CovidDiary Day 2 (Sun 22nd March)

I have begun to record my thoughts each day in a sort of virtual diary. The hope is to encourage and inspire reflection in the midst of the unsettling “time of the virus”.

A sunny walk along the path to Grantchester

Read Day 1’s Entry here.

It was a strange and unsettling feeling to wake up this morning and remember that churches across the nation are shut (in fact, a good number of churches are open for prayer–it is the services that aren’t happening). I honestly can sympathise with the sentiments of some who want these services to continue. Even for someone like me, who for now thinks that the sacrament is highly significant but not the sum total of Christian life and worship, I have to admit that I sorely missed taking communion with my brothers and sisters in person. And I can understand those who say that by cancelling services, the church look “no different” to the world around it.

On the other hand, if all major gatherings have been banned and we imagine a scenario where it was only church-goers that were meeting, we would be forgiven for thinking that this was irresponsible in the extreme. To flout governmental ruling in this way would appear damaging to the public witness of the church. Then there’s the fact that in keeping our distance physically, we are saving lives. As James KA Smith puts it, “How strange: this time in which we love our neighbours by keeping our distance”.

So it was that this morning, with some inner conflict, I followed the Church of England regulations (in turn following public health advice) and tuned in virtually for Sunday morning worship. The service, hosted by the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace, was on the whole uplifting and hopeful.

Today is of course Mothering Sunday. I appreciate deeply the love and care of my mother, the sacrifices she has made and the compassion and quiet inner strength she embodies to me.

For reasons I’ll come on to, I am conflicted, however, by the notion that mothers as a category of people, should be celebrated in church. (I feel the same way about father’s day as well, I hasten to add). Lest I be misunderstood and seem an ingrate, I want to celebrate my mother and father everyday of the year! I’m just not sure about the church being the context for that.

I therefore appreciated +Justin’s focus, in his sermon, on the ancient roots of Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is about place – about knowing where we are rooted, what gives us life, how we are related to others. It’s a place for starting from and returning to. In ancient tradition we return to the church where we were baptised, where we grew in faith.

This emphasis on the ecclesial mother makes more sense to me in a church context as it reminds us that our core identity is found in Christ. We are called to cherish and value tremendously our earthly families, mothers and fathers. At the same time, women are not somehow incomplete if they do not have children. Their core identity is found in Christ, rather than in biological motherhood. Sometimes this can get lost in the messaging of Mothers’ day even, or sometimes especially, in the Church.

I have just this evening read a brilliant article from an old colleague, Abbie Allison, at Theos who bravely and boldly shares her own concerns with the modern church and its view of the family, and of mothers–the oft-imagined paragon of womanhood in the church is the mother with children in her arms and at her side. But, as Abbie explores, what of those women whose mothers have died? What of those for whom the word mother conjures up memories of motherly failure or even betrayal? Or what of those who are unable to conceive children because of infertility? Abbie writes,

But there’s another side to the Church, which emphasises a different take on identity and family. A core Christian belief is that we are whole in Christ and Christ alone. This means that our fundamental identity is not found in being a biological mother, or in anything else, but in being a beloved child of God.

When churches move beyond preaching this message to modelling it through the way they talk about family, they can be a healing balm for the grief and identity crisis of infertility.

I’ve long wondered if we could remove fathers’ and mothers’ day as individual dates from the church (again, I’m speaking about the church) calendar and replace them with men’s and women’s days. Again, not out of spite for our dads and mums, but because all of us are, after all, men and women. This way, we could choose to celebrate the women and men in our lives in a more rounded and inclusive way. Incidentally, Russia, for instance, does this with Men’s day falling in February (initially for soldiers but now for all men) and Women’s Day falling on what is now our International Woman’s Day, 8th March. The realist in me tells me that we’ll never remove Mothering Sunday or Fathers’ Day completely from our church calendars. And so if we do end up doing fathers’/mothers’ day at church, there’s lots of scope for thinking how this might be done sensitively and creatively. Today’s service at Lambeth was a decent example of this, I thought.

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Throughout the whole day, I’ve been reflecting on a sentence I wrote in yesterday’s post: “In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently”.

I began asking myself:

  1. Why do we behave differently in abnormal times? What specifically about this time and circumstance causes me to make conversation with the cashier I would normally ignore…even go so far as to ask her how her and her team were dealing with the stress of the moment? Or what about the present moment makes me think of an old friend or colleague who might be lonely or isolated when normally I would expend my efforts and energies elsewhere (usually, let’s be honest, on myself)?

Then I began to define my terms a bit more.

2. What do I mean by abnormal times? A moment of doubt followed: Are these, in fact, abnormal times? What specifically about these times makes them different from “ordinary”, “pre-Covid” life?

These are certainly unusual (if not unique) times. There’s social distancing and self-isolation, just to name two of the obvious changes (for those used to it, Mother’s Day without a family meal is very strange indeed). As I mentioned yesterday, this moment will be a (and perhaps it’s too early to say but perhaps the) defining moment of our generation.

But in my moment of doubt, the penny dropped.

3. What if our Covid-19 moment is, in some way, the “normal” time?

Of course these are unusual times. But when it comes to what really matters, is this time really different from any other?

Not to be too morbid, but think about death, for instance. CS Lewis, in reflecting upon the effect of the Second World War on death had the following to say:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy- five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.

They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. 

Learning in War-Time (A Sermon preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939)

War, or plague or any kind of straitened circumstance does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death. That will always stand at 100%. Rather, these scenarios make death more real to us. They remind us more sharply of our mortality. War, or any “abnormal” circumstance “disillusions” us, in the sense that it removes the illusion of invulnerability that we might have held to in “peace time”. Lewis again: “The war [read Covid-19] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it”. This it seems to me, is an uncomfortable truth of which to be reminded. And, as with all uncomfortable truths, it is a gift and mercy to us.

Above all else, it might aid us, as the Psalmist puts it, to re-consider our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom. If the virus does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death, then what will we occupy our hours and days with? The question should not be, “how should I live differently in these strange times?” but “as in all times, how should I live before God so as to glorify him and love my neighbour?”

When asked by an imaginary interlocutor, “how are we to live in an atomic age?”, Lewis gave the following response:

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Will the habits we develop in the time of the virus stay with us in peace time? If they are habits, practices, liturgies, attitudes and inclinations of the heart worth forming, then they are for all times.

[EDIT 28/3/20: The lockdown now makes the kinds of activities Lewis mentioned impossible. But we can still learn to have our fears perfected, as Matt Lee Anderson argues here]

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In a lighter moment today, I read the following family’s rule, which I took to be pretty sound advice for keeping sanity.

The entire above post notwithstanding (!), I have tried to take this to heart and have had a pretty productive day walking to Grantchester, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping for food and seeing my Mum for Mothers’ day (from across the garden hedge for obvious reasons!) which was very special. I also tried out our new hoover which was a lot of fun.

Me and the Dyson V7 (it came with the house!)

…the final bit of laundry beckons.

Lenten Reflections Through Literature, Music, Art and Film

The season of Lent is the season of the realist.

Lent marks the forty days that lead of up to Easter in which Christians remember the brokenness and mortality of the human condition and the miracle of Christ who knows our weakness and lovingly offered himself for all.

The term Christians use to describe the human brokenness we reflect on with intensity at Lent is “sin”. Now, I realise that sin isn’t a terribly fashionable word. It can seem morbid, introspective and negative. But if sin simply refers to what Francis Spufford calls “our human propensity to f*ck things up“, then what could be more realistic than recognising and owning up to one’s shortcomings?

After all, the season of Lent is the season of the realist.

For it recognises our brokenness but it does not leave us without hope. If confession is where we begin on the Christian journey, it is not where we end up. Like woebegone Isaiah, we are not completely left to the devices and desires of our own hearts. If we commit ourselves to God, we can receive the cleansing we need and that only he can provide.

The confronting realism of Lent can be seen and heard in the following pieces, taken from literature, art, music and film.

Cosmic Winter or Cosmic Summer?

Our first passage comes from CS Lewis’s essay the ‘Grand Miracle’, in which Lewis spiritedly advances his argument for belief in the resurrection. This is, in one way, an odd choice of reading for Lent as it appears to skip over the season entirely and deals squarely with the miracle of Easter. But in some ways, this passage nicely frames the season of Lent by forcing us to confront the subject of repentance and its necessity to the Christian life. To this end, Lewis uses the example of the seasons. The Christian lives in Spring following the resurrection. Yes Winter in some sense remains present. We feel it “baith snell an’ keen”. And yet the signs of spring begin to manifest themselves. The crocus shoots up, a sign that spring is on its way. Above all, Lewis alights upon the theme of choice and powerof decision. At Lent, the choice is ours. Will we stay in dark winter, or move forward into the glorious cosmic summer?

The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St Peter for a few seconds walked on the water; and the day will come when there will be a re-made universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.

‘The Grand Miracle’, in God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 87-88.

Miserere Mei Deus

Lent wouldn’t be Lent without Allegri’s Miserere. Along with Psalm 22, Psalm 51 forms one of the great Lenten psalms. Whereas in Psalm 22, the Psalmist plumbs the depths of despair and lament, in Psalm 51 he bares his soul in confession to God.

The setting of the Psalm couldn’t be any darker. Israel’s hero-king lustfully claims as his wife Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, whom he has killed by placing him in the front lines of battle. The child he then has with Bathsheba dies at a young age. The stark realism captures the universal human experience of despair over personal human failings. For I know my iniquities And my sins are always before me. The Psalmist is desperate for rescue and re-creation. Create in me a pure heart, oh, God. The Miserere sets this achingly warts-and-all confession in the searing beauty of a nine-part choral piece. It is a masterpiece of art and devotion.

Finding Life In the Desert

Jesus’s 40 day testing in the desert is the centre-piece of the Lenten Season. Driven by the spirit into the wilderness, Jesus triumphantly endures three tests set by the Adversary.

In the painting above, Briton Riviere‘s Christ in the Wilderness (1898), the artist strikingly, but perhaps misleadingly, presents Jesus alone, bereft of all comfort or company. As Ian Paul remarks,

The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears, and returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14)

Yes, there is the weariness and hunger of Jesus—captured in one of scripture’s greatest understatements, “he was hungry”.

Yes it was hard. And that’s precisely the point of Lent.

But there is a strange fullness, a mysterious blessing in the desert. By this I do not mean to trivialise or over-spiritualise hardship. I simply mean that such hardships can bring into focus our deep need for God.

Sometimes it is in the desert that we find life. Or more to the point, sometimes it is in the desert that we find Christ. It is in the desert that we are confronted with the emptiness and thirst we can pretend is not there in the oasis. Sometimes it is in the dryness of the desert, where there seems no breath left in our lungs, sometimes it is here “where the breath begins”.

Dry
and dry
and dry
in each direction.

Dust dry.
Desert dry.
Bone dry.

And here
in your own heart:
dry,
the center of your chest
a bare valley
stretching out
every way you turn.

Did you think
this was where
you had come to die?

It’s true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
yes.
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
laid bare,
yes.
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,
yes.

But listen.
This is what
a desert is for.

If you have come here
desolate,
if you have come here
deflated,
then thank your lucky stars
the desert is where
you have landed—
here where it is hard
to hide,
here where it is unwise
to rely on your own devices,
here where you will
have to look
and look again
and look close
to find what refreshment waits
to reveal itself to you.

I tell you,
though it may be hard
to see it now,
this is where
your greatest blessing
will find you.

I tell you,
this is where
you will receive
your life again.

I tell you,
this is where
the breath begins.

Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace

A Lenten Film Triptych

  1. Realisation: Growing Suspicious

Realization refers to the point at which we recognise that something is wrong or amiss. We might call this the moment when we realize we are ‘on to something’. The clip from the Truman Show captures something of this ‘dawning realization’—when it ‘dawns’ upon us that the reality we are living in or out is somehow not what it should be. This relates well to the idea of repentance as a change of heart and mind—the Greek for repentance is ‘metanoia’, referring to the mind or driving seat of the person which requires change. The premise of the film, of course, is that from the moment of Truman’s birth, his entire life has been make-belief. He lives in a constructed town in an all too real ‘reality’ TV programme watched by viewers outside of the city. Everyone is in on the act…everyone, that is, except for Truman. This clip (a deleted scene) humorously shows his realization that something is afoot. 

2. Confession: I’m Drunk Right Now

Although knowing the truth of a situation, it is all to possible for us to stubbornly resist it. The ‘dawning realization’ discussed above almost always reveals some ugly truth about our inner selves which we inevitably wish to fight tooth and nail against. In the film Flight, William Whittaker (played by Denzel Washington) skilfully lands a plane caught in a terrible storm. Although several people on the flight die, the feat is widely acclaimed as an act of miraculous bravery by Whittaker. But then the horrible truth eventually comes out that Whittaker was drunk while flying the plane. In the final scene (spoilers!)Denzel Washington’s character has the choice to live a lie about his alcoholism or to ‘fess up to his dreadful secret. It is one of the most moving and satisfying resolutions to a film I have ever seen. 

3. Action: Is This Not the Fast I Choose?

It is one thing to admit you are ‘driving in the wrong direction’, another to begin to turn the car around and begin going in the right way. This can be a deeply humbling process. Another word for this is repentance, which refers to the changing of mind and heart in light of our own wrong-doing. We are reminded of repentance at Lent but also at the beginning of the Church calendar in the season of Advent. In one Advent reading, John the Baptist admonishes the crowds to ‘bear fruits in keeping with your repentance’. This ‘bearing of fruits’ takes on a highly practical nature. Among other things, it looks like giving to those in need, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, turning away from bribery and extortion, living justly.

In The Pianist, Nazi Officer Wilm Hosenfield is racked with guilt and vows to house Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman. In the scene above, he is shown feeding Szpilman and, eventually, giving him his coat. I am reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” True repentance looks like giving your coat to the one who has none. Not as a way of earning anything, but as the fruits of a life restored by God’s mercy.