Our Coronavirus crisis will last longer than Lent. But it adds an urgent, personal dimension to the main themes of this spiritual season. We looked at these after Lent began but perhaps now, they seem more existential, less merely spiritual. Or, putting it another way, we are discovering that the spiritual is not as abstract as we often assume and that life itself is a spiritual journey that brings together every aspect and kind of human experience. When we forget this, we forget a core element of our humanity. We risk becoming not only spiritually undernourished but less than human.
I was shocked recently to receive a letter to the Virus from a twenty-year-old. I won’t quote from it because it could be upsetting to those who have lost friends to the virus or are deeply concerned for their loved ones and themselves. It was a letter of thanks, provocatively and intelligently written but, as one might expect from an intense young person, lacking as yet a full empathy for others who suffer. The letter painfully saw the crisis as a wake-up call, and the indictment of an unsustainable lifestyle.
As I said the other day, this is not a time merely for blaming and finger-pointing, even at ourselves. But there is a teaching hidden in this crisis and if we can find it, we will recognise the opportunity for change it offers. The terrible suffering and death-toll by the end will not be justified but will be part of this hard-to-swallow meaning. For anyone alive at this time, whatever their generation, whether they were infected or not, the world will never be the same. The human family will be weaker, and recovery will difficult. In such times the dark forces of politics and finance may seek to take advantage and it will never be more important to have a critical mass of people in whom the contemplative mind has awakened. Not heroes or saints but human beings who have recovered the spiritual dimension of reality, so often missing, ridiculed, neglected, rejected or trivialised in our present culture.
When we put spirituality into another category, or reduce it materialistically to neurons and myths, we begin the process of dehumanising humanity. Peace is sought by force, wealth is stockpiled by the few, political structures are hijacked, and religion becomes merely another personal identity or an aggressive ideology.
Even if it wasn’t expressed perfectly, the young person who wrote the letter understood well that we are not just facing a human crisis of suffering that requires compassion and action, but also an opportunity to live better. Opportunities can be more challenging than failures. John Main once asked me as I began this path if I was prepared for all it would bring. I thought he meant what I would be giving up. But he corrected me: ‘I mean the joy.’ Etty Hillesum wrote, as she was helping the Jews being rounded up by the Nazis for shipment to Auschwitz, “Today I feel total despair. I will have to deal with it’.
We are now in the days of the spring equinox, the most powerful force of resurrection in nature. It is the right time for us to deal with joy.