Archives for category: Lockdown

So my Lockdown lesson #2 concerns Fake news. After a lifetime of being an avid news hound, Lockdown has proved the ideal cure for my ‘news habit’. I am now ‘clean’, and no longer suffer withdrawals and an irresistable demand to newswatch.

My wife has had Covid-19. Not that she knew initially. She had no symptons that have been reported as indicators of Covid-19. No temperature, no cough, no breathing difficulties. Yet, she was unwell. Eventually she was ordered to take a test, which came back negative. However, those administering the test said it was only 80% accurate. Not heard that reported on the media or by government ministers indicating testing is a an essential tool in the war against Covd-19.

But now she did have pain in her lungs, trouble with breathing and she struggled with her voice.

The GP reuested to see her. Like a secret assignation she had to divulge the colour of her car and its registration number. On entering the surgery car park she was met by the GP in full PPE. Somewhat eery and a very different world to the one we’d left a few weeks previously.

Still no satisfactory answer. She returned home and a week later the GP phoned to see how she was. Reporting things were much the same, she was now directed to A&E. Here a four hour examination, bloods, chest X-rays, heart monitors, established she’d definitely had Covid-19 and was now left with a sever infection of the lungs and heart. Viral in nature and so no treatment possible. The body must fight as best it could and she was to rest.

Interestingly, in conversation with the medics, she learned that there were no guaranteed signs that indicated Covid-19. This viral infection attacked as it wished and took life whenever it could.

So what’s this to do with the media? Well, eight weeks into Lockdown I note the media seems to be pushing for a return to normality. Of course none of us knows what the new normal will be. In reality we listen to the news and must decide which ‘experts’ we choose to believe. Some say this pandemic will only be controlled through strict Lockdown. Others that we must take the risk, even if we keep the elderly under lock and key, fearing the economic collapse will prove more catastrophic than loss of life.

Cabinet politicians stepping up to the podium to offer a daily briefing, look as though they are struggling to conceal more than they actually reveal. No-one looks assured. The health ‘experts’ flanking the esteemed minister themselves sound less than convincing as they present clourful charts that, as with all statistics, tell the story the statistician wants to peddle. As someone once said, ‘A politician uses statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination’.

So, I’ve concluded that I cannot fathom anything useful from watching the news. A Prime Minister speaks of conquering Covid-19, whilst medical specialists explain you don’t defeat a disease, you only ever manage a disease. No-one can tell us whether PPE is available or not. The self employed patiently wait to see if there wil be any financial help come June. And major companies, such as the airlines, clamour for government bail outs to shield their shareholders from their responsibility for sustaining the business through these bad times in return for the rewards they’ve enjoyed during the good.

I however remain happy and optimisti; like a man freed from an addictive habit, for I no longer watch the news. I glance at the BBC headlines on my phone, yet again most of the information is confusing at best, deceitful at worst.

Now I am confident in one thing alone. As the Psalmist declares, ‘You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed‘.

So I ignore the news, and accept the truth that in reality my days are already determined by God, and so there’s no point in anxiety. I could not be in safer hands; and I pray that once my allotted time runs out I embrace my departure with courage and conviction.

 

Fr. Santo, chaplain of a hospital in Bologna, witnesses a great desire for God among the sick, doctors, and nurses during the Covid emergency.

Fr. Santo Merlini

My name is Fr. Santo Merlini, I belong to the Fraternity of Saint Charles and since 2013 I’ve been the chaplain of Sant’Orsola Hospital. The situation of the pandemic has called me to a new step and a new beginning, in the span of a few days the hospital has assumed a new face and I wasn’t able to do my work in the same way I could before, in front of many people sick and alone, in front of so many that die without their loved ones. Different wards of the hospital had to equip themselves in order to confront a situation for which they weren’t prepared, so that the surgical, ENT, emergency, and other departments transformed into COVID wards, having to rethink the entire department. Then in the span of a few days they put in place exceptional intensive therapy to respond to the growing need.

Little by little, even without knowing these departments being that I worked prevalently for the pediatric and OB wards, I searched for ways to enter in, pushed by our Bishop whom I thank for sustaining and encouraging me. I speak with him almost every evening and he is very concerned for the many patients who are alone, he pushes me to not stop in front of the difficulties that I encounter.

I began to visit the COVID intensive therapy patients and I was immediately struck by the doctors’ and nurses’ desire to take a short break to say a prayer. At my invitation to pray the personnel stopped, making the sign of the cross to pray with me. Finding almost all of the patients in a sedated state I blessed them and I pronounced the formula for extreme absolution. Then little by little I am getting to know some of the head nurses in order to organize my time and activity in the department. I began to enter into some COVID wards, only some, but it’s an important start while sometimes I receive calls from other wards from people who desire to receive the comfort of the sacraments.

Entering into the COVID ward is very tiring, you need to undergo to many laborious procedures of dressing and undressing, often even more than once in the same ward to go from one room to another. When you have all of those clothes on you sweat a lot and the two masks that you have to wear make it difficult to breath. It’s a struggle that I share with the doctors, nurses and social workers that have to wear those clothes for many more hours than I do. But I was struck by the desire for God that I found in the people that I visited. Almost all of them desired to say a prayer with me, the many elderly but also the younger patients, that are much more that we would expect. It’s not true that the virus only affects the elderly.

Sometimes we think that there’s no more faith, that no one desires to pray anymore. I hear it said often even by people of the Church. In these past few weeks I’ve seen that there’s a great desire for God, a desire that emerges strongly in the fragile condition of an illness that forces you to be alone for many days and surrounded only by suits and masks that make those around you unrecognizable. I was struck by the witness of one patient’s suffering – an over-eighty-year-old that lost her husband, him as well for the coronavirus, with which she had been together since they were 16. They spent an entire life together but at the moment of their separation they found themselves alone, in two different wards. While the other day a sick woman continued to ask me “God didn’t forget me, right?” I was there to tell her and the other patients that God hadn’t forgotten them, that in fact through their suffering they are closer to Him.

To make myself recognizable I draw with a marker or tape a cross on my scrubs and in this way people recognize me as a priest. Some patients, upon seeing me, have said “Finally!” I administer the collective absolution to the eldest or most critical patients, inviting them to confess themselves as soon as possible.

This work is asking me to sacrifice from a personal standpoint as well, the first of which consists in having gone to live by myself, depriving me of the companionship of my brothers Fr. Peppino and Fr. Marco. The fact that I’m doing this work for obedience, not for a desire to be heroic, comforts me. It wasn’t my idea to enter into the hospitals, and a year ago I would’ve never thought to find myself in a real and true battlefield, in which I have to defend myself from the attack of the mortal enemy: the virus. I feel myself one who simply responds to his obligation. I find, however, a great support in the presence of some doctor and nurse friends, with whom I share different moments of my day and especially a moment of prayer together every day. We are careful to respect the distances as the rules say: a distance, though, that is eliminated by the decisiveness of our prayer. Their presence reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one risking my skin to bring a little bit of comfort to the sick. There are the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, but also all of the cleaning and maintenance staff that heroically risk getting sick in order to put their lives in service of the sick.

Downing Street London

So the Lockdown continues and there’s a few lessons I’m learning; Lockdown Lesson #1.

The lessons are less about immediate survival, though that is one benefit. They are about refining my approach to llfe so I’m prepared once the Lockdown is eased. Lockdown is an opportunity both to take stock and take action over how I choose to live my future. I don’t need to replicate my past; I have a golden opportunity to change the way I live for the better.

Lesson #1 was triggered by an article published on the app Medium. It was a biographical reflection from someone who, as part of the university programme, opted to sign up for a season in a buddist temple. It was a momentary decision, and didn’t arise from a longing for silent contemplation. In brief they left early, driven mad to distraction through their dislocation from their life experience.

However, reflecting on Lockdown, they wrote;

‘Although I am living at home with my mom, being with my own thoughts this closely, for this many days, can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. In some moments of antsiness and boredom and low self-esteem, I would rather do anything other than sit here. I want to grab for things I am convinced can make the loneliness better ― productivity which leads to validation from others, busyness which keeps me moving just fast enough so I don’t have to acknowledge that I feel sad, scheduling back-to-back virtual hangouts so I can quell the small voice inside that tells me that people don’t like me.’

A list of distractions which alone can only create stress if forming the bedrock of daily living. They recalled the fact that on entering the buddist temple they had to surrender their mobile phone. This experience was like having a limb amputated. It struck a chord. How often do I reach for my mobile phone and idly flick throung news stories I’m not that interested in or endless Facebook newsfeeds for no apparent reason?

mayhem and madness

More troubling is that I do this whilst already distacted by some Netflix offering that fails to hold my attention.

This spoke to me. My mind is restless and demands constant stimulation. Yet, my active mind is never the space in which I shall find peace, tranquility or self realisation. It is always demanding I feed its restless energy, and in fact is driving me rather than actng as a valuable part of my persona. My brain thinks therefore I do; the tail very much wags the dog!

Silence, or wakefulness and watchfulness as I prefer to describe it, is not the ability to control the mind, but the refusal to follow where it chooses to lead. I start my day with 30 minites silence ahead of morning prayer,. I know my mind will seek to hijack and sabotage such minutes of pure watchfulness, but all I say is do your thing and I’ll remain present whilst disinterested in any thoughts you want to distract me with.

Like a spoilt child, my mind hates to be ignored. So it takes discipline and learning to leave it to its own devices, whilst I quietly contemplate the Divine, aware of the traffic noise my mind generates yet no longer engaged and thus distracted by it. This is the great learning that comes from entering the silent land.

So, Lockdown lesson #1; take your mobile phone, press the off switch and give it a rest. Whilst a useful device for certain purposes, like the brain, it soon demands my complete servitude. I live to please its every interruption and command. Yet, my will is neither fuelled by my brain nor my mobile devices. My will is the expression of my preferences. I determine the life and landscape I occupy.

Of course as a contemplative my phone seldom rings; few people feel the need for the services of a contemplative today. Besides which, poorly managed interruptions really defeat the very essence of the contemplative life. Separation is an essential part of my reality.

But I feel for all of us the rediscovery of the on/off switch for our mobile devices might be the quickest route to rediscover how best we might manage the restlessness that directs our lives. As we resume life beyond Lockdown this may give us a fighting chance to resist the temptation to subcontract our self-esteem and validation to external forces that both drive and rob us of the essential qualities that make us each unique.

The key is to move from being a victim of thoughts (the commenting, chattering mind) to being their witness (the heart’s stillness) . . . What we have observed of fear can be observed of practically any struggle with afflictive thoughts and feelings. We must move from being a victim of these thoughts to being their witness. Typically we spend many, many years being their victim. We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.
Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation

 

 

 

Captain Tom Moore is a bright ray of hope bursting upon a gloomy landscape. The exploits of this 99 year old army veteran have taken the country by storm. A great example that age is never an impediment to action. And action never needs to be imagined upon the grand scale to make a significant difference. I trust each one of us whose been inspired has also contributed to his cause. I’m personally pleased as Tom and I share the same birthday, April 30.

Of course, whilst this is a brilliant story, it also highlights the power of the media. What semed to him and his family an ambitious goal of £1000 for his walk of one hundred 25m lengths in his back garden has, at time of writing, grown to a massive £26,479,945; and still growing. Media attention has also led to the launch of his first single, a collaboration with Michael Ball, and this has charted at #1. And a public petition launched requesting the honours office to Knight Tom has received 852,000 signatures and is growing by the moment.

Good News

So a great ‘good news’ story at just the right time. Yet, it is a story fuelled by news media. Without this media hype, then perhaps Tom’s efforts would have remained at a very creditable £1000. It shows just how important the media is, and how easy it can be to seek to manipulate media for some personal advantage. In Tom’s case this has been accidental, not manipulativr, and is for the general good, both as regards our sense of well being and for the NHS, which is the most highly regarded institution in the UK, scoring higher than the monarchy in every opinion poll.

24/7 media remains infatuated with endless reporting of coronavirus, much of it not news but tedious ‘expert’ opinion. The majority of this opinion is ‘finger in the wind’ prediction, since the very nature of an unknown virus means it’s unknown, so all predictions must be subject to a high percentage of doubt.

This reveals both how negative and limited our news reporting is. We must become increasingly skilled at discerning fact from opinion; this latter is never news. Perhaps one lesson from this period is that we would be more highly motivated and the national mood lifted if an equal amount of news coverage were given to upbeat everyday stories such as Tom Moore’s.

Two Grave Errors

As those who pursue Jesus in our everyday lives, we must also learn to steer away from an abuse of media. Today it is easy to make two grave errors. The first is to conceive of something as ‘good ‘ purely in the light of how well it wil play on the media. In other words we are looking to generate the audience through the means of some good, saleable Christian end. I’d suggest that the idea, if it is of value, is worthy of practising regardless of whether anyone else notices or not. For is it not God alone whom we serve? And is it not God alone who oberves our activities?

So beware, for media has made us assume that only if an activity is scaleable and becomes established in the marketplace of ideas and activities is it of proven value. Not so. God has little interest if our activity is known anywhere beyond ourselves and the Trinity. For what larger audience can there be but the Trinity, within which the entirety of existence is contained?

Beware the deception that popular success is the equivalent of Kingdom impact. That is the lie from the enemy of truth itself.

The second great error to which our media consciousness directs us toward are the fear of ending shipwrecked upon rocks of financial ruin. Every project or programme is assessed upon its financial viability. Much of which is in meeting the costs of those people designing and managing said projects and programmes. Tom has it right, he takes not one penny for himself for the only investment he needs to make is his human effort required to walk, with the aid of a frame, 250 metres (10x 25m); the bite sized chunks that made up his epic pilgrimage. Bite sized is a better approach than financial viability.

Great Ideas are Priceless

It was Oscar Wilde who is reported as saying that, ‘People know know the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Fortunately in this season of Easter, God demonstrates that value is of far more importance than price as the Crucifixion makes plain.

A great idea requires neither an audience nor an income stream. And great ideas are always those that benefit another rarher than myself. So inspired by Captain Tom, look to see how in this Lockdown season you might do some very simple things to support and encourage others. For this is the heart of what Tm has done. And whilst his story has enjoyed media magnification, it is so that millions of great ideas birthed throughout the British Isles, and around the world, might celebrate the fact that God is the God of the great ideas.

And for each one of us the only audience that matters, and indeed counts, is the Trinity of Father Son and Holy Spirit. Ideas expressed through action are the channels along which God’s mercy and love flow. And this is priceless as well as much needed in our world.

It is not yor business to succeed, but to do right;

when you have done so,the rest lies with God‘.

C. S. Lewis

 

Receiving mercy lies beyond my capababilities. It is always initiated by another. I am subject to their determination. Where justice is quite literally to receive my just deserts, mercy is an act of compassionate forgiveness in place of just punishment. Usually born of love, mercy has the capacity to change my perspective about myself, the world and ‘the other’, who extends mercy to me.

In a world that prefers to celebrate a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude to life, mercy can appear a weak and unhelpful intervention. It is often represented as a failure to punish misbehaviour appropriately. It never seeks to look beyond the act of misbehaviour to the reasons that gave rise to it.

The essence and power of mercy is illustrated in the oft quoted parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ encouragement to all of us is that the human response is to follow the example of this Samaritan. Perhaps, as the world struggles to address this global pandemic, it’s a time to remind ourselves that we are global citizens. This was something we were reminded about in the, ‘One World: Together At Home concert‘ last night.

Not to confuse matters, but as disciples of Jesus we are truly global citizens, for our citizenship, as St. Paul reminds us, is in heaven, and so the world is our stage. St. Paul also explains that material, sexual and ethnic distinctives are subsumed through are being joined to the resurrected Christ and thereby drawn into the company of heaven. This is often not our experience as our feet and fears remain rooted within our localised space; our experienced reality.

Within the Roman Catholic church, today is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday‘. A relatively recent addition to the church’s calender and one born of the revelations to a Polish nun, Saint Faustina. She had a short but impactful life, dying aged 33 in 1938. You may have natural suspicions over

Faustina Kowalska

revelations, yet I like this whole story for it is diarised conversations with Jesus and talked through with a spiritual director at the time. The whole account available on the public record.

The nub of the revelations is that Jesus is merciful and desires that we actively and practically consider those both known and unknown to us and bring them to God in prayer. This is so that they might enjoy God’s mercy; For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. I like both the simplicity and the inclusiveness of this prayer.

It has proved really helpful to Jayne and me here in the Oratory. This is a home of prayer, whose routines are ordered around our daily rhythm of prayer. For quite some time I was struggling with how to respond to God’s request that we carry the world at the heart of our Oratory life. This discovery opened the way. Now I say the Chaplet of divine mercy every day in my attempt to ‘Go and do likewise’, as Jesus directed.

Prayer softens the heart, breaks the stranglehold of both cynicism and despondency, and consequently gives birth to a lifestyle that seeks to act out mercy in practical ways everyday. It demolishes self centredness brick by brick and generates a servant heart, where, again to quote St. Paul, we are able to put others interests above our own.

Mercy

The purpose of mercy is never to ‘let someone off lightly‘ but to open their eyes to a realm of social interaction within which the sacredness of life is revealed. Unlike material goods there is no objective price that can be placed upon a human life, something a pandemic brings home with a stark reality. Each life is priceless. It’s value set through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a costly and personal sacrificial act.

Perhaps in this season of anxiety we can take some moments to remind ourselves that we are no more nor less valuable than our neighbour. That the geatest demonstration of my humanity is when I live with others in mind, or as Ron Sider said in his 1978 classic, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’, we are to live, ‘totally available to and with unlimited liability for one another’. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to bring the truth of this message home to us. So let’s not lose it going forward. Start with a simple, easily memorised, prayer;

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

And then, as Lockdown lifts, lets act out that prayer in our interactions with, as well as in our thoughts towards, others.

Simon & Garfunkel Concert, Central Park

Slow down you move too fast‘ was one of Simon and Garfunkel’s anthems that charmed us all in the late sixties. Wow! If the sixties were fast, then how would we describe today? Everyone working frenetically, more in search of survival than their dream or self realisation. How times have changed. Well up until ‘Lockdown: Covid-19, 2020’.

Now I am, if nothing else, a throwback to the sixties that framed much of the contours of my worldview. Certain foundational understanding was also established. So today I feel I live in a permanent state of retroversion, having the appearance of somethone that existed in the past. I guess that the hippy that took hold of my persona has never left; one reason I feel something of an alien at times within contemporary life.

Does this matter? Well, not to me. I’ve grown quite content, now that I have stepped away from the realised and hidden persuaders that mount a consistent assault upon my self esteem as I entertain a vacuous need to conform to some vague notion of what we are all meant to be/become. I have lanced this illusion, for illusion it was and forever will be.

However, even as I pursue my choice of life as a contemplative, a semi hermit devoted to prayer, the Lockdown has opened my eyes to how much more I need to, or at least might, slow down.

Here in St Cuthbert’s, Jayne and I have a wonderful garden we are slowly developing. In normal times it offers welcome, peace and pleasure to those seeking quiet contemplation – simply put, a time to step back and be still. This is something that Lockdown has imposed upon us all, whether we’re ready or not.

What I’ve appreciated is that the emergence of spring blooms, blossoms and flowers slowly emerge by degrees. Bare branches overnight sprout buds, yet those buds then take time slowly to open. Every part of that opening process is in slow motion. Day by day we walk and observe each tree and plant and marvel at the beauty of this opening process. Like a child, each stage is precious and perfect in itself, yet the adult who emerges is the perfection of all the frozen time frames, mental photos captured in our hearts and heads.

The simple learning is that discovering the beauty in slowing down is itself a product of deliberate action. It takes work and effort. Lockdown is a deliberate policy, enforced upon us. I know for some it’s tough to endure; no garden, crowded living spaces, tense relationships between adults and children. Yet, I’ve also heard wonderful stories of families who’ve completely reconstructed their lives. Praying together, playing together working alongside each other.

Indeed, one family even made a movie of their version of Red Riding Hood which they sent round to their friendship group to cheer us all up. They found the time to create something memorable together, embracing the time and seizing an opportunity from the midst of our present crisis.

Naturaly Lockdown will end. Life will resume. Will we breath a sigh of relief, ‘back to normal’? Yet, a normal that is in reality no more than a persuader, sometimes realised, more often than not hidden, that drives us. We react and respond to external assumptions that are presented as the rational proposal for successful living. Maybe, we might consider the birds as Jesus suggested. In my case I’ll be considering the trees and the plants, although the birds are also busy about feeding their young, so worthy of consideration.

I wonder if this ‘selah’, although imposed due to horrendous circumstances in which so many suffer and lose their lives, is perhaps an international call to pause, draw breath and decide if the objectives and reaities that made up our lives when entering Lockdown are those we choose to carry into the future that awaits us?

You and I alone can decide. I have my re-entry refrain ready; ‘Hello lamppost, what’cha knowing, I’ve come to watch your flowers growin

As media and others press government over when to loosen the Lockdown Rules, how is God reshaping our understanding of how we, the colony of heaven on earth, emerge?

Clement of Rome

Walk like a Christian

I, together with my friend Stuart, am looking at the Pre Constantinian church in some detail. Form the few surviving texts, it’s encouraging and challenging to discern how those first Christian comunities lived. Let me quote from St. Clement of Rome writing to the church in Corinth, perhaps as early as 65 CE.

‘…a complete absence of self assertion were common to you all…giving was dearer to your hearts than receiving…you paid careful heed to His words, treasured them in your hearts, and kept his sufferings constantly before your eyes.The reward was a deep and shining peace, a quenchless ardour for well-doing, and a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you all.You were full of aspirations to holiness…you harboured no resentments; any kind of faction or schism was an abomination to you. You mourned for a neighbour’s faults, and regarded their failings as your own. Never did you grudge a kindly action; always you were ready for any deed of goodness. In the beauty of a pure and lovely citizenship, whatever you did was done in the fear of God, and the statutes and judgements of the Lord were engraved on the tablets of your hearts.’

In the economic ‘crisis’ introduced through the Lockdown, many churches, charities and Christian events have been looking to find some safe economic harbour to secure their future. Yet, this is an opportunity to take stock. The future will require a people of faith who have the courage and the conviction to return to living after the pattern of those early Christians.

‘It’s no longer I who live…’

These first followers knew no earthly security. They banked upon Christ’s message of hope alone. They lived to illustrate the truths they gave voice to. They enjoyed no earthly security. I ask myself can I dare to live in that way? If not what do I truly believe of the Christian message I espouse and claim to practice? As Bonheoffer stated in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘,

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

A message for those on the front line

So it was that I was struck by what Pope Francis wrote to all those working in popular movements and organisations in encouragement and support of those on the margins of our society. That number may greatly increase following the economic hit of Lockdown. I quote,

If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting the marginalised“.

Is this not the same ‘invisble army’ that St Clement describes? Is it not the same ‘invisible army’ that you and I, as disciples, are members of?

As Pope Francie goes on to say,

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

Practical response

Perhaps the best we can do during Lockdown is to engage in a serious audit of our lives with God. Here we can determine our lifestyle choices, how best we might live in service of the belief we hold, once we emerge from Lockdown. There will be enormous pressure to resume business as usual. There will be a great temptation to turn a blind eye to the many casualties who stumble out of Lockdown. A significant opportunity will present itself to recalibrate the life and message we as church present to a troubled post pandemic world.

I’m remeinded, in this American Presidential election year, of the ianaugral address of President John F. Kennedy,

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country‘.

This is the very moment when we, the church, we who have chosen to shoulder the cross of discipleship, to carry the reputation of God upon our shoulders, must decide how we might live if we are to make any sense in the world and become something other than a clanging cymbal of futile sounds with no impact upon the eveils of our world.

I have included the full text of the Pope’s address, which I commend for a reflective reading and a provocation to prayer. Do let me know, stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com, how you are arising from the ashes of the pandemic lockdown, and be assured we are praying here in the Oratory for a bright and blessed future.

Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday Letter, 12 April 2020

To our brothers and sisters of popular movements and organizations 

Dear Friends,
I often recall our previous meetings: two at the Vatican and one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and I must tell you that this “souvenir” warms my heart. It brings me closer to you, and helps me re-live so many dialogues we had during those times. I think of all the beautiful projects that emerged from those conversations and took shape and have become reality. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, I think of you in a special way and wish to express my closeness to you.

In these days of great anxiety and hardship, many have used war-like metaphors to refer to the pandemic we are experiencing. If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are
solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing
problems afflicting the marginalized.

I know that you nearly never receive the recognition that you deserve, because you are truly invisible to the system. Market solutions do not reach the peripheries, and State protection is hardly visible there. Nor do you have the resources to substitute for its functioning. You are looked upon with suspicion when through community organization you try to move beyond philanthropy or when, instead of resigning and hoping to catch some crumbs that fall from the table of economic power, you claim your rights. You often feel rage and powerlessness at the sight of persistent inequalities and when any excuse at all is sufficient for maintaining those privileges. Nevertheless, you do not resign yourselves to complaining: you roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities, and the common good. Your resilience helps me, challenges me, and teaches me a great deal.

I think of all the people, especially women, who multiply loaves of bread in soup kitchens: two onions and a package of rice make up a delicious stew for hundreds of children. I think of the sick, I think of the elderly. They never appear in the news, nor do small farmers and their
families who work hard to produce healthy food without destroying nature, without hoarding, without exploiting people’s needs. I want you to know that our Heavenly Father watches over you, values you, appreciates you, and supports you in your commitment.

How difficult it is to stay at home for those who live in tiny, ramshackle dwellings, or for the homeless! How difficult it is for migrants, those who are deprived of freedom, and those in rehabilitation from an addiction. You are there shoulder to shoulder with them, helping them to make things less difficult, less painful. I congratulate and thank you with all my heart.

My hope is that governments understand that technocratic paradigms (whether state-centred or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the centre, united to heal, to care and to share. I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce. The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady
income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once
so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.

Moreover, I urge you to reflect on “life after the pandemic,” for while this storm shall pass, its grave consequences are already being felt. You are not helpless. You have the culture, the method, and most of all, the wisdom that are kneaded with the leaven of feeling the suffering
of others as your own. I want all of us to think about the project of integral human development that we long for and that is based on the central role and initiative of the people in all their diversity, as well as on universal access to those three Ts that you defend: Trabajo (work), Techo (housing), and Tierra (land and food).

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so
individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

You are the indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off. Moreover, when you testify that to change is possible, your voice is authoritative. You have known crises and hardships … that you manage to transform — with modesty, dignity, commitment, hard work and solidarity — into a promise of life for your families and your communities. Stand firm in your struggle and care for each other as brothers and sisters. I pray for you, I pray with you. I want to ask God our Father to bless you, to fill you with his love, and to defend you on this path, giving you the strength that keeps us standing tall and that never disappoints: hope. Please pray for me, because I need it too. Fraternally,

Vatican City, Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020

 

 

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Easter Saturday probably best equates to the lockdown in which we, like many other nations, find ourselves. There is an unnatural silence due to an absence of what we’d assumed until very recently were the actual sounds of normal life. We are left wondering if those sounds will ever return. Or has covid-19 ended once and for all the busy life we’d become so familiar with and habitualised? Now, as never before in our life experience, we have both time and space and it’s a luxury we’re not sure we want or can effectively utilise.

Time has been too easily squeezed into a narrow definition; that of ‘utility’. What can I achieve in the time that I have? How many ‘widgets’ might I produce? How much money might I accumulate? How far can I progress my career? All the while adding more demands, and with each demand increaed pressure, upon what can only ever be a finite quantity; 24 hours in any day.

This misunderstanding of time as utility confuses our rational mind. Now that we have the time many of us have longed for, we discover we are all too easily bored. At a loss of knowing what to do with boundless, albeit finite, time. This is because even our so called ‘free time’ we treated as utility. Whilst we longed for ‘vacation time’ and days off, we couldn’t help but rush to fill such space and time with holidays, theatre visits, bingeing on streamed TV series and the like.

There was never sufficient time to give any thought to consider investing time in doing nothing. This was after all  to waste a utility; nothing gives rise to nothing, which, by virtue of its ‘nothingness’, cannot be objectively measured and therefore enjoyed. Must enjoyment always relate to objective criteria? Nothing appears to give little useful sensual feedback for my empty selfhood struggling to find and express itself.

Living as a contemplative, committed to prayer here in St. Cuthbert’s Oratory, I have many times had to wrestle with the anxiety that my life amounts to at best very little, at worst nothing whatsoever. For where can I locate the objective measure for my value? ‘Oh’, I hear my imagined critics saying with some disdain, critics who I’m sure include members of my own family, ‘what a waste of a life. Such a promising start; Oxford and national Christian leadership. Now all squandared by simply doing nothing‘.

I fight back against all such tormentors of the mind, for if they take hold, and resistence is a perennial struggle, then I am cast into the deepest depths of despondency. My self confidence drains away. My focus is entirely upon myself rather than remaining fixed upon Jesus. Like Peter I slip beneath the cold, tempestuous waters of a Galileean lake out of fear that my life decision has left me to drown in the arrogance of my own presumption.

Yet, all those who treat time as utility can also all too often remove their gaze from God in their quest to find how they might make the most of time as utility. Many are convinced they are furthering God’s cause. However, scripture is clear, God’s cause is in no need of any help; never has been and never will be. Surely Easter, the consummation of God’s incarnate sojourn, is evidence, if any were required, that God’s cause remains entirely at God’s discretion. There is and never was any need to look for human encouragement or involvement.

That’s why nothing is perhaps the best response once one has made one’s peace with God. The ‘lending God a hand‘ mentality reveals to me an all too human need to fill my time with some worthy cause from which I might draw down some sense of my own purpose and value. Yet, my ultimate value has been disclosed by the ends to which God went to woo and win my heart. I contributed nothing to God’s decision to do so, nor to God’s strategy and method in accomplishing this great redemptive miracle.

So, why does Easter Saturday resonate so closely with our current lockdown staus? It is beacuse for this one day all of creation holds its breath. God, in the expression of Jesus, has died and is gone. The whole universe is teetering on the edge of the abyss of despair and destruction. Satan is already making plans for his coronation and entering into his assumed kingship. This can ony be to the detriment of all humanity. For one whole day the promise remains just that; a promise! Only Easter Sunday will provoke a galactic sigh of relief. It will reveal that God remains true to God’s word, even though not to do so is an impossibility for God by God’s own admission. Yet, it’s Saturday, and Sunday has not yet arrived; nor has Jesus.

Whilst Jesus is in the tomb, or visiting Hades with a message of Good News, there is nothing humanity can do. It is indeed the very essence of Sabbath. A period of looking to and waiting upon God. Waiting with the bated breath of uncertainty. We can only contemplate our complete impotence to change our circumstances, however much we hope and dream we might. We remain dependent upon the intervention of God alone. Yet, this is forever true, even when not facing a life changing pandemic. It’s simply that now the volume of the silence has been turned up.

So today, let us reflect upon how we can make peace with our doing nothing. That is the nothing that opens the cavernous space, an opportunity, to contemplate God and yearn for the fulfilment of God’s promise. The scale of that promise exceeds my ability to enter any comprehensive description save that it is the fulfilment of all things; it is the total fulfiment of myself.

My today will involve morning prayer, consideration of the mercy of God, the silent contemplation of Jesus, all those things whose utility is non-measurable this side of eternity. Yet also all those things that provide the heartbeat for any healthy Christian disciple. Like the disciples hidden somewhere in Jeruslaem, fearing their discovery and destruction, we too must wrestle with the promise of God and fight to maintain our prayer of hope for the resurrection of life beyond Covid-19, a life I pray that, just as the disciples and the emergent Christian church dscovered, can never go back to what it had been prior to that first Easter weekend.

Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.

Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.

In unforseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care. Amen

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