Thoughts in a time of plague

I wrote a short piece for the London Centre for Spiritual Direction‘s May newsletter. Then a few days later I was invited to give a reflection at a Holy Communion Service on Zoom. I used the original piece as a springboard to engage with the scripture. Here is the delivered product.

Acts 12.24–13.5 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. Now in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.

This time of plague is a desolation for many: loss of work, loss of income, loss of health, loss of life; traumatic, dangerous front-line work; and decimated support services. Those of us not so endangered still suffer desolation. There is overwhelming uncertainty: where will we be next year, or next week!? How are we to live now? What is God’s call now?

Liturgically, I know it is Easter. Spiritually, I think we are in a wilderness. Belatedly perhaps, I have realised that this is a time of liminality.

To give you a bit of context, I do quite a bit of spiritual direction and I help form people in Ignatian Spirituality and as spiritual directors. I tend to hear two kinds of response to lockdown from people I listen to. Some struggle with isolation, loneliness, inactivity, feeling lost. Others declutter, get things done, undertake new creative endeavours, and find opportunities to serve.

I’m feeling rather pleased with myself at the moment. Soon after lockdown, my mindfulness teacher and her colleague started offering practice sessions on Zoom to start the day. I joined the first one, which I enjoyed, and afterwards thought, “I can do that!” And so I now lead a couple of prayer-times on Zoom each week. This has led to other bits of writing and recording that I have put on the web. If truth be told, I’m feeling a bit smug.

When I ask people to place themselves somewhere in scripture, three stories recur: the Israelites in the Desert; Jesus in the Wilderness; the companions on the Road to Emmaus. Lockdown is liminal. It is not simply deprivation, it is the gap between slavery and the promised land; between baptism and vocation; and between Resurrection and Joy.

Liminal space has its temptations and calling. There are three temptations I notice in myself and others.

The first is escape. Netflix, 24-hour news, “fear porn”, and online shopping enable our favourite narcotics. Ignatius knew that our greatest danger is addiction. The Spiritual Exercises are replete with references to our “inordinate attachments” [e.g. 1].

I’m prone to this. I’m a head-in-the-sand kind of guy. My particular narcotic is American cop shows and Jason Bourne-style films. Or computer and website geekery. I easily fall asleep to myself and to God.

The second temptation is despondency, like the Israelites in the desert or the companions going to Emmaus. I lose hope, forget dependence upon God for daily bread, I think I am less than I am. Ignatius outlines the basic tactic the “evil spirit” employs [315]. “Fallacious reasonings” (what CBT calls “cognitive distortion”) induce “sadness” (“Look what I have lost.”) and “anxiety” (“How will I cope when…”). The psychologists call it ‘rumination’. I lose trust in God and myself.

Personally, I experience this as a lack of trust that I have anything worth contributing. It is a kind of deflation.

The third temptation is seeking solutions: turning stones into bread, making a spectacle, taking control, forging a glittering idol. I forget dependence on God for discernment, become the ‘self-made man’, think I am more than I am. Ignatius says that there are times when the evil spirit appears to us as an “angel of light”, making suggestions that appear good at first blush, but incrementally lead us away from God [332]. Trust in myself replaces trust in God.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the work I am doing in this time of plague. It seems to me that this was Jesus’ temptation in His wilderness: the temptation to inflation. It felt ironic to be asked to say a few words to you all as I am pondering the temptation in myself towards inflation. My tussle at the moment is the conviction that there is work to be done, work that I think is important, and remembering that I am not that important.

I am struggling to hold the face of Jesus before me in all that I do, so that I am sent, not self-propelled.

I am in awe of these early Christians. They actually seem to pray and listen to God and follow through on what they hear. I realise this might be naïve. I know they fought. I am sure there were those who manipulated. Wherever two or three are gathered, there is always a power-play. I want to hold on to an ideal, nevertheless.

John 12.44–end Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’

When I hear Jesus say “Him who sent me,” and “the Father who sent me,” and the clarity and authority with which He articulates his mission, I think, “How the hell did He get to know this so clearly? How did Jesus and his early post-resurrection followers get such a clear notion of being ‘sent’?”

And then I think, “Well they surely suffered through their liminal wildernesses!”

People talk about this as a time of massive uncertainty. There is this immediate pandemic, none of us knowing what is happening each week, and God knows where we will be next year. There is also the looming climate breakdown and environmental catastrophe. The truth is that our lives are always uncertain, it just doesn’t feel like that when we have diaries and Google. Uncertainty brings out the desire to escape, to deflate, or to inflate.

This is not a time to look for meaning, I think. I suspect that in times of uncertainty, the only question we can really ask God is, “What do You want me to do now?” Like the 12-steppers that we all are (though most of us pretend we are not addicts), it can only be one day at a time.

It is a mortification to refrain from planning and producing.

Escape, deflation, or inflation, the sickness is self-preoccupation. And pre-occupation is not occupation – not centred, not present. Self-centred is the opposite of a centred self.

Escape, deflation, or inflation, the remedy is awareness; turning to God; a centred, present self; gratitude; and kindness to self, always kindness [e.g. this]. I want to be clear here: Analysis is not criticism. It is learning to inhabit wilderness without seeking escape or resolution (Rowan Williams, Lost Icons, 148). This is neither straightforward or easy. The way between despondency and undiscerned activity is narrow. When we lose our footing, it is only kindness that can set us straight.

When we experience consolation, which is to say, when we experience the love of God and trust in God, Ignatius suggests we store up a supply of strength for the coming desolation. In desolation, we can draw on this store of strength, not for comfort (although it is comforting), but in recollected faithfulness to the experience of the love and fidelity of God [323–4].

What are the experiences of love and trust in our lives that we can embrace now?

I believe we are called to prayer, self-examination, and theological reflection in this time of plague. How else are we to know how to respond?

So this is my struggle: to remain present and alert; to keep faith with my experience that God is with us and for us; and to be open to being sent: to wait and listen for the answer to my question, “What do You want me to do or say right now?”

What is your sense of God’s call at this time? Please tell me your thoughts.

Desert, Newberry Springs, CA (photo by Julian Maddock)
Desert, Newberry Springs, CA (photo by Julian Maddock)

4 thoughts on “Thoughts in a time of plague

  1. I am finding it interesting to hear you ‘talk’, rather than ‘listen’ (which is your proper role when we meet) From your words I have discerned myself as a ‘category 3’ character … I look forward to talking together on 14th.

  2. To support those it’s been given me to support. To be as kindly and compassionate as I can manage to others ( not always successfully done!) Not to fret about things to which I can make no difference. To pray, for and with the world. And to pray again, for and with the world. And to continue to do so…whatever. And to live in the present, and be grateful for each day.
    My particular prayer is that out of all this a better world might emerge…that this opportunity won’t be wasted…a fond hope?

    1. Thank you for these thoughts, aspirations, and prayers, Paul. I love, “not always successfully done!” I identify. I’m grateful for the prayers you offer and the hope you carry.

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