We are advised to practice something called “social distancing.” As some wag said to me the other day, that shouldn’t be hard for a practising Catholic and a self-identified conservative in Higher Education! But, joking apart, we need to reflect on what this really means. We are social animals, and outside of social groupings we run risks, especially those of us who suffer from anxiety which can lead to mental health problems. Donne was right, no one is an island, however much we may imagine we are.
The word “ecclesia,” from which we derive the word “Church,” was originally an assembly of Athenian citizens debating. A Church is a gathering of the faithful (and the rest of us too). Thus, for the Churches to close at this juncture is a double blow. We are deprived, most obviously of the spiritual nourishment of the Holy Eucharist. There’s a case that in the modern Church we have come to take frequent Communion for granted in a way our ancestors would have found surprising; but there is no case for an indefinite Eucharistic fast. Many, like me will, I suspect, be offering it up as part of our Lenten penance. Is it hard? Yes, and therefore all the more efficacious, I suspect.
But there is a second blow to us; the cessation of the Church community. However much some may protest about noise before the Service starts, and people leaving early, and all the other things which annoy them, for most, the interaction with our felow Church-goers is an important part of our Church life; its sudden ending leaves a void.
To some extent, we can engage, electronically, in on-line Services, but they are not the same; they are, however, better than nothing.
What some Churches, including my own, have done, is to keep in touch by telephone with parishioners, with an offer, where necessary, of practical help. Such gestures, small in themselves, mean a lot to people who now find themselves alone. On line Services have their place, but they cannot replace the “ecclesia.”
But, even as the business of the outside world grinds almost to a halt, there is an opportunity, if we seize it. In the middle of a world disfigured by sin and suffering, the Christian is heir to the blessing of the joy of Christ and the Good News He brings. Our prayers express that joy, and prayer binds us together as a Christian community. This is an opportunity to deepen our prayer life. I have always found praying the Rosary helpful, but now, more then ever, reflecting on its mysteries unites me to the millions of others doing the same. The Psalmist tells us to pray in the evening, the morning and at noon – it is advice which many of us neglect; now might be a good time to get into the habit of so doing.
Wherever we find ourselves, God is there. Prayer is not a matter of shouting out to someone who is socially-distancing Himself from us, it is an intimate conversation through Jesus who taught us to pray the “Our Father.” Our Father is there with us and for us, and if we have felt a distance, then that comes from us, not from Him. St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that prayer takes us directly to Heaven and puts us in God’s presence. When we pray for the forgiveness of our sins, we are taught to pray as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Do we do that? We ask God to do for us as we have done. This is a moment to remind ourselves of that. Prayer, in short, heals our relations with others, if we will allow it, and if we have the humility so to do.
None of us wanted to be given the opportunity to draw closer to God in the way it has been presented to us, but we have been given it. As Pope Francis said last week, there is a judgement involved in all of this; what is it that we value most?