This week’s post was written by Jonny Watson and featured in the Church of Ireland Gazette Issue 15.
Dear Belvoir family,
Across the globe, the language of how we are called to respond to the coronavirus speaks of self-isolation, separation, avoidance and withdrawal. The physical and emotional territory that we find ourselves in has many hallmarks of the desert and wilderness.
Insights from psychology teach us that, when faced with testing experiences, we humans often ‘busy ourselves’ to avoid and distract from the thoughts and feelings these bring up. During the coronavirus pandemic, the usual distractions of work, travel, socialising, sport and shopping are not available.
Authentic spirituality and our relationship with the Lord is always concerned with the reality of our lives – not how we want them to be. We can be assured that our God, who is a God of love, is not sitting idly by watching us suffer.
During my years as a social worker, | learnt through experience that in any crisis it’s easy to identify the obvious threat; but the challenge is to search for and seize the opportunity. Latterly, as a spiritual director, this translates as finding where God is in every experience – even those that are difficult.
God has always used the wilderness as His classroom: A place of learning and transformation, from which new insights emerge. John the Baptist began his ministry in the wilderness. Jesus went there to face temptations at the start of His own.
The wilderness is inextricably interwoven with the spiritual history of Israel. It was the place they were humbled, tested and ultimately strengthened. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church chose the barren Egyptian deserts and deliberate asceticism to live out their desire to draw closer to God.
Might we understand the wilderness of the lockdown experience as something to be accepted, even embraced, rather than something to fear, avoid or get through quickly? Might we discover that God is somehow in this – even using it for good?
These days offer an invitation to arrive at a fresh understanding of God, ourselves and the role that the Church has to play in our constantly evolving world.
Jesus tells how the seed has to fall into the earth to die for growth to come forth. If we step back, we notice fresh shoots appearing. Churches are connecting online in ways never envisaged. In countless parishes, the Church has emerged as the hub of community outreach to those in need. Parents have stepped off the treadmill of work and productivity to spend time together as families. There has been a revival of wildlife and waterways and a pooling of human intellect in the search for a vaccine. We realise the items we thought we desperately needed were only wants.
It is often in times of great difficulty that we see how Jesus reaches us through the love, care and kindness of other people. The invitation is to continue to look for these fresh shoots and nurture their growth.
The temptation will be to rush and accelerate out of this wilderness. Desiring ‘normality’ to return and claiming back certainty are normal human responses. Jesus’ temptations in the desert centred around the human desire for power and control. The children of Israel wanted to leave the wilderness and return to their accustomed way of life as slaves, rather than continue to journey in the uncomfortable liminal space which required dependence on God.
When life inevitably got tough for the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they faced the tug to abandon their life of prayer and return to civilisation.
The fulcrum point of our faith as Christians is the death and resurrection of Christ: The darkest hour becomes the brightest morning – but not immediately. We must journey through the wilderness and emptiness of Holy Saturday.
As we slowly creep out of lockdown, might we live true to the vision of Christ as pioneers in this new world that is opening out in front of us. Asking ourselves how do we nurture what has germinated over the last months and is now being birthed, rather than rushing to get back to the way things were before? As that wonderful prayer, attributed to St Brendan, begins: “Help us to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give us the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You.”