Finding the sacred in a time of coronavirus

What happened here?

The world is spinning more slowly. At least it feels like that. And yet many of us have more to do, needing to manage complex emotions and children home from school for the foreseeable future. As quiet as it is, our new life has an intensity about it, testing us in ways that can thin our patience and our love but also in ways that might be formational, even transformational.

It isn’t easy tuning in to what this time, locked down, has to teach us. Frankly, clarity and purpose can feel elusive. It’s easy to forget what day it is. And, with family life contracting and nowhere to hide at home, our imperfections are on show, amplified, revealing truths about us and our egos. As Franciscan friar Richard Rohr told his email subscribers last week, life is not about us, but we are about life.

Try telling that to the teens.

My family and I spent the first week of relative isolation pushing furniture around; rearranging our domestic infrastructure to create spaces for better cohabitation and co-working, and hoping it would help us find a new shape to things, even as the shape kept shifting.

As the walls of the house seem to close in, the garden bursting with fecundity after all the rain has become a fresh sanctuary; a space with no ceiling, opening up time for contemplation of what the universe is offering.

We keep hearing “we are all in this together”. Now, with physical coming together outlawed in places including churches, mosques and temples, we imagine virtual pews and prayer mats stretching on for miles. We also look forward with increasing anticipation to eventually really sitting together, conscious that private communion is not enough.

The pandemic is also showing up the need to find sacred practices in the everyday. Creamy coffee in the morning in my favourite chipped mug offers revelry for my senses. Without travel time to work (in fact no paid work at all) I can take more time to drink it.

(The church, which has a reputation for being anti-pleasure, should rescue itself from that narrow view. It was Ethiopian monks who first invented coffee, and the Capuchin monks of Italy who came up with the cappuccino -- an extravagance reflecting who they thought of as an extravagant Creator.)

If busyness can dull the wonders around us, going slow can help bring them back. Among the wonders are singing and music, not just as ornamentation, but as essential soul food to be shared with others.

Sunshine on skin, rain on the rooftop, a hot bath with a good book recommended online. The material world is mingling with the virtual world in new ways, blending sacred and secular, and proving that division false.

In this Christian Holy Week the ideas of the Word becoming flesh, dying and rising, doubt and faith, surprising and sacrificial love all have more resonant meaning and in the smallest things.

Tasks that were always monotonous have become more so, from making the bed to rinsing dishes, but paradoxically, they can be comforting because they are familiar in a time of flux.

Who would have thought every conversation was so vital, so valued? Phone calls - old fashioned, and with video - are more elastic, stretched out, to remind us we are not dead; that people care. They are full of confessions, misgivings and celebrations about the smallest success (like getting kids out of bed while it’s still morning and all the family remembering to brush their teeth). The chats act like yeast to raise the bread of each day.

A friend tells me on the phone, in a conversation that runs to an hour, that even taking her dogs out for a wee feels like an adventure; being in the weather, in the day, part of something.

Pets everywhere are being reclaimed as touchstones, sentient beings that help us forget ourselves when things are falling over. Humble dogs or backyard chickens teach us lessons at these times, with their capacity to live in the moment and not worry about tomorrow.

Walking is what I am relishing the most. It’s another mode, a way to spend energy to gain energy and to give my nervous system a break.

Cortisol levels and blood pressure drop as I walk the suburb and up and around a nearby mountain. Given how busy this mountain has been in recent weeks, others recognise it too.

Walking is a shortcut to the sacred, without the rigours of formal meditation. Its physicality takes me to the metaphysical and contrasts with omnipresent electronics: e-work, e-connections and e-entertainment.

Putting one foot in front of the other, climbing a dirt track, noticing nests of ants and Canberra’s fairy-wrens, smelling the gums, observing the trees bend and unbend, using the time to reflect, helps my state of mind and by extension is good for the minds of the loved ones I care for.

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