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  • Writer's pictureSean O'Leary

Navigating Life in a Pandemic

It began to feel normal, the sheltered solitude of the home. It was like navigating a distant continent in the time before maps, stoutly adventurous, the sheltered solitude of staying in. It felt oddly new, like moving to a new house where we see space with a fresh eye, marvel at the kitchen countertop or imagine rearranging the furniture to create a better flow.

I did not miss the world of ceaseless action, the coming and going, the congested shopping centres and the half empty Churches, the trendy coffee shops and the crowded hospitals. Navigation had suddenly become simpler, like an orienteering adventure where the clues were simplified and easier to read or sailing through the choppy waves of a harbour where the dock was the only thing that mattered.

Inside the house, there was only the bedroom, the bathrooms, the sitting room and the kitchen broken up by missionary journeys through the hallway or by brief task-fuelled forays into the haphazard order of the utility. There was also the garden, small but half-wild, the whole world of nature made available and present to any brave soul who dared to explore its depths. Beyond the boundaries of the home lay everything else and everybody else in a subdued world, a dormant seed that lay discarded, manifesting for the energetic an unwanted sort of somnolism.

I spent my early mornings watching the garden grow, trying to train my attention to notice small blessings, the bright patch of daisies beneath the birch tree, the new growth that formed upon the wounded stump that had been conceived in the fury of a strong gale, the creep of ivy moving steadfastly through the shaded leaf litter, the busy ants following invisible lines of communication laid out by fellow pilgrims, each part singing of the gradual return to life after a Winter of hibernation. It was these early mornings that refreshed my soul and elevated my spirit heavenward just enough for the sheer wonder of our being to erode the loss and worry and sorrow that we have to bear.

On rare mornings, my wife and I danced in the kitchen, orbiting each other soulfully if not gracefully. It is hard to let go of the self, to give in to another’s rhythm without a few scrapes and unintentional bumps. We could have danced all morning if she didn’t work as a nurse or I didn’t spend my days with my elderly Mum. In a way, we still danced with each other despite being routinely separated by our individual missions. I took one path and she took another, both routes separate yet intertwined like branches of ivy seeking the light. It’s not all light of course, there is shadow too and, in the darkest places of our lives, fear likes to take root.

Everything we think, feel and do in normal life has a fragmented quality, an incompleteness about it that can fool us, trip us up and eclipse a reality that is just too big to grasp, leaving us dissatisfied with the result yet mercifully alive to the effort of seeking. It is the quest for wholeness that keeps us going.

Some mornings, I think about the souls that dwell well beyond the garden fence; the dedicated fitness fanatic who dreams of one more press-up, the award-winning scientist who remains undiminished by material forces, the ardent rationalist who wants everything to be neatly explicable, the melancholy singer who knows how to sing a mournful tune, the gentle gardener who transforms a miniscule part of the world into a perfect garden, the gentle priest who likes to preach about the simple beauty of a Christian life, the restless poet who is open to everything but cannot adequately capture the experience in words or the patient accountant who creates order from other people’s untidy transactions.

Let us also remember the compassionate healthcare professional who feels the loss of every patient, the passionate teacher who adopts everybody else’s children if only for a little while, the good neighbours who never forget their neighbourly duty, the light-hearted charity worker who spreads joy like confetti or the busy parents who postpone the urgent e-mail to hug their children close to them.

The fullness of truth is often too much for us to live out in our thoughts, in our feelings and in our actions. It’s hard to get our priorities straight, to plant at the right time for optimal growth or to harvest without risking some part of the crop. The world is a mystery not easily tamed by rational thought or understood through raw emotion, constantly proving resistant to absolute categorisation and rebellious to manipulation through manmade plans. The wise let a prideful ambition fade, find a welcome peace in the flow of the moment, experience joy in the natural movements of life and reach for some vision of wholeness that only eternity can deliver.

When fear takes root, I like to see the world for the way it really is. This is a world where angels hover nearby, saints have something profound to teach us, priests speak about enduring love, the living and dead are spiritually united, children speak of the blessed freedom of the human spirit, choirs sing of heavenly glory, prophets cry out from the wilderness, pictures show us the goodness of creation, books tell us of a faithful reason and water is made holy.

This is a Catholic inheritance, not so much a religion as a holistic way of living in this challenging world with fresh eyes, an open mind, a loving heart and a curious spirit. This is a reality where human life is profound and sacramental and filled with meaning. This is God’s beloved world, the place where we dwell, not just one truth or another truth but all truth.

Too far-fetched, I hear the cynic say, altogether too superstitious for modern minds, a supernatural fantasy for comforting the gullible, a sedative for the foolish and a clamp around the human mind. But, we should always remember that it is easy to get caught up by the merits of one part rather than stepping back to appreciate the whole. It is difficult for dedicated rationalists to hold diverse thoughts together effortlessly without contradiction. It’s hard to hold together logic and love and give each their due regard.

This is where the depth, beauty and truth of Catholicism really becomes apparent.

We don’t have to choose one way of thinking only. We can grow as pilgrims through all the ways of knowing that we are capable of experiencing - language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, memory, intuition and faith. As such, Catholicism expands the possibilities for exploration rather than diminishing them. It offers a complete approach to living that covers all of reality. Every truth is God’s truth whether this be the deep love we feel for another person, the ordered beauty of the solar system, the mathematical precision of the elements or the painful sorrow of loss.

It’s difficult I know and not entirely fair. At one level, it’s easier on the mind to be a rationalist, simply operate at a material level of existence and ignore much of the richness and depth of human experience. When something doesn’t make sense within the materialist system, it’s OK to just shrug your shoulders and hypothesise that it’s just a side effect or no longer matters in modern society.

The poor old Catholic has much more work to do because all truths have value wherever they are found, whether in Scripture, in Tradition, in the wider Teaching of the Church, in Science, in Philosophy or in any Religion or system of thought. All religions search for and explore a life-giving spirituality that touches people's lives. And so, Catholics explore the reality of God in every area of our lives and in every subject known to us, from art to poetry, from science to metaphysics and from bacteria to the human person.

This is where Catholicism displays its inclusive credentials. And this is where certain atheistic values commonly found in progressive movements show their intentions without humility or mercy. There is an authority demanded by progressive adherents that is dismissive of those with religious faith and seeks to banish all religious sensibility from the public domain. The validity of any narrow mindset, which insists that it is entirely right while everyone else is completely wrong, must surely be questioned.

During the early months of the pandemic where the home is all we knew and the news channels provided a link to the outside world, I grew tired of partial views that pretended to speak for the whole. My soul yearned for the world to speak to me of reason, and logic and order; of beauty and harmony and heavenly things; of justice and righteousness and kindness; and of faith and hope and love.

When contemplating any truth, always consider the larger truth to which it belongs, ever onwards until there is no more truth to be found and all that’s left before you are enchanted mysteries. It should feel like reverence and this is where our fears, our anxieties and all the lies we like to tell ourselves finally disappear and where only a profound love remains. Love really does conquer fear.

All truths flow towards the one truth. This is a reality that is too big for us to fully grasp but it is reality nonetheless: one in which galaxies race through time; entire species evolve and change in harmony with the natural environment; people play and work and wonder; and a middle-aged married couple can dance in the kitchen knowing that they participate in a graceful dance of divine origin.

Our heavenly Father’s creative impulse streams through the cosmos and into our dreams for the future, our brother Christ’s wisdom shapes the order of creation and the goodness of this fragile earth and the Holy Spirit holds all things together through the boundless beauty of belonging. When you approach the source of all truth, you are filled with an indescribable sense of wonder and awe; the mind stills, the heart melts and the spirit swells to breaking point with a profound sense of connection. All that’s left is the simple power of prayer. It is more than enough, more than we deserve and much more than we can think of through reason alone. Quite simply, it is everything and more, so much more, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Hallelujah!


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