As public health experts have been naming for some time, the COVID19 virus is able to cause much more serious disease than an initial onset of respiratory symptoms:
Some people may well be able to discard masks, cope with catching the virus, and withstand the impacts of vascular disease, re-infection or long-covid. A good number of earnest people, however, have reason for caution. We do not want to catch the virus, encounter serious disease, nor experience longer-term harm to our bodies.
As the World Health Organization mask advice states, “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives … If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue … Do it all! Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people.”
The public health experiment of feeling blasé about large numbers of people catching the plague/COVID19 virus should be a cause for public discomfort. Alongside measures like vaccines and ventilation, wearing a mask aims to protect the vulnerable members of our community. That vulnerable person may in fact be you.
On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night, pop-star Due Lipa asked Stephen a deep question: “So I think something that your viewers really connect with in your comedy and in your hosting skills, especially in the past few years, is how open and honest and authentic you are about the role your faith plays in your life. And… I was wondering, does your faith and your comedy ever overlap, and does one ever win out?”
Stephen replies at 03:32
“I think ultimately us all being mortal the faith will win out in the end [laughter]. But I certainly hope when I get to heaven Jesus has a sense of humour. But I’ll say this, someone was asking me earlier about what I, and this relates to faith because my faith is involved, I’m a Christian and a Catholic, and it’s always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people and that death is not defeat, if you can see what I’m getting at there?
Someone was asking me earlier “what movie did I enjoy this year?” and I said I really liked Belfast which is Kenneth Branagh’s story of his childhood, and one of the reasons I love it is I’m Irish, Irish-American, and it’s such an Irish movie, and I think this is also a Catholic thing, because it’s funny and it’s sad and it’s funny about being sad… in the same way that sadness is like a little bit of an emotional death but not a defeat if you can find a way to laugh about it. Because the laughter keeps you from having fear of it, and fear is the thing that keeps you fromturning to evil devices to save you from the sadness.*
As Robert Hayden said, “We must not be frightened or cajoled into accepting evil as our deliverance from evil, we must keep struggling to maintain our humanity though monsters of abstraction threaten and police us.”** So if there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that no matter what happens you are never defeated, you must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other” [cheers and applause].
Stephen Colbert, 4 February 2022
Dua Lipa replies. “Wow. Stephen Colbert everybody.”
*Colbert actually said fear “keeps you FROM turning to evil devices” – BUT read in context what he meant to say is fear “keeps you turning to evil devices.”
On 14 January 2022 I was appointed to the CLC World Executive Council. Co-opted alongside a fellow young person named Daniela (from Colombia/Netherlands), we will serve on the ExCo until the next CLC World Assembly is held in August 2023.
Christian Life Community is a world community of ordinary people who gather regularly to share faith and life. As members of small local communities, we become companions on the way. Animated by Ignatian Spirituality, we walk with each other towards fullness of life in God’s presence (see John 10:10).
Discerning the way to Yes
During two weeks discerning the invitation, I spoke with wisdom figures and friends. I looked closely at saying no.
Ultimately I was very moved by the stirrings of joy and consolation which I felt when imagining saying yes, and especially when sharing the question with companions from the CLC Asia-Pacific Animating Team. There was a quickening of spirit and an energy and enthusiasm for our common life in CLC, where people on different paths journey together.
My Ignatian journey and CLC
My experience with Ignatian Spirituality began as an 11-year-old student at a Jesuit high school learning about “Inigo” Loyola. I now have a number of Jesuit friends.
Some years ago I joined a CLC community in Melbourne. We moved through different life seasons, encouraging each other to listen to the renewing presence of God among us. I believe this is the CLC way: to help one another respond to the Spirit at work in our experiences, friendships and choices.
In my work as a Religious Education teacher, I invite high school students to grow attentive to God’s presence in their lives. Thanks to CLC, I feel comfortable encouraging these students in their spirituality.
Young people and CLC
Australia is a pluralist and secularising society whose prevailing culture views religion with scepticism. Young people close to CLC in Australia may at times feel a certain hesitancy about engaging in church, yet there is a spiritual hunger below the surface which CLC helps us understand and meet. We are each on a personal journey to integrate our spirituality with our public-facing lives.
Feeling at home in a CLC local community, I came to feel at home in the world. Good and true friends are like diamonds.
Click here to read the letter sharing this news with the World Community of CLC.
For ten years J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) moved in my imagination. I began to read The Hobbit when I was 12 years old, and then read each of the three parts of the main series, and then saw the films. The LOTR is a foundational text in my life’s library.
Lord of the Rings and The Long Retreat
When I prayed a thirty day silent retreat with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in July 2011, the Lord of the Rings life-world soon bubbled away in my consciousness. These exercises involve a recipe of “memory, imagination, and will”, and so a spiritual meal enjoyed in God’s presence.
Over the four weeks of the retreat I encountered my memories, hopes, longings, dreams and choices in relation to God’s desires for me. I heard God’s call: “because you are precious in my eyes, and honoured, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). I experienced in a felt sense God’s deepening life in me. God’s personal love enfolded me in the silence.
As the retreat progressed, I prayed with various scenes from the life of Jesus as told in the Gospels. I would prayerfully imagine a passage, with all my senses engaged, entering the encounter as a participant or observer. Walking with Jesus from his nativity through his hidden and public lives and into his passion and resurrection, I would stay with words, phrases and images which moved me deeply. In so doing I entered a pattern of relishing and savouring the movements God was bringing about within me. I felt drawn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Each day I entered the imaginative contemplations with my whole self fully engaged. Often my memories of scenes, characters, and journeys from LOTR moved in my heart’s response to the encounter with Jesus. I remembered Frodo’s quest with Sam to overcome The Ring. I remembered the integrity of Strider, on his way to become the future king Aragorn. I remembered Gandalf the Grey and his transforming journey into Gandalf the White.
Each of these three main characters played a role in my prayer. They emerged as part of the retreat dynamic. Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf helped me meet Jesus the Christ.
Lord of the Rings and Jesus the Christ
In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring is a community of support for the courageous Frodo as he carries a great burden (the Ring). Jesus eases peoples’ burdens and so builds communities of human freedom and responsibility.
In LOTR at a time of deepest darkness the beacons of Gondor are lit. Jesus is “the light of all people”, the light which shines in the deepest darkness, “and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
In LOTR, the journey of Strider from the edges of the known world to the centre of human life as Aragorn, king, is a profound one. Jesus is born in a backwater on the edges of empire, yet his kingship is revealed in the holy city of Jerusalem among great crowds of peoples. Aragorn is Isildur’s heir, and the last of the line to Elendil, High King of Arnor and Gondor. Jesus is the Christ, “the anointed one”, foretold by the prophets, and “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:32) .
In Lord of the Rings, Strider/Aragorn wants goodness to emerge in the world, and yet is very aware that this slow work requires patience with self, others and life itself. Jesus lived a hidden life from ages 12-30, when he learnt a trade, went to synagogue, and participated in the life of family and community. Transformation occurs quietly without anyone noticing. The preparation is all.
In LOTR, Gandalf the Grey is transformed after defeating the Balrog deep in the mines of Moria. His wisdom journey involved suffering, but he can smile with delight now. Jesus dies on Good Friday. The joy of his risen life invites us to joy also. He rises with the wounds intact.
In LOTR Gandalf arrives at Helms Deep at first light on the fifth day, bringing hope. Jesus rises to new life on the third day, bringing peace.
Now a further ten years on from that retreat, spiritual exercises continue to offer me renewal. Ultimately the mythic journeys present in the Lord of the Rings were used by God to direct me towards what Saint Ignatius named as “the service and praise of the divine majesty”. And so to fullness of life in God’s presence.
The bright blue expanse of day is set against a hill of native grasses. Each plant’s leaf sheaths and spikelets shimmer like white gold. Motionless waves of flowering stalks stand upright and tall, awns curved out and away to absorb the sunlight.
A small family of trees rises over the crisp coastline of blue and gold. These brave trees reach out as neighbours to the thick hillside of grass. They reach up as sailors, ready to push out onto that glorious still calm ocean of sky.
In the cool of evening, the sky takes on a cooler blue. Native grasses move to a quiet breeze. The leaf sheaths and spikelets are a darker gold in the nighttime sun, this entire hillside a great fortune of grass. Long may the lawnmowers fall silent.
Four confident trees rise above the sun-soaked tussock. Branches of bold green leaves reach up towards light, drawn by the promise of sky.
Meanwhile the affectionate dog at my feet is filled with joy.
In this reflection, I write a memory from today through one of my senses: eyesight.
Walking through the Belconnen shops, I was looking for a cafe that would serve breakfast early. I “checked in” to one and met the waitstaff’s smile. We exchanged a few words and soon she returned with a feast set for a weary traveller, colours and textures all before me. This host was attentive and helpful and kind. I paid for the meal and exchanged greetings. I left and walked into “a lovely day”.
At the fruit shop, aisles laden with produce, meat out the back, I went searching for noodles. My ALDI trolley conspicuous, my mind conscious of the load I carried, I nearly left, but something about the array of vegetables, the rich welcome of the delicacies, the chance my list could be filled, kept me there. The noodles, rice ones, were in a stand at the back, pointed out by a staff member in the black nondescript clothes of the store. A minister of service, this perfect stranger showed me warmth and psillium husk and orange juice “99% oranges”.
It is helpful to take a historical view to contextualise the global COVID19 pandemic. Without this history, our public imagination cannot place this crisis within our sense of how the world was, is, or could be. The 1918-20 pandemic (with its 50 million deaths) is well before ‘living memory’. When we do try to remember this ‘Spanish Flu’ of one century ago, we use that very phrase: a racist name which by using the word ‘flu’ also minimises the deadly nature of that pandemic.
So let’s be honest: our public imagination is centred in contemporary times. Our public memory, or popular sense of history, goes back into the 20th century.
Generations alive today have witnessed the 1981-current HIV/AIDS epidemic (35 million deaths); the 2009 Swine Flu (200,000 deaths); and the 2014 Ebola epidemic (11,000 deaths). Each infectious disease has been transnational in spread and devastating in effects.
Our focus blurs when looking prior to 1900. In addition, histories of infectious disease have to a certain extent been the concern of specialists within the medical community and the academy.
COVID19 as modern ‘plague’
Earlier in 2020 Australian writer Arnold Zable began referring to the COVID19 pandemic as ‘plague’ in his extraordinary ongoing Facebook series ‘What We Do In the Time of the Plague’. There, Zable shared observations from life in Melbourne in 2020 and now 2021. The second time I heard the word used was in a piece on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague.
The fact is that the millions of people who died in “the great mortality” were human beings who were sick … and they were suffering from something they didn’t understand, and they were trying to overcome it.
Elizabeth Bruenig on the Bubonic Plague
Bruenig’s podcast affirms what’s right before our eyes: that the COVID19 pandemic is the latest in a long history of plagues and pandemics recurring throughout the centuries.
Thanks to the graphic below, here are four deadly pandemics which occurred prior to 1900:
the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE: 30 to 50 million deaths);
the Bubonic Plague or “Black Death” (1347-1352 CE: 75 to 200 million deaths);
New World smallpox (1520 CE: 25 to 55million deaths);
“Third Plague” (1885: 12 million deaths).
The current (3 January, 2021) Johns Hopkins figure for global deaths due to COVID19 stands at 1,844,518 with over 85 million confirmed cases.
A history of plagues and pandemics
It is important for us to become more conscious of the dynamic history of plagues and pandemics, and the human stories of those who lived through them. Reading this history helps us achieve a more clear-eyed view on what kind of event we are now living through. Reflecting on this history will prepare us to find the strength, courage and resilience to carry on without being in denial of how hard things are.
What follows are accounts of three plagues, one for each of the last three millennia. I then conclude with an observation about how the current pandemic has centred us on what matters.
The Plague of Athens (432 BCE)
“In 430 BC, a plague struck the city of Athens, which was then under siege by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). In the next 3 years, most of the population was infected, and perhaps as many as 75,000 to 100,000 people, 25% of the city’s population, died.”
Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often …
People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent fevers in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough …
By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance …
It was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice-never at least fatally.
Thucydides on the Plague of Athens
With “death raging within the city and devastation without….Such was the history of the plague.”
In the same year of our Lord 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the…[first] day of May…In the same year, a sudden pestilence depopulated first the southern parts of Britain, and afterwards attacking the province of the Northumbrians, ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men [people]…
The Venerable Bede on The Yellow Plague
The Bubonic Plague (c. 1347-1352)
In her podcast, Elizabeth Bruenig quotes from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron written in 1350. In this work, the Italian poet and scholar reports direct from the Bubonic Plague, when in 1348 “the mortal pestilence then arrived in the excellent city of Florence … Sick persons were forbidden entrance, and many laws were passed for the safeguarding of health… almost at the beginning of the Spring of that year, the plague horribly began to reveal, in astounding fashion, its painful effects.”
Deadly swellings known commonly as ‘plague-boils’ would appear on infected persons. “Neither the advice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do any good … Not only did very few recover, but almost everyone died within the third day from the appearance of these symptoms, some sooner.” The pestilence spread “as fire does” with “the clothing or other things touched or used by the sick” bringing the disease.
Boccaccio’s account describes people prioritising their own health over all else: “Almost all were inclined … to shun and to flee the sick and their belongings. By so behaving, each believed that he would gain safety for himself … Many men and women abandoned their own city, their houses and homes, their relatives and belongings in search of their own country places or those of others” because they felt safer outside the major cities.
In an extraordinary passage, Boccaccio explains the effect of the plague on human relations:
We have said enough of these facts: that one townsman shuns another; that almost no one cares for his neighbour; that relatives rarely or never exchange visits, and never do they get too close. The calamity had instilled such terror in the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle nephew, brother sister, and often wives left their husbands. Even more extraordinary, unbelievable even, fathers and mothers shunned their children, neither visiting them nor helping them, as though they were not their very own.
Giovanni Boccaccio on the Bubonic Plague in Florence
Trenches were dug as burial grounds, and “in the scattered villages … and across the fields, the wretched and impoverished peasants and their families died without any medical aid or help from servants.”
Elizabeth Bruenig also quotes from Agnolo di Tura’s The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle. Di Tura reported that “The mortality began in Siena in May (1348). It was a cruel and horrible thing… in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night … I buried my five children with my own hands.”
Bruenig reflects that in these times “a certain kind of nihilism began to spread in some quarters, with a grim ‘seize the day’ mentality gaining purchase. Eat, drink, be merry … tomorrow you may die.”
“We’re going to make it somehow”
Perhaps we avoid the histories of plagues and pandemics because we sense the suffering, trauma, loss, grief and lamentation involved. Great creativity emerges in times of plague too, however, helping us to find cause for reliable hope. For example, the Plague Lit site observes that Martin Rinkart may have composed the hymn Now Thank We All Our God during the plague of 1636:
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices …
The anonymous scribe comments “seen in light of the plague, the hymn is less a triumphant proclamation of gratitude, and more a poignant statement of simple faith in a time of crisis.”
Every pandemic or plague brings death to many and upheaval to all. In Elizabeth Bruenig’s words, people left behind at the end of the Bubonic Plague “looked at the wreckage of society around them, and said, we’re going to make it somehow.”
In a similar way, the COVID19 pandemic is connecting us with what matters. We can more readily perceive life as gift because we are that much more conscious of mortality. And we can remember the wisdom of all ages: that light shines brightest in time of darkness.
In these days marking the start of a new year, we all become more aware of time as a precious and limited resource. In 2020, our sense of time has been a little warped. Friends have said that February feels a lifetime away, whereas March feels like yesterday. So much has changed for all of us. And yet each person wants to experience our life’s time with a sense of agency and purpose.
Time is an invitation
Time is an invitation:
to feel the gift of the present;
to rise to the new with enthusiasm;
to climb to the heights of experience;
to dive into the depths of our desires;
to choose freely the more loving and generous path;
to make companions for the road;
to enlist one’s own heart in the challenge;
to walk tall and hopeful, embracing each scene;
to speak words of peace;
to listen with a compassionate heart;
to dance to the rhythm of music;
to sing from the diaphragm;
to love, to heal, to renew, to build;
to support one another in times of trial;
to attend to the inspiration of each day.
Each second, minute, day, week, month, year, decade and lifetime carries within it potential for growth and liveliness. Indeed, every moment calls us to embrace the invitation of our lives. With magnanimous and open hearts, hands poised and ready, and our feet firmly planted on the ground, we will be ready to walk the next steps toward life in fullness for all.
May our memories resound with gratitude. and our present awaken a new sense of freedom. May our new year 2021 bring forth hope and generosity.
The people of Melbourne in 2020 know a lot about preparing. We lived through a long Winter of preparation for the days we can now enjoy. Today we are living in a time of greater freedom – and we prepared for this over many hours, days, weeks and months.
We prepared through our daily sacrifices, social distancing and staying home; through our checking in on each other by phone, text and video; through our precious one hour’s walk a day, going in pairs; through our wearing a mask, a visible sign of our community’s shared efforts; through our tenderness with each other, our comforting and building each other up.
As we live with a renewed sense of freedom, we can choose to remember this year from a perspective of gratitude, tracing a ‘graced history’. There were traces of light even through the most terrible weeks of darkness, when a heaviness enveloped the land. We learnt much about our resilience in the face of adversity; we found new coping strategies in months of trial; we achieved something great and beautiful together. The people of Melbourne can now celebrate these achievements.
We have also learnt much about ourselves. We now see community where before we saw separate individuals living separate lives. We have found that we belong to and matter to each other. May our new awareness encourage us to reach out to each other more than we did in the past. May we live out a refreshed humanity.
Advent: a season of preparation for Christians
These days of greater freedom coincide with the Advent season of preparation, when Christians are invited to let God renew their lives. It’s a season for noticing the divine presence in people and experiences; for spreading peace, joy and hope among neighbourhoods, unit-blocks, communities, friends and families; for becoming aware of one’s own desires to nourish, shape and care for our world.
Soon, Christians will join the holy family in their joy at the new-born Jesus. For the people of Melbourne, joy is among us already.
Church of St James North Richmond, Melbourne. 6 December 2020. 33rd baptism anniversary.
The celebrated Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton died 10 December 1968. Merton has been a touchstone for me throughout my adult life. I believe his life and writings paved a way into living out a faith engaged with the world, waging peace and justice credibly in the midst of war and injustice, and relating deeply with others through friendship across difference.
A deep faith grounded in God’s presence
Merton had become a monk to seek union with God. Blessed with an impressive literary background and extraordinary writing ability, in his early years at Gethsemani he served God (and God’s people) by writing with insight into the spiritual life. His 1948 Autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was a phenomenon among people craving an authentic spiritual experience of their own.
Merton’s faith centred on personal and communal experiences of God’s presence. He found life through the traditions of the church: the scriptures, the Rule of St Benedict, the early church fathers, the saints, the sacraments. Through his communal prayer (monks pray the psalms in common several times a day and night) and personal contemplation, Merton came to see God’s abiding presence animating all that exists.
Merton found strength and peace in God’s embrace. He could comfortably engage with matters of faith and prayer in his writings, talks and conferences. As a monk of considerable insight, he knew his own self well. He wrote and taught with a deep understanding of human frailty and God’s goodness.
Merton was impacted profoundly by an experience he had in downtown Louisville on 18 March 1958:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers... I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
A life open to friendship and solidarity
This experience coincided with an opening up of his heart towards the wider world behind the walls of his rural Kentucky monastery. For the next ten years, until his death aged 53, Merton turned his eyes and pen more and more to matters of war and injustice, poverty, racism, and inter-religious dialogue. Merton was curious and open-minded about how he might offer his solidarity to a hurting world. Merton’s interest in eastern religious and spiritual traditions grew, and he took part in exchanges of conversation and shared experience.
Centred in his own commitments, Merton felt at ease in relating with others. He had a gift for friendship with people of varied walks of life. Merton kept up with all sorts of people: from peace activist Daniel Berrigan SJ to poet Denise Levertov, Dorothy Day (founder of TheCatholic Worker newspaper/houses), and college friend and fellow poet Robert Lax. He was often in contact with writers, Buddhists, peace-activists, and leaders of world and church alike.
This singular monk joined the monastery only to be even more committed to the world beyond. His writing – best captured in New Seeds of Contemplation – demonstrated great love for that world and its people.
Merton’s journey into solitude led him back out into the noise; his contemplation gave him something to say to people of action; his friendships with others opened new doors into grace and peace. Merton had walked a path to life in fullness. I am very grateful to have met him through his words.