By Reverend Lester Scott
ONE member of my parish in Aghade, Co Carlow told me on the phone the other day that she saw this time of social distancing as a time of ‘retreat with herself’. Isn’t that a wonderful way to see this thing we now call ‘social-distancing’?
And isn’t social distancing itself a rather poor label? We are social beings, after all. Haven’t you noticed that people are more likely to greet each other these days when they might pass? Can we ever be distant from our social existence? I don’t think so. We can withdraw from crowds, we can retreat, but we can never be distant from each other.
Distance is not measured in feet – for example, the six feet, or two metres the HSE tells us to be apart from each other. Social distance is an emotional, spiritual condition. So yes, ‘retreat’ is a better word than ‘distance’.
People go on retreats to refresh their spirits and to renew their faith. Some religious orders such as the Poor Clares in Graiguecullen, Carlow live a life of isolation and retreat in a daily sequence of prayer for the world and those who come to them with petitions. Retreats can be solitary or communal experiences.
The concept of retreat per se also teaches us how to use time creatively. People in our own locality have formed a virtual community with emails and alerts and some are using their time at home to check on each other, to make face masks and other needful things for people. It’s an amazing time to come together while maintaining separation. Here is the message of the coronavirus: it has come. It is now a part of our vocabulary, our daily news. It is part of our lives and it will be for some time, maybe even for two years or more, and even after a vaccine has been found. It is transforming lives.
Perhaps it is helping us to transform our lives into a poem of love, a poem written by billions of people together, rising to God, even from those who do not know God. It goes beyond our religious and racial divisions. It is the collective groaning of humanity. It is what unites us. I believe that in these days of social distancing and lockdown, Jesus is telling us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him.
That’s the formula and it is not a morbid thing. ‘Retreat’ can help us see behind the curtain of fear and evil. The coronavirus pandemic fills most of us with fear. It is an evil invasion on our lives; and yet, it is bringing out the best in people. Okay, pharmacies find it difficult to keep stocks of hand sanitiser and face masks and supermarkets are struggling to maintain stocks of soap, flour and even toilet paper! Okay, so people are hoarding to a certain extent … even toilet paper. If that’s the worst that we can say about people right now, I say well and good! Hey, life has a modicum of difficulty without toilet paper! But except for toilet paper and some other panic buying, I’d say people are caring for each other. Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Christ.
We carry so much unnecessary baggage and very often this baggage is what keeps us not only from following Christ but from being with and for each other in a meaningful way. Here, too, the coronavirus becomes our teacher. As we spend less time driving around and wasting hours in shops looking at things we don’t need … and as we spend more time watching news reports of people dying and hospitals around the world burdened almost to breaking point, our powers of empathy are strengthened and we learn to value medical workers and other helping professions even more than we did before this pandemic began.
Covid-19 is forcing us to simplify our lives and to concentrate on what is most needful. As the separation among people grows for health and safety reasons, we paradoxically find ways to reach out to each other more profoundly than before. Oh yes, we also think of those who are already without work because of this virus and will have no dependable income after the government supports will eventually have to diminish; and perhaps the many who have no private health insurance either, in perspective of the longer timeframe. And let’s also remember those who have been forced to shut down their businesses – restaurants, for example. Can you support and help anyone who is not working? All this touches on the dynamic of real community. Human beings are essentially good. But we get distracted by too many things that push us into selfish behaviour.
My own parents told me about all the rationing that went on during the years of the World War II. Will we go back to all our regular, wasteful habits when the crisis is over? Perhaps – that’s if the worldwide economic depression which is being predicted doesn’t stop us in our proverbial tracks. After all, it’s a struggle to overcome the ego when things are comfortable and easygoing. But that’s where our Christian faith comes to our aid.
When life returns to normal, don’t worry if your faith is faltering or becomes weak. Learn from this ‘season of the soul’ during the coronavirus. It is and can be availed of as a time to reorientate our lives. Yes, these days have placed us under an immense burden of restriction, anxiety and stress. But what a potentially life- and world-transforming burden this is! Let’s learn what we can from this burden. Don’t be overwhelmed. Retreat – yes, to a physically safe distance, but an emotionally and spiritually deep place, where distance disappears.