By Fr Donald Chambers
Recently, a friend remarked about an increased awareness, sensitivity and response to the needs of the weak and vulnerable since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, he further noted, there was widespread insensitivity towards social and racial injustices, poverty and the destruction of the environment. To this list, one could add the ethical callousness towards the burning of the Amazon and the turning of a blind eye towards domestic violence and abuse.
In response to this remark, my imaginative mind gave birth to the metaphor of the breakdown of an air-conditioned vehicle with passengers along a highway. Driving on a highway, we are oblivious of the sounds, the sights, the smells and the feelings of the external environment. A break-down occurrence forces us to disembark the vehicle, at which point, our senses interact and register the rawness of the physical environment.
I believe the COVID-19 pandemic can be a transforming moment because in this ‘break-down occurrence’, the Church has the opportunity to, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
John Main offers the premise that “most of us have to get into touch with ourselves first . . . before we can turn openly to our relationship with God.”
The stillness of our restless hearts and minds enables us to discern God’s presence within this current unprecedented circumstance of life.
In the narrative of the risen Christ’s encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13–35), for example, it was the stillness of their restless hearts and minds that empowered them to recognise the risen Christ.
Repeatedly, life unexpectedly throws at us forced moments that are considered exile. St Paul met one of those forced encounters on the road of Damascus that ushered him into exile for three days (Acts 9:9).
In Acts 22:10, Paul testifies to the transforming impact of those three days. He writes, “. . . and the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything that God has determined for you to do’.”
Hidden in this brief verse is a central tenet of the Christian faith. The Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the exile of the dead is the same Spirit that lives in us by virtue of our baptism (Rom 8:11).
In baptism, we are renewed in Christ, and we become new creatures with a new consciousness that shapes and influences the meaning and purpose to everything we do.
This new consciousness is a surrender to God’s will captured in the words, “there you will be told everything that God has determined for you to do.” In these three days of exile and subsequent ones, Paul was stripped in the similar manner that Jesus was stripped on Good Friday and learnt to rely on Christ. For this reason, Paul remarks, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
I am aware that the COVID-19 pandemic exile not only offers an opportunity to quiet our inner restlessness, but it has also been a time of mental, emotional and spiritual struggle for some persons.
While some persons have testified to spending quiet time in prayer and developing greater sensitivity towards family members, neighbours and friends, others speak also about the relationship conflicts living in a confined or restricted space, and the anguish of not participating physically in the pastoral life of the Church.
We can, however, find inspiration from Paul who himself struggled with failing to accomplish some of his objectives, but in the end, he does not give up. Instead, he exclaims. “Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 7:25).
Furthermore, in their own forced exile our African ancestors teach us to rely on God in moments of struggles. Through their secret nightly gatherings to pray and reflect, they discerned and related with, not a punishing God, but a liberating God. They teach us that forced exiles can be transformative moments. In this COVID-19 forced context, therefore, the Church is challenged to see this exile as transformative. The Church’s living faith beckons us to “go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt 6:6).
In this closed-door exile experience, we are stripped of self-reliance, prejudices, power and narcissistic tendencies and, in our powerlessness and weaknesses we can learn to rely on Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the transformation of our hearts and minds, we can develop greater solidarity with the weak and vulnerable because we too have been weak and vulnerable as a result of the forced exile.
According to the Christian faith, Jesus’ death and burial was also a forced exile. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ exile transformed to newness of life in the Resurrection.
This same Holy Spirit, who guides the Church’s mission, will also raise the Church from the exile of this pandemic. The Church has been gifted with this exile, and many more will come.
She must embrace it, believing in the power of the Spirit to transform and raise her to a new life—to new way of being Church.
But, what will that new way of being Church look like?
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.