Category Archives: Pandemic

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful – even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them – that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction…

I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It’s interesting, isn’t, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)

Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good – some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit – such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation – comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Distance

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3 NIV)

This is, for many of us, intrinsically a hidden time. We live in varying degrees of isolation, most of us not at work in the physical sense, with most of our usual means of society closed to us – church, the pub, trains and buses, the everyday chat of shop and office – and we are confined to distance.

We fret to escape lockdown. We talk – at a distance – of what we may do when this is all over, where we’ll go, whom we’ll see. Some of us bend the rules; a few of us break them, and find themselves rightly in trouble with the police.

But Henri Nouwen wrote, in Bread for the Journey,

The largest part of Jesus’ life was hidden. Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, “under their authority” (Luke 2:51), and there “increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2:52). When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events. Jesus’ hidden life is very important for our own spiritual journeys. If we want to follow Jesus by words and deeds in the service of his Kingdom, we must first of all strive to follow Jesus in his simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary hidden life…

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

Even during his active ministry, Jesus continued to return to hidden places to be alone with God. If we don’t have a hidden life with God, our public life for God cannot bear fruit…

If indeed the spiritual life is essentially a hidden life, how do we protect this hiddenness in the midst of a very public life? The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone. Poverty is where we experience our own and other people’s weakness, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

We are in a time of solitude and poverty, all of us: even if we are stuck in a crowded house with three generations and someone with frank symptoms; even if we have a good pension, or a conveniently work-from-home job. The things we depended upon for our identity, our place in society, for our sense of our selves, have gone as surely as they go for those living the vowed religious life, or for those who have lost home and livelihood in some personal disaster. We are bereft.

digitalnun, in this morning’s Easter post, writes:

This morning, as we think about those women meeting Jesus as they come away from the tomb, it may be helpful to consider the obvious. They did not find Jesus where they expected to find him. They found him – or rather, he found them – where they did not expect, as they were coming away, disappointed at not being able to fulfil the task they had laid upon themselves. Sometimes we have to learn that what we think is important isn’t; that what God wills is ultimately best for us all; and that we shall meet God at a time and place of his choosing, not ours. We just have to be ready – and that is undoubtedly the hardest task of all.

We grieve for our closed churches, our empty meeting houses. But perhaps there is something going on behind the scenes. Perhaps if we keep very still, the shy Spirit may touch us in the distance, closer than breathing, with the softest wing of grace.

Helplessness or Prayer?

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NRSV

It is easy, especially at a time like this, with even the most ordinary facets of life interrupted and suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic and our precautions against it, to feel we have no idea how to pray, that we are helpless, and unsure if prayer is even a thing to do. So many of us are helpless in practical terms, or at least feel the little we can manage to do or donate is insignificantly small.

But here we are, and each of us can pray, after our calling. It truly doesn’t matter whether we can find the right words, or any words, so long as our hearts are with our neighbours, in the broadest sense of that word (Luke 10.25ff), and our loving attention is with God. It is all we can do. It may well be the very best we can do. Our grief, our very helplessness, are the things that God’s mercy in Christ can use (Matthew 5.1-12).

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ― Julian of Norwich, writing in the time of the Black Death.