Our household had two rescue cats, Ted and Miguel, who were much beloved. Miguel assigned himself to Alice, and Ted assigned himself to Hebe. Seriously, you never knew cats who had so much love and care lavished upon them. Miguel is black and Ted was a jellicle cat, white with a black tail and black splodges here and there — and almond-shaped, calm green eyes. He was not an old cat, but he had a heart murmur, a damaged hip from a bad fall when he was a kitten, and health undermined by repeated antibiotics from incorrigible warfare. He was a serene and contented cat, but he was very thin and clearly struggling a bit. We watched over him with some concern. He hated visiting the vet — it terrified him. We worried about what might soon be coming.
On the 23rd March, the UK went into lockdown, and all our lives changed abruptly.
Before that, on March 21st, Ted had his breakfast, went out to play in the garden, was seen wandering happily in our neighbour’s garden, probably went for a saunter over the wall into the wilderness behind our houses . . . and never came home.
As the nation was gripped by anxiety and panic buying, stockpiling toilet paper and obsessing over the news, our household descended into mourning. Hebe, who was closest to Ted, lost her sense of self, no longer knew who she was, lost hold of any sense of purpose. Overnight, any feeling that her life had a point to it evaporated.
The nation locked down in Lent, and as the people withdrew into their houses and the death toll began to rise, we moved into Holy Week . . . loneliness in Gethsemane, scourging . . . crucifixion . . . a hasty removal of a dead body to a borrowed tomb . . . a body that had to wait wrapped in grave clothes for last rites to be performed, because the lockdown of the Sabbath prohibited those offices being carried out.
As March moved into April, the forces of restriction, limitation and hard-won progress continued to grapple with currents of death and transformation, as people hunkered down in their homes, nursing staff vanished unrecognisably behind masks, loved ones were forbidden from visiting, Covid patients were sedated into a living death to see if ventilation might pull them through de-oxygenation to a new chance at life. Businesses went to the wall, jobs were lost, thousands died, and governments around the world were laid bare for all to see their competence or lack of it, their ideologies and the implications of them.
Themes surface from the lockdown:
- Firstly, the spiritual imperative of choice — what kind of world do we want? To what pathway will we commit, walking forward? What kind of a world do we want to build? The virus has shown us with stark clarity that, unless we want wave after wave of similar infections, economic dissolution, mass dying and the collapse of society, we have to pay attention to what causes them — climate change, routine use of antibiotics causing resistance, intensive agriculture and factory farming, deforestation and desertification, illegal trading in wildlife and — above all — consumer culture that takes immeasurably more than it gives back.
- Secondly, a theme of setting your house in order; whether sorting through belongings, house repairs, making your will and ordering your business affairs, looking to your financial structures; setting your house in order has become a theme emerging from lockdown.
- Thirdly, a theme of power and control — authoritarian governments clamping down, insistence on personal freedoms, the withering of trust in government and the shakiness of old social norms.
- Fourthly, as those with houses shelter in isolation or quarantine, and those without found themselves displaced onto the margins, locked in or locked out, abandoned and hungry, humanity has been forced to behold the terrors of social exclusion, and re-evaluate the trustworthiness of authority figures.
- Then fifthly, as April moved into May, and daunting realities about the indeterminate nature of the pandemic became apparent, religion, belief systems, life philosophy, the individual’s vision, ideals, and growth potential, all came under review.
Going forward, we have to face up to the dangers of escapism and of allowing manipulative people to channel their agenda through us. We have to find the courage to stop re-living the past, to let go of old constructs that no longer serve us. Now is the time for us to shed old skins that have become confining and tight, so that what we are becoming can find space to breathe.
It’s a time for patience, for humbly accepting limitation, for biding our time. It’s the time for being, as Jesus put it, as simple as doves but as wily as dragons. This is the time for humility and transparency, but not for naivety or credulity. This is a time when the gift of discernment is sovereign as we inch forward into the new.
But I told you the story of Ted dying at the beginning of this, to bring before your imagination that above all the hallmark of these days is that thing Jesus said — unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, there can be no harvest.
What fascinated us in our household was the rightness of Ted’s dying. Yes, it was full of sorrow — it rent Hebe’s soul as the dying of those we love always tears us in two. And yet, despite the grief and the shock and the loss, it felt so right. A simple, quick, natural end. No frightening visit to the vet, no chemical euthanasia; simplicity. It was a pointer for us, as we looked at the pictures on the news of sedated bodies with tubes of every kind coming out of them. Ted’s dying helped us know what we wanted.
Above all else, it gently orientated us towards the focus of our present time, which has to do with making peace with death. Whether that comes to us in the form of frightening financial losses, the loss of income sources, the loss of loved ones to death, or isolation and separation from them because of the spectre of death. Whether it is about accepting the bankruptcy of our society, and letting go of old habits, leaving the comfort zone of the familiar and the selfish in favour of shaping a new discipline that regenerates the earth and works for the wellbeing of all humanity — however it comes to us, the nature of the time we are in is all about death and resurrection.
Here in the Campfire Church, we have lit a candle and kept vigil with Peggy’s 9-year-old great-nephew Carter, as his life gradually and reluctantly ebbed away. Until in the end his death came as the most right and the most heartbreaking thing on earth.
The task of humanity at the present time is allowing the mortal to put on immortality, letting the perishable die so that we may embrace the imperishable, relinquishing materialism in favour of a path determined by spiritual vision, letting go of the death dealt by cruel authoritarian religion and corrupt, cowardly governance, that conspired with mob violence to nail Christ to his cross, in favour of the new and living way of the risen Jesus, the second Adam, the man who came through.
This is not achieved without intense discomfort. There is no need to be afraid, but no doubt we will be. When all we know is that some measure of loss will be ours in this immense transformation — be it our home, our income, our health, our life itself, or simply the comfortable familiarity of the way things used to be. Of course we will be afraid. We are only human.
But for such times there are two prayers I learned from the jesuit Brennan Manning:
The first is, simply, to say over and over again, “Abba, I belong to you. Abba, I belong to you. Abba, I belong to you.”
And the second, from the psalms of King David the warrior, who was never ashamed of his own vulnerability: “When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you. When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you. When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you.”
The darkest hour is just before the dawn. There’s a new day coming.