In late February, I attended the Ash Wednesday service with my 85-year-old mum. It was a busy service with the Church humming with tightly-packed humanity as people queued in line to receive the ashes. As Catholics, we receive these ashes as a sign that we are what we shall return to … dust.
It was a sobering experience. So too were the words the priest uttered solemnly as he blessed my forehead with the ashes – ‘Repent and believe the Good News’.
Following the service, we emerged into the clear sunlight of a beautiful Spring day, the type of day that helps us to feel that we need not have a care in the world because there is much to look forward to. Whatever our struggles, new life unfolds in the fields, hedgerows and gardens.
It is easy to be swept along by the vigour of Springtime. Yet, at that point, there were no known cases of coronavirus in Ireland. Now, just a month later, while Springtime gains momentum, our human world has entered a sort of lockdown.
Daily headlines inform us of the numbers infected by coronavirus, the numbers requiring hospitalisation, the numbers requiring intensive care and the growing number of deaths. Increasing unemployment is also represented by staggeringly large numbers. Isn’t it strange how numbers help us to grasp the reality of our situation? Often, numbers are just numbers, except when they’re not because we all suspect that such numbers reflect a level of human suffering that is beyond our understanding.
It is impossible not to be affected by any of this for plagues profoundly alter our way of life.
News stories also warn us of the tragic consequences of inaction, the need for social distancing, the benefits of self-isolation along with other strategies for flattening the curve of infection so that our healthcare systems can cope. The outward inactivity of many will help the activity of those tasked with getting us through this crisis.
The media thankfully offer us heartening tales of heroic efforts to conquer the virus; the increasing numbers of healthcare staff returning to the workforce, the volunteers that are helping communities in numerous ways, the clerical shirt-makers who have switched to making protective gowns for beleaguered healthcare workers, the engineers now designing much-needed ventilators, the scientists working on medical solutions and so much more.
Again, and again, we hear the phrase that a virus knows no boundaries. It infects rich and poor, young and old, though those with weakened immune systems and underlying medical conditions suffer most. It is truly a time where we must consider the helpless, encourage the exhausted and strengthen the weak. Our combined efforts daily remind us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Visiting the Church with my mother has taken on the precision of a military operation. We wash our hands thoroughly before we leave the house. My mum dons gloves. We drive to the Church of the Assumption in nearby Bride Street. We disinfect our hands in the Church porch. I open the door because I don’t let my mum touch any surface.
I light the candles and we both pray. We don’t approach anybody else. We simply nod and keep our distance. This is difficult for my mum and I sometimes wonder if I should just lock her into her house to keep her safe. Nevertheless, we continue to go. In more ways than one, this is mum’s daily exercise.
When we return to the house, we wash our hands again. I distract my mum by asking her a question about her past to make sure she keeps washing those hands for long enough. Twenty seconds of washing can seem like an age, but it feels safer to opt for at least thirty seconds. Mum has her own towel hanging on a kitchen chair. We do not share.
When I sit in the Church, I see its ethereal shape as a bulwark for continuity. The past is ever present. In no other place (that I know of) is the story of humanity played out in architecture, in art, in liturgical celebrations (thankfully online) and in the habits of a lifetime. By staying in contact with the Church, we weave our own thread in the rich fabric of timeless moments and come to better know and love God.
When I think about Lent, I think about our relationship with time because Lent is a process rather than an event. During this process, we recognise that our lives need to change. We commit to this change and we see it through. We remember what a good life is. During times of plague, this is more important than ever before.
Modern plagues tell us something important about how fragile our lives really are despite what the modern world often presents to us. It tells us that we are not immune to devastating suffering on a global scale. It also tells us that we are the cause of much human misery.
New viruses that infect humans are significantly strengthened by climate change, incessant travel, human behaviours and our global economic model. This pandemic offers us much to contemplate about our relationship with nature.
The coronavirus pandemic also tells us that we willingly strive to overcome significant suffering when we must. We have hope. The current crisis has seen a level of global human cooperation and scientific sharing not heard of in previous generations. Long may it continue.
The Church has stood witness to plagues, famines, wars and human misery in ways impossible for modern institutions. Yet, it persists with its message of enduring hope. It links us to the shared experience of countless generations spanning millennia. This helps us to feel connected to all of humanity during our own time of illness and fear. There is much consolation to be found within its porous walls.