, and finally, death on the cross. Is our longing for quiet time just a touch self-indulgent, a protest against the turmoil in which we find ourselves?
It is difficult to answer that question honestly because we all have a way of putting a good gloss on what we want to do, but I think we can take heart from the thought that desiring quiet, desiring to be alone with the Lord, is itself a grace. Circumstances may prevent our responding as fully as we would like, but providing the desire is there, the grace is there, too. To me that is a great encouragement. This year Lent is taking us down some unexpected paths but they are not all negative, far from it. We have something new to learn, some fresh flowering to experience.
Yesterday millions of people across the globe joined with Pope Francis in praying for an end to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many were able to watch online as, on a rainy Roman evening, a tired-looking figure dressed in white stood alone in the vastness of St Peter’s Square and addressed the city and the world with a message of hope and trust. The photograph taken by Reuters struck me as the most eloquent I’ve seen so far. It may be copyright, so I’ve put a link to it rather than incorporating it into this post as I would have liked — you can view it here: https://images.app.goo.gl/32mvFoajGQkVBLvr7.
For me that image expresses both the strength and the frailty of faith. What the pope said was a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm. I believe that (most of the time) and try to live my life by it. I do so in union with others. Anyone who has ever attended a papal Urbi et Orbi will know the sense of communion with others that being in Rome gives. We stand next to someone whose language we may not speak, whose customs are very different from our own, and yet we are one with them in Christ. That is the strength of faith.
COVID-19, however, has shown us the frailty of faith, too. When the churches are closed and the sacraments unavailable, when we cannot meet one another for worship or fellowship, then we stand like the pope, alone before the Lord. For some, that is a terrifying experience. Faith falters, and we feel abandoned. The less comforting passages of the Old Testament come to mind. We think of punishment and damnation, of drowning in a sea of pain and suffering. But as the pope said, COVID-19 is not a judgement on us, not a condemnation. It is, rather, an invitation to go further, deeper. We are all in the same boat — but with the Lord!
Paradoxical though it may seem, I believe that this Lent we are all being asked to stand alone before the Lord as Moses stood, interceding for his people; as Jesus stood, interceding for the whole of humanity. We are being invited to embrace a vocation much bigger and more demanding than we expected — one that is meant for us all, not just popes and nuns and those we might think of as the ‘professional pray-ers’. That strange but luminous Urbi et Orbi of yesterday was indeed for everyone.
Almost the only topic of conversation online or off seems to be COVID-19 and its implications. Every day we hear of more restrictions being imposed, more curtailments of what we like to think of as ‘normal life’. Amid so much gloom, it is easy to forget that we are in Lent and that Lent is the springtime of the soul, preparing us for the most important event of all time: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Latterly, I think the sunshine here in England has helped lift our mood. Flowers have graced our gardens and window boxes, while the hushing of roads and streets means we can hear the birdsong often drowned out by the noise of cars and lorries. But what has been going on interiorly? Has the Lenten springtime really touched our souls?
Many clergy and communities have rushed to put their services online or to offer reflections designed to encourage their congregations in a time of stress and anxiety. Individuals have been generous in offering practical help and moral support to those in need. But what of the inner journey each of us is called to make during Lent, the journey from death to life? Today would be a good day to pause for a moment and consider where we are. How have prayer, fasting and almsgiving characterised our Lent so far? Do we need to reassess what we are doing or not doing in the light of our present circumstances? One of the great temptations of Lent, as of the Christian life in general, is what we in the monastery call Elijah Sickness. Just as Elijah was tempted to sit down under a tree and give up, so are we. We begin well, then we become distracted, bored or weary. Let’s remember that the Lord’s mercies never cease, they are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22–23). We still have some way to go till Easter, but He will be with us every step of the way. Be encouraged!
We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.
We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.
If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?
That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).
Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.
Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
During the past few days I have become increasingly uneasy about the response of some Christians to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In Catholic circles there has been outright war in cyberspace over the suspension of public celebration of the Mass in many countries. Some priests and pastors have chosen to defy their bishops; others have opted for live-streaming the Mass, organizing Eucharistic processions, or launching into videos or podcasts intended to meet the pastoral needs of their congregations. Lay people and others have condemned the decision to suspend the Mass and accused others of lacking faith or even, in extreme cases, of doing spiritual harm to themselves by denying what is essential to their being. Now that the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York have suspended public services in England, the war zone has become even wider. It is all rather noisy and confusing. Indeed, it led me yesterday to question whether we ourselves should step back a little from our own online engagement because the religious cyberspace is becoming rather crowded.*
Then, thanks to a friend, I read a no-nonsense response to the current situation from Don Antonio Gómez, the bishop of Teruel and Albarracín. He is not responsible for anything I say here, but he helped crystallize my thoughts. We are behaving like sheep, and rather unruly and bad-tempered sheep at that, with pastors treating their people as unable to do anything of themselves, and people treating their pastors as super-daddies, without whom they will perish. We will all perish if we go on scrapping and arguing as we are now, priests and people alike. So, let’s be clear about a few basic points.
The Church will never fail because she is founded on the rock that is Christ. During the long years of the Interdict in England, when none of the Sacraments could be celebrated, faith did not die, nor did anyone lack the graces he/she needed. The Nagasaki Christians survived for centuries without the Mass. I am not saying that not having Mass publicly celebrated is a good thing, no, never. One of the sad things about my illness is that I can rarely be present at Mass, but I may have begun to learn from that experience something worth sharing with others. God is bigger than our human perceptions. He can work through anything, and he often chooses experiences which seem to us negative to teach us something far from negative. For example, if we are lamenting being deprived of the Mass, we may well need to see the Mass in less consumerist terms, i.e. it is not about me and what I want for my spiritual life but what the Mass means for the Church as a whole, which must necessarily include those unable to have Mass because of lack of priests or illness or political repression. Mass is being celebrated somewhere every hour of every day. It is the eternal sacrifice of the Church, in which we all take part whether physically present or not. Let’s not forget that.
I am no great fan of broadcast Masses, as some of you know, so how do I link the Mass at which I am not present with my own experience, here and now? Quite simply, it is done though prayer — and I do mean prayer, not prayers. I have seen innumerable exhortations to say this or that prayer to make a spiritual communion. I don’t want to knock them. I am sure many people find them helpful and good. But could I put in a plea for fewer words, more silence, for the prayer of simple longing and adoration? For the prayer of lectio divina and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) in which we allow the Word of God to take charge; for the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence in which God does all because we cannot do anything? Instead of rushing from one thing to another, perhaps we are being asked to slow down, to give time to prayer, even to waste time in prayer?
This is proving to be a strange Lent. We have been asked to give up many things we would never have dreamed of being asked to give up. We have been asked to be unselfish in ways we would never have contemplated. Could it be that now we are being asked to learn to pray again? To give up some of the rituals we have not valued quite as much as we think we did, so that we may learn again how very precious they are? To give up some of our old words so that the Word of God may fill our being in new ways? In short, to allow Christ to pray in us?
*Some people address tweets and posts to me as a way of gaining attention for themselves, but it can cause consternation among those who think I share their views — which often I don’t. I’m also a bit sceptical about the quality of some of the broadcast material. We do not need to fill every void.
Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?
For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.
At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.
Is there anyone who does not love today’s gospel, John 4. 5–42? It turns all our ideas of what is proper upside down. A Samaritan woman (shock, horror, not an orthodox believer— the wrong sex, too) comes to the village well when all the respectable women have long since gone and encounters a strange rabbi who asks her for a drink. The dialogue that ensues shows her to be lippy and smart and not afraid of breaking the conventions of the time. She is happy to talk to a man, and he with her. There is an ease and humour about what follows we would do well to note whenever we are tempted to be stuffy or stand on our dignity. Scripture scholars tell us that the five husbands, who were not actually husbands, represent the five idolatrous kingdoms, but I myself find that they have much greater impact if we take them literally as the woman’s previous lovers. Here is a woman with a colourful past, as my parents’ generation would say, who questions Jesus, won’t be put down, and leads a whole community to faith. She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.
One of the great problems we face is learning how to be ourselves. I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing sense. Rather, we need to accept that, flawed though we are, we are truly loved by God, and he goes on loving us no matter how often we fall short of what, with his grace, we might become. Many people can’t quite believe that and waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to win a love to which they feel they have no claim, not recognizing that God’s love comes to us as sheer gift and will never fail or forsake us. All that beating of breasts and lamenting one’s failures strikes me as being a form of appeasement, unworthy of the God of Christian revelation. Lent provides us with an opportunity to get back to basics. We begin by correcting our distorted image of God as a harsh taskmaster, allowing him to speak to our hearts, to reveal himself to us in the scriptures and sacraments, in times of quiet prayer and secret almsgiving. It is a process, not achieved in a single moment.
If we are fortunate enough never to have been burdened with a distorted image of God, there is still work for us to do. The early Cistercians, for example, never tired of talking about restoring the likeness of God to God’s image in us. Without using those terms, I think the Woman at the Well understood better than most that she was already valued, loved by God and able to be herself in his presence. She already reflected the image of her Creator. Her meeting with Jesus restored the likeness some refused to acknowledge and enabled her to share that gift with everyone she met. Something to think about, I suggest.
Let’s start with what it is not. The Covid-19 coronavirus is not an excuse for scaremongering, stockpiling, spreading false information, exploiting or attacking those who are fearful or anxious about the implications of the disease. I have been astonished — that is the most neutral word I can find — at the behaviour of some who ought to know better, but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the morality of what they are doing. At the very moment the WHO has been trying to impress on us all the seriousness of the outbreak, some have been trying to undermine their work by wrenching statistics from their context or posing as experts in areas where they know no more than the average Tom, Dick or Henrietta.
Now that the whole of Italy is in lockdown, perhaps we might think about what the Covid-19 coronavirus is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It is a new form of coronavirus for which we currently have no vaccine. If you have read any account of how it attacks the body, you will understand why one would not wish to die from it. The later stages are simply horrific. Among those who have recovered, there is speculation that a few may experience lasting damage to the liver and kidneys. That just highlights how little we actually know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that it is spreading fast and having a major impact on the lives not only of the sick and those who care for them but also of others dealing with quarantine regulations and the fall-out, both social and economic, that such a disease causes. In other words, it is nasty, but exactly how nasty is best left to the virologists and medical officials who know what they are talking about to determine.
So, why are some people deliberately flouting common-sense precautions, such as regular handwashing, or ridiculing arrangements intended to slow the rate of its spread? Is it because they are inconvenient, or put some small fetter of responsibility on those who want to be completely free? Why are some clergy pooh-poohing instructions designed to protect as many people as possible from infection? Is it because they fear that once people have got out of the habit of Mass-going they may never return? Why are we being so selfish? Could it be that we are not making the connection with Lent and its call to be generous, to put the needs of others first? That can be particularly difficult when it means foregoing our own opinions or what we think is in our own best interest. St Benedict, as usual, leaves us in no doubt that we are always to do what is better for another. I hesitate to say that Covid-19 is an opportunity to learn that, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity to put it into practice.
We don’t often think of tenacity as being a particularly religious quality, but it can be a necessary one. Today’s Mass readings (Esther 4 and Matthew 7. 7–12) provide examples of persistence in prayer, but I think they also teach the importance of tenacity. We make known our need to the Lord, then we act.* Once we have decided on a course of action, we must hold to it otherwise our prayer is an empty babble. We are just saying ‘Lord, Lord’ and not really engaging, either with him or anyone else.
In the monastery, holding to a course of action to which we have committed ourselves (e.g living the monastic life) is usually called perseverance. These days the word can sound a little dull. We persevere against the odds; we stick stolidly to our duty. It is a trifle grim-sounding. Of course, to those of us trying to do the persevering it isn’t grim at all (well, only occasionally). Substitute the word tenacity for perseverance and we have something we can literally get our teeth into. It all becomes much more exciting — a challenge, an opportunity.
Esther’s prayer led her to courageous action; Jesus’ teaching on prayer emphasises the need for persistence and trust. In other words, whatever resolution we are led to make in prayer has to have effect in our lives. I wonder how we shall measure up to that today?
Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.
Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.
When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.