One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has simultaneously amused and horrified me has been the survival tactics adopted by various people. If their social media posts are to be believed, they have ranged from eating and drinking too much, making sourdough loaves, and de-cluttering to learning sanskrit, dieting and binge-watching Netflix. I wonder about those not posting on social media, those in low-paid jobs (or perhaps, no job at all), struggling with depression or another form of ill-health, those just desperate to get by and seeing no end in sight to their troubles. In the monastery, we have encountered a few practical difficulties, but the routine of prayer, work and observance goes on day after day, largely uninterrupted by events outside the cloister. We are, after all, accustomed to solitude, silence and dealing with most domestic emergencies by ourselves (boiler break-downs excepted). But that isn’t really a survival tactic, is it? It is simply ordinary monastic life. A survival tactic suggests to me a way of coping with the extraordinary, and today’s Mass readings strike me as providing a very profound one.
The first reading, Ecclesiasticus 27. 33 – 28.9, is a searing indictment of anger and resentment which bring death to the soul. The gospel, Matthew 18.21–35, is a direct warning of what to expect if we fail to forgive. But it is the second reading, Romans 14. 7–9, which provides a wider context for both. The way we ourselves live, our readiness to forgive, affects not just ourselves but others and taps into the life and forgiveness we experience in Christ. If we pause for a moment and reflect, that is extraordinary. It gives to our whole life a significance and purpose that we might not recognize. What we think and say and do matters. We can give life, or inflict death. St Basil says somewhere that if we have love in us, God dwells in us; but if we harbour hatred and resentment, the devil dwells within us. The choice is plain. Whatever our external circumstances, whatever restrictions the pandemic may impose upon us, we can channel this life-giving love and forgiveness towards others and in so doing discover that we have received the same gifts. A survival tactic? Yes, and more than that.