The wind blows from the East. Piercing. But it’s dry with the sun shining on this first full day of the coronavirus shutdown. We have entered into a great silence, a hidden life, a Gethsemane. A line from ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ comes to mind – “All our stores were closed and shuttered. All the streets were dark and bare.” It’s a song that Maura used to sing when we were children. Plaintive. It opens up in me a deep well of silent absence that wants to see her, hear her, touch her. Touch is what will be most absent in this time of isolation.
The town was a bit like the song last night when I went for a walk through George’s Street and down the seafront. Not everything was closed but most places were, giving an eerie silence and plenty of space for keeping a safe distance from others. Social distancing, I think is what they call it.
An elderly couple are in animated and happy conversation. He laughs out loud, a sound that is good to hear.
My mouth is covered with my newly acquired “Buff” which I think is the correct name for it. A gift given me by one of our many thoughtful parishioners. It happened through her son. We met on the seafront a few evenings ago as he was cycling home from work. He wondered should we not have more faith in the Lord, in the power of the Eucharist rather than closing down. It’s a question that many are asking, a question I understand, though I’m not asking it myself because I have chosen to trust and obey and I agree with the reasoning of the Bishops who said, “it is in order to keep each other safe, save lives and support the NHS.”
The young man is concerned for my wellbeing in the moment, commenting that my neck is rather exposed to the cold so he takes his buff from around his neck and gives it to me to protect mine. I am clothed, protected by his thoughtfulness.
I first heard of the “hidden life” through St. Vincent Pallotti who had a strong devotion to the hidden life of Jesus, that period from the age of twelve until he appeared in public at around the age of thirty, the life he lived with Mary and Joseph, hidden away in their home in Nazareth. It came to mind again on Thursday the Feast of St. Joseph. He is in a special way the protector and guardian of that hidden life of Jesus and in this time, when we are called to live the hidden life, the isolation demanded of us by coronavirus, St. Joseph is there to guard, help and protect us.
Gethsemane is another aspect of the hidden life of Jesus, the intense suffering of Gethsemane which remained hidden from most, if not all – even from His three closest companions who fell asleep in the time of his greatest fear and distress. Fear, distress are words used in the Gospels to describe what was going on for Jesus. We are experiencing a certain amount of fear and uncertainty, particularly older people who have been asked to self-isolate for up to four months without physical contact with their families, the kind of contact that is essential for a person’s wellbeing. So, we need to find strength for this part of life’s journey. It is offered to us by Jesus of Gethsemane.
Many years ago, I was spiritual director to a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. On a particular evening we were booked in to pray in the church that has been built in the garden of Gethsemane. We were to have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament there but a crowd of Italians had taken over the church, filling it to overflowing so that we could not get in. We went instead to the place in the garden where Jesus suffered His agony. Some of the group were unhappy with this, complaining that we were deprived of adoration. So, I said what I felt, that somehow this is what God wanted us to experience, to understand that Gethsemane is the place where we do not have things the way we want or even need. It is a place of deprivation in which we are asked to surrender our own will completely and pray with Jesus, “not my will but yours be done!” It is a very difficult place to be. The Vicar General of our diocese refers to this current period of isolation as a long Holy Saturday and that’s exactly the feeling I had today. The quietness, the emptiness of Holy Saturday rests over all.
It is a time of spiritual fasting. In a way it’s like fasting on the absence of Jesus who once said that the time would come when the Bridegroom would be taken away from them and that would be the time to fast. It’s the absence felt by the disciples in the Upper Room that first Easter evening when they were shut away in fear and uncertainty. Though Jesus was in fact risen and alive, they did not know it, did not feel His presence until He appeared among them. Ours is a liturgical absence – for the people the absence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for me the priest it is the absence of the community of the people.
It is difficult now for people to understand why God allowed the coronavirus to happen, to understand why people should be deprived of the Eucharist, to understand why the Church doesn’t have enough faith to carry on. In our final public Mass yesterday the last line of the Gospel read, “no one dared to question Him anymore.” While our questions are valid and need to be asked, the time comes when they are silent because they are of no use to us right now, they cannot alter the situation, they sap our energy and we might serve ourselves better to trust in the one thing necessary – Love.
That is the great commandment Jesus speaks of – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbour. That’s what we are called to now. And in that we will find new life.
In the life of a priest, central to his very nature, is the obedience which he has given by means of an oath or a solemn promise in the presence of God. It is one of his ways of living in imitation of Christ, the obedience of Christ in Gethsemane, an obedience that is at its heart an expression of the Son’s love for His Father. It is an expression of my love for God. That is not to say that my obedience is not troubled. It is troubled as was the obedience of Jesus, as was the obedience of Mary.
It always comes back to Love. Mark Oakley says of the poet George Herbert, “Love, Herbert believed, is the sole spiritual imperative and the only law of the authentic soul.”
I realized many years ago that I do not have the courage to fast or do penance – perhaps because it’s not the gift God gave me. The gift He has given is the asceticism of Love. “King of Glory, King of Peace, I will love thee” wrote George Herbert in Praise (II). I will love thee!
This in turn brings to mind the vocation of St. Therese the Little Flower who understood that she was called to be Love in the heart of the Church. During my recent desert retreat, when I was tempted to think it was all so complicated, a voice within me suggested that the only thing needed was the Little Way of St. Therese. It became the simplicity of taking one step at a time for the love of God. At the end of our retreat when Father Angelus prayed with me, he invoked the help of St. Therese for me and I’ve wondered many times since where does she fit into my life and now, I get it. I’m not childlike enough to be like her but Love is the imperative of my soul, the only law.