My early morning walks are becoming cooler of late and as I walked I thought about Martin, a colleague at work who had been hospitalised with Covid-19. When he came back to work, I asked him if the experience of suffering that was inflicted upon him has changed him in any way. Though Martin did not say much about the details of the illness, he spoke of how grateful he was to be able to enjoy his fishing, the warmth of the sun on his skin and the sweet scent of spring flowers. He very much appreciated the beauty of nature and the natural world around him. While his journey to recovery was a difficult one, and one which most of us would not prefer to take, the virus did have a grip on us all at the height of its outbreak, directly or indirectly, it was not offering us much choice.
The thought that it could stop us holding or squeezing the hand of someone we loved when they needed it most was unimaginable before the instruction came: we were not to touch or be touched. Even our own face was out of bounds. How could we live without touch? How could we be denied the sense with which we first feel our way into the world, begin to explore and relate to it, test the waters and express our passion, curiosity and tenderness in ways far more nuanced than language?
For a moment, we were all so suddenly still and separate. More self-conscious of our breathing and our bodies than we had ever been, we started to wash our hands furiously to make ourselves clean, and taped our lives apart at a two-metre distance. In the early stages of daily allocated exercise, we weaved our way around each other, often with heads down, as if avoiding eye contact makes us occupy less space. Gradually, as the migrating birds appeared with their exuberant chatter, we lifted our gaze as we walked, exchanged a nod with one another and raised a hand in grateful recognition. Back indoors we mustered all the digital technology we had at our fingertips to keep us connected with the parish WhatsApp, Zoom Masses and constant use of telephones.
Both indoors and out, we were learning that touch, being in touch with each other and the way we touched the world around us, was at the heart of all our lives: all life was connected, and the way we each lived our own would affect the balance of the whole. However superficial our differences, we shared the same common desire for constancy, to navigate our way through this crazy crisis.
I, as I have mentioned before, found mine on my early morning walks among the fields of green and life springing up around me, noticing even the grass growing as I waded through woodland and hedge ways. With our lives almost on hold, I watched Nature press on, as the hawthorn blossom fizzed, willow catkins shed tiny cotton cloaks of seed, and the sun dazzling my eyes of wonder.
My senses heightened and I witnessed Nature moving on while the human race seemed to hesitantly creep forward. I seem to be struggling letting go of the spring and the summer and I think of Martin, my colleague having survived a cruel illness, which had thrown us all into confusion and fear, forcing separation and unsettling change in our lives, and yet forcing us to reflect and think again about the things that really matter most.
Though we have been hearing the clarion call to “KEEP SAFE” for the last six months, this should not be an invitation to become passive bystanders. We have of course, witnessed some amazing acts of courage, especially from key workers, some of whom have lost their lives in trying to save others. We have also seen those who have stood up to injustice with the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the many who have continued to struggle through their everyday lives in adapting to new situations because of their health problems or within their work situation. We need people like this to inspire us to have a creative spirit of courage that leads us to a newness of life.
I read recently about the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which kicked into high gear last August. Lewis (Lew) Grassrope, a 39-year-old former policeman, dropped out of his race for chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux, his tribe in South Dakota, and turned his attention to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in Cannon Ball, on the Missouri River. The tribe was gathering, with many others, to stop the building of the DAPL, a project run by the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners that would connect the North Dakota shale oil fields with the eastern pipeline networks in Illinois. Grassrope joined thousands of people from hundreds of indigenous nations—from every state in the United States and from countries as far flung as Tibet, Sweden, Guatemala, and Brazil. They became known as the Water Protectors of Standing Rock.
Their courageous, unflinching discipline inspired thousands to join them and millions to imagine with them a new world that is waiting to be born. They prepared themselves through prayer and ritual to face down sheriffs, paramilitary contractors, attack dogs, rubber bullets, pepper sprays, and high-pressure water cannons in sub-zero temperatures. They were fuelled by hope, hope for a revolution rooted in love – love for God’s great gift of creation. We cannot accept God’s invitation to help create a new story unless we are willing to take action. We become partners with God when we act in unfamiliar and often untested ways. These new actions will express itself in such ways as:
· Resilience in place of expansive development
· Collaboration in place of consumption
· Wisdom in place of progress
· Balance in place of addiction
· Moderation in place of excess
· Vision in place of convenience
· Accountability in place of disregard
· Self-giving love in place of self-centered fear
God still dreams of a just world at peace because gratitude will dissolve anxiety and generosity will eclipse greed. Mutual respect will bind humanity together and the profound beauty of creation will be treasured. The horizon of hope draws nearer and living in God’s dream we will rediscover who we truly are and all of creation will sing again.
St Augustine said that preachers should communicate with “hilaritas”, so as to provoke delight in their listeners. “Hilaritas” is usually translated as “cheerfulness”, which suggests that we should liven up our preaching with a few humorous remarks to stop people nodding off. Perhaps that’s why I throw in a couple of jokes at Mass. “Hilaritas” should carry us out of ourselves leading us to a deeper and greater joy. This is the exhilarating joy that is characteristic of Orthodox Judaism and perhaps all great Faiths. A fifteenth-century Sufi Imam, Mullah Nasruddin said: “I talk all day, but when I see someone’s eyes blaze, the I write it down.” He once went off from his office desk for about one hour. When he returned his boss asked him where he had been for the last hour. He told him, “I went to get my hair cut”. “You should not get it cut in office time”, said the boss. “Well, I grew it in office time”, said Nasruddin. “Not all of it” answered the boss. “But I didn’t cut all of it”, said Nasruddin.