So, over the last two weeks, life, as I knew it, has been unrecognisably altered.
While this is just a drop in the ocean of virus-sadness, we were about to go to Prague on holiday when the Czech Republic closed its borders to British citizens (and BA promptly refunded us, thank goodness.) (And, probably, the holiday in Vienna in May, for which we had paid a deposit, will get refunded too!)
Then as government guidance tightened, things I could never have imagined happened. Oxford University shut down, taking with it the German class I was taking, which gave me much intellectual pleasure and joy. My daughter Irene, third year Medicine, Christ Church, Oxford University, had her Pharmacology exam on March 18th cancelled, and suddenly came home, earlier than planned, following her college’s desperate request to students. And it looks unlikely that Christ Church will reopen next month, let’s see.
The Church of England closed, in effect, and our church shut its doors, ending some church activities I enjoyed… a monthly supper club/small group I enjoyed, a monthly church supper and the Lent supper series, (which commenced with a wonderful talk by N.T. Wright. I was impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge of, and excitement about Scripture. Aged 71, he almost bounced as he spoke in a great rush of enthusiasm!)
I had to close down a supper club/classics book group I run, and which I love. (We were reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey). Writers in Oxford, a society I belong to, closed down, along with their enjoyable drinks evenings. The Oxford Literary Festival for which we had tickets was cancelled. Parties were cancelled.
The gym closed down, and I lost yoga classes, and personal training with weights. And goodness, The Ramblers, with whom I enjoyed walking, closed down. And over the weekend, some outdoor things we go to have closed… Blenheim Palace, the Oxford Botanical Garden, Harcourt Arboretum, even The National Trust, for heaven’s sake.
And now: it’s lockdown! We are only allowed out to buy essentials like food, and, thank goodness, to exercise outdoors.
The series of minor losses is a bit like old age is supposed to be, when friends die, work ceases, and life shrinks. In the beginning, I thought: the gym would stay open, my favourite Parks and gardens would stay open, I could exercise in them. I couldn’t imagine Church closing or the University and my language class or The Ramblers. But no…
* * *
Is my gloom, after all, shade of his hand, outstretched caressingly? Francis Thompson asks in a favourite poem “The Hound of Heaven.” In that poem, the narrator tries to find solace in love, in friendship, in nature, but God blights these things, determined that the poet should first find joy and comfort in Him. “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face,” William Cowper writes.
“God so loved the world,” Jesus states, early on in the Gospel of John. And that stands true in the time of Coronavirus. Over 99.99% of the British population, and of the world’s population are not ill, as I write, though thirty percent of the world’s population are under lockdown.
It is a time of worry and economic shaking for most of us. But this slice of silence and solitude and precious freed-up time is also a God-given opportunity to do some of the things we’ve long claimed we wanted to do–things essential or important to our spiritual health and wellbeing, which we have allowed to get crowded out by the urgent, and trivial.
Britons have embarked on a lockdown spending spree… exercise equipment, DIY stuff, seeds, gardening tools, sewing machines, knitting stuff.
For me, health permitting, this enforced stillness and peace is a time to
- Make great headway with, or even finish, a big book project so often interrupted by distraction, both internal and circumstantial.
- Get my house completely decluttered. It’s tidy, but I could get rid of a goodly percentage of my stuff.
- Get as strong as I can be through fast walking and lifting weights at home. And continue losing weight without being thrown off course by travel (hotel breakfasts and restaurant dinners!) and parties and meals at friends’ houses, with food that’s not on my ketogenic meal plan.
- Wake early, now that our evenings are more under our control without going off schedule after returning late from book groups, supper clubs, small groups, German class, etc.
My daughter Irene is home, and so is my husband. It is a time to bond more deeply and invest in some of the most important relationships of my life without all the distraction of social life. In enforced togetherness, some relationships dramatically improve, others implode. It looks, so far, as if our marriage is going to do better without busyness, rushing around, social life and distractions.
* * *
Human lives are like a well-structured novel with several plots simultaneously in play. There is the plot we seek to write, which usually involves elements of love, success, wealth, and fun. This plot can be affected by other people’s actions as they pursue their own wonderful plans for their lives. In this case, researchers posit, someone selling illegally trafficked pangolins in a “wet” market in Wuhan, China, has affected the lives of millions of people thousands of miles away, among them the heir to the British throne; the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; and a woman leading a quiet life in Oxford, England. And then there is the plot God is trying to write. And one element of this plot is that we get to know him better.
The Apostle Paul wrote that he counted everything as rubbish, garbage compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ, his Lord. I am Bible-walking every day during part of my 4.25 mile walk, and listening to the Gospels, praying through them, enjoying Jesus, his humanness and quirkiness. His first miracle was multiplying wine at a wedding, how human, how wonderful! He’s no-nonsense. He hates cant and religious hypocrisy. He tells the truth, and tells it straight. He’s brilliant, ingeniously sidestepping people’s traps. If we make time in this quiet season to deepen our friendship with him and with God, it will be, by far, the most important relationship of our lives, especially when the winds rage and the waves beat.
* * *
I have only been under lockdown once before, when I was seventeen, in my hometown of Jamshedpur, India. I read Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves, and made a commitment to follow Christ. And though I have done so unsteadily, and often badly, it has been the most important and most blessed commitment of my life. May this lockdown will be a similarly blessed turning point, for you and for me, and may our best work, our King Lear and Pilgrim’s Progress (written in quarantine and in prison respectively) get done.
And it’s possible that when “normal” life resumes, it will be forever changed. Creatives welcome a day free from engagements, or a cancelled activity with joy and uplifted spirits. It follows that we often view a day with a church small group, a writerly activity, or a social activity with a corresponding unconscious lowering of our spirits.
Many habits will be broken in this period. Perhaps if our small group or activities leave us more emotionally depleted than energised, we will stop going. Perhaps if we worship God better in the great cathedrals of river and fields and forest than indoors, or even in church, we will do that more often (heresy!). Perhaps we will re-evaluate our activities, pruning the inessential and everything which does not give us joy and energy.
Long cocooning can be a time of intense inner and directional change. Perhaps we will come out of cocooning alive, joyous, and with wings. May it be so. Amen.