A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
THE coronavirus pandemic has impacted all our lives, sometimes in very dramatic ways. Many people have lost their jobs. Others are furloughed. The Government is insisting that if at all possible we should work from home.
It is inevitable that there should be a profound sense of loss, an anticipatory experience of retirement. Except that, in this instance, it was unplanned, sudden and not anticipated; consequently, all the more traumatic. The emotional fall-out associated with retirement is experienced in a more intense manner.
‘Work provides structure and rhythm to our days. Discovering for the first time in our lives we are ‘time affluent’ can be disorientating.’
People talk about a profound sense of loss associated with retirement. This is because our role in society is defined very often by our work or career. It gives us status and esteem and creates a sense of purpose in our lives. It is as if our very identity is threatened. We also lose the support of colleagues, we miss the camaraderie, the banter and friendships; the daily interaction is wrenched as it were from our lives. People have shared with me how painful this can be.
As well as that, work provides structure and rhythm to our days. Discovering for the first time in our lives we are ‘time affluent’ can be disorientating.
However, in time of pandemic, this profound sense of loss is exacerbated by the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Many of the things that help us all to function well (not only in retirement) are disappearing. Ordinary life has shut down: schools are closed, cinemas and theatres are in darkness; pubs and restaurants reduced to take-away outlets.
People can no longer attend Church. Normal social outlets which help us to function well are off-limits. I am thinking of various sporting activities and club membership which involve a high-level of social interaction. On a personal level, I really miss the Saturday morning runs with our group.
Our health and well-being really depend on human contact. Opportunities for such contact are now greatly reduced. I’m thinking particularly of so many older people who can no longer hug their grandchildren and are forced to remain isolated from their friends and neighbours. The deprivation of such contact enforced by social distancing measures has caused much grief and sadness.
With such profound experiences of loss and grief, I feel really challenged by the profound existential questions and indeed threat posed by this pandemic. And there are no easy answers.
But there are sources of wisdom in our tradition which can help us navigate this crisis. I will reflect briefly on these. First of all, I would like to share a piece I stumbled across lately which actually predates the Christian tradition.
Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman, wrote this piece in 44 BC – I think he was 60 at the time.
“How wonderful it is for the soul when – after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarrelling and other passions – these battles are at last ended and it can return…to live within itself.”
He sought to demonstrate (according to an expert) that “the later years could be embraced as an opportunity for growth and completeness at the end of a life well lived.” Wise counsel surely which is as relevant today as it was in the era of the Roman Empire.
I’m suggesting that perhaps we could use this enforced leisure period due to Covid-19 as a time for growth and creative self-development, as a time for openness to our inner-self and capacities. It could be a graced time in which we can identify what really nourishes and fosters our growth as human beings, what really matters.
As for myself, I have begun to realise that, like Martha in the gospel story, I have been busy with so many things. It was a busyness that was soul destroying.
Due to the enforced restrictions, I have more time for soul work…to pause and to reflect and to appreciate the wonders of the world around me, to be grateful for all I have received particularly in terms of friendship, love and support. The experience of the last few weeks has helped to appreciate the importance of creating this space in life.
It is really about living fully in the present. Instead of thinking about what we should be doing in the next hour, or being oppressed by a kind of nagging to do list, living in the present deepens our capacity to be present to others, and to become much more compassionate.
Putting aside time for reflection, prayer and meditation, utilising the wonderful resources which have been developed in the Christian tradition for over 2000 years, will I believe assist in the re-creation of a new self, more at peace and more in tune with life all around.
Love is the focal point for all the symbols, creed and doctrines of the Christian faith. The famous medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, reminds us that “we are endlessly loved with an endless love”. Accepting that we are loved, just as we are, by a God of love and will always be so loved is I think powerful in the face of loss and change and trauma. It assures us we are not alone and gives us reason for our hope.
Hope of course is one of the primary gifts of Christianity to the world. We can seek this gift in this troubled time.
Joan Chittister, leading author on spirituality, puts it very well: “hope rides on the decision to believe that God stands on this dark road waiting to walk with us towards a new light again.”
So, when we feel that our life has been interrupted or makes no sense, hope reminds us that our story is part of a far greater story, the story of God-with-us.
Listening to a talk during the week, I was reminded of a famous quote by CS Lewis. Writing at the outbreak of World War II Lewis remarked that “the war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” So too with this coronavirus.
We are confronted with the fragility and frailty of life and that we are always on the edge of a precipice. But, as I said, it is also a period of grace in that we have time to reflect on what is most important.