Pandemic As Sacred Context

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to examine and evaluate the daily stuff of our lives. We have been asked to step back from our usual activities and withdraw from life as usual. In the past few months, we may have needed to readjust our occupational work or relationships differently, curtail recreational travel, change the way we access medical and dental care, and envision worship in our faith communities in a unique way. It has brought many of us to a dead stop, faced with the reality of no new plans to fill our time or make meaning in our lives.

This giant pause invites us to pay attention to our essential need for solitude, and stillness. In the silence we can begin to attend to what we really want to shape us, what we genuinely want to give our attention to, and what calls us forward to meaning and purpose. This space of social isolation is a call to begin where we are, to decide what can be jettisoned, what values we want to affirm and what attitudes we want to carry with us into the new reality. Poet and author, Padraig O’Tuama, says, “to begin where you are is not a poor beginning. To begin where you are may take courage, or compromise, or painful truth telling. Whatever it takes, he says, it’s wise to begin there.”

Our period of pandemic isolation began in the season of Lent, and we journeyed through Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost all within the confines of this social restriction. Engaging with the Paschal Mystery offers us an opportunity for transformation within which we are given a new life and spirit. We are led through suffering and death, the gift of new life, and time spent grieving the old and adjusting to the new. Finally, only after the old life has been truly let go, a new spirit is given for the life we are already living.

For the disciples of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion, this event must have been a gut wrenching, confusing ending to new promise. The event left them frightened, confused and deeply grieving the joy and possibilities that had ended. During this time of pandemic, there have been many losses, and inadequate opportunities to grieve those losses. The events of the Passion of Christ invite us to name our deaths. Loss may have taken many forms during the pandemic isolation period: the death of loved ones, separation from friends and family, cancelled trip plans, job loss, and compromised health. But beyond our own particular griefs, this period also calls us to become aware of those areas where we have responded inadequately to the greater needs around us—care for the poor, attention to mental health issues, and protection for the environment, to name a few.

Father Ron Rolheiser, Oblate priest, and author, points out that our culture does not give us easy permission to grieve. Its underlying ethos is that we move on quickly from loss and hurt, keep our grief quiet, remain strong, and get on with life. But mourning, Rolheiser says, is vital to our health, something we owe to ourselves. Without mourning our only choice is to grow hard and bitter in the face of disappointment, rejection, and loss. This period of mourning encourages us to wait for the resurrection—to look towards the hope we have been promised.

The events of the Resurrection described in Mark 16 remind us that the women—Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Salome—were first to arrive at the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. They found the tomb empty. This unexpected and disorienting turn of events evokes a sense of alarm, but also amazement in the women. In his book, The Passion and the Cross, Ron Rolheiser says it is no accident that when Jesus rose from the dead he appeared first to women. He wonders if this could be because women often play the role of midwives. Something new is born in the resurrection and women are the first on the scene to witness the birth and become bearers of good news. We have all been called to this event of resurrection by becoming midwives of hope and trust. The struggle of Good Friday, Rolheiser explains, is that Jesus dies in silence. God does not suddenly rise in power to overcome the evil that has befallen Jesus, leaving us wondering where God is in all of this. God’s answer is in the resurrection of Jesus and in the perennial resurrection of goodness within life itself. The task of Easter is to give birth to that which we believe and hold to be true within ourselves. The resurrection is the basis for human hope, but also gives a new future to the earth. Christ came to save not only human beings, but the whole existence of creation. This period of upheaval and change inherent in the pandemic is calling us to a resurrection.

The pandemic has been a liminal space for us—a space between the spaces, much like the forty days of wandering the disciples experienced after the resurrection. For the disciples, this extended time of grieving helped them to adjust to the new reality. The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to stop and reflect, and to ponder how we want to emerge. If we see the pandemic as a sacred context, not of our own making, it provides us with a kind of holy ground. We spent the last while wandering this holy ground and now we are discovering ourselves anew. Part of being on a journey is developing an awareness of what we need to take along with us to survive. But we also must attend to what needs to be left behind. All the emotional baggage that we hoard as a way of justifying how we engage in life may be starting to seep through our carefully guarded personas. We must mourn our limits, our mortality, our concepts of church. And if we engage in this mourning and we are willing to let go, everything will be given back to us in a deeper way.

The event of the Ascension of Jesus reminds us that things have changed. Although Jesus appears to his disciples, they do not experience a return to things as they were before the crucifixion. During the pandemic, we have been called upon to let go of old ways. We may have been asked to do some difficult things: to stay away from relationships that have been lifegiving for us, to let go of old habits, joys, or pleasures. This letting go brings with it the potential of new possibilities. We can ask ourselves: what it is that we should hold with reverence? What is the call that God is placing on our lives? We must learn not to cling to the old, but let it ascend and give us its blessing.

The season of Pentecost invites us to accept the spirit of the life we are, in this moment, living. The event of Pentecost was a time for equipping the disciples with new power, new vision, and new direction. The divine invitation to us during this time of pandemic is to engage in this journey, filled with the renewing breath of the Holy Spirit and the peace that Jesus promised to his disciples: Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t be afraid. God is at work in you. Peace.

Nancy is a Spiritual Director, Retired Nurse, Grandmother and Retreat Director who finds solace in green spaces. She is currently enrolled in the Forest Dwelling Program, Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, studying the Spirituality of Aging

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