Today, after a few days away teaching, I have back home to Bonnevaux where I will stay put for the foreseeable future. While I was away, we took the difficult but necessary step of suspending the Bonnevaux retreat schedule until we see how the global health crisis unfolds. The streets and railway stations are quiet. People are different. The first security person at the x-ray machine at the almost empty airport joked that today she would be giving me a personal welcome. The person after the x-ray looked delighted to have someone to investigate and took his leisure to empty out my backpack and hold up the offending Kindle.
When we meet in a crisis we look at each other differently. It affects us all equally and we know that none of us have control over events. This double awareness inclines us to be more friendly towards strangers. Life slows down. We look at each other more attentively. We become more present. We see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. All these changes in our ways of seeing and connection – in perception – surprise us at first. (Of course we may still be nervous and frightened.) These brief insights can fade quickly and we fall back into anger or anxiety. But a crisis can also awaken us to how a disruption of life like this is more than just an inconvenience, more even than a danger. It is a possibility. In time it will pass (what doesn’t’?). But it might also be a catalyst for a deep change of direction that we have known we needed for a long time, but never had the time to truly enact.
The corona virus is such a crisis – danger, certainly, but also opportunity. The great majority of those who catch it will recover completely. But there will be deaths and losses and suffering, which the most poor and vulnerable are always most hit by. We will find opportunities to be simply kinder, nicer, more reassuring to each other, especially to the lonely and frightened. We will better handle our fear and anxiety by thinking of others, making us discover that our neighbour is whoever we give our attention to.
We don’t know how long this social disruption of life will continue. Let’s hope we can look back on it as a ‘creative disruption’. However long it lasts, let’s not waste time. It can become our central Lent practice. I am consulting with several of our teaching faculty about how to develop an online programme adjusted to the conditions of the crisis. Most of us will be travelling less, maybe working from home, so we will probably have more time on our hands. This could be scary at first because, when our diaries are full, we don’t have time to use time well. We blame our being busy on our being busy, which translates into stress.
Let’s make a life inventory. What have we run out of? What are we doing too much of? What has been pushed to the back shelf? What are our genuine priorities? What would I do today if I fully felt how uncertain, changeable and short life can be?
Good questions at any time, especially in a Lent when life is disrupted by a pandemic..