My friend Cheryl and I were planning a trip to the Holy Land during Lent. We were to fly out March 8 and spend nine days seeing as much of Jerusalem and the surrounding area as possible. Although the Coronavirus and its impact had been moving slowly toward us in Canada for months, and although cases in the Middle East began to be reported with particular fervour in the weeks leading up to our departure date, I was bound and determined to get on that flight and go. Cheryl tried at various times to question my resolve, to express her worries about travelling at a time like this—I would hear none of it.
Two days before we were to leave, another friend intervened to talk sense into the two of us. We pulled the plug on the trip when it became unavoidably clear that it was not only risky to ourselves to go, but undeniably risky to others too.
I experienced the cancellation as a crushing disappointment. I did realize that this disappointment was irrational. The whole world has had their trips cancelled. I am not so self-involved as to think that this interruption was just about me, even if I had mostly been willfully ignorant to the reality of what this pandemic was going to mean for all of us.
Since I couldn’t go to Israel, I immediately tried to fill up the week of vacation time with other things: day trips, outings, activities, anything to get away. As the week progressed and as the inevitable spread of COVID-19 came knocking on all of our doors, these plans were cancelled, one after the other after the other.
I had absolutely nowhere to go. I was stuck.
… And yet, there is a spiritual opportunity in being stuck.
In no way am I minimizing the loss, the legitimate (even healthy) fear, and the very real threat to individual and community health that lies before us. I am also not suggesting that God has given us the Coronavirus in order to teach us something or to get us to face some spiritual facts. I am asserting though that the God revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus, who journeys with us to all into the dark places of our lives with the sole motivation of reaching across whatever torn and tattered realities that have made us feel like we are alone, certainly has a stake in blessing us in this moment too.
When I finally realized I was stuck, I was forced to face that crushing disappointment head-on and to ask myself the question as to why being stuck felt so awful. I have an amazing family, work that I love, hobbies that make me feel alive and friends that bless and challenge and teach and care for me. And yet, when I was forced to stay put, when it became clear that there would be no getaways of any sort on the coming horizon, I had to face the reality of the pieces in my life that don’t work. There is a toll to the hamster wheel of busyness. The juggling act of work-life balance actually only feels sustainable when I know I’m going to occasionally get a break from it. I had to come to terms with my need to ask for help, when I would so much rather just amaze people with my prowess at getting things done. I had to face some facts once again about my utter and total spiritual dependency. It’s not that my prayer life isn’t alive and well, but it is the case that occasionally I get the supreme good fortune of hitting a wall and having to surrender to the reality that it’s all God. At the end of the day, everything that I am able to do is God, every blessing I receive is God, in every need my only help is God.
Of course, I am not alone in filling my life with noise, busyness, impressive juggling acts and the hamster wheels we claim as a necessary part of life. I am also not alone in using the fullness of life as a crutch that allows me to limp along rather than having to hear the summons of our Lord to “stand up and walk!” Many of us are terrified of facing the spiritual reality of need, a spiritual reality that is best avoided by physical, emotional and mental clutter. We get indoctrinated into liking our distractions and the hectic pace of life. Then we don’t have to face the parts of ourselves that are broken, that are in need of repair, and that we don’t have the faintest clue really how to fix. Not facing the parts of ourselves that are broken is first and finally a matter of ego. It is the misguided notion that I am the centre of the universe.
Since I was stuck, I picked up one of the books from my pile of must-reads that sits on my bedside table. These are the books I usually bypass in favour of thrillers and bestselling fiction. Just a few minutes into Subversive Theology by Eugene Peterson, given to me quite a while ago by a dear friend, I came across words that seemed to be written exactly with me — and most definitely our current “social distancing” moment — in mind:
“I want to simplify your lives. When others are telling you to read more, I want to tell you to read less; when others are telling you to do more, I want to tell you to do less. The world does not need more of you; it needs more of God. Your friends do not need more of you; they need more of God. And you don’t need more of you; you need more of God.”
The world doesn’t need more of you. These words offer the ultimate ego blow. They also offer freedom.
Throughout our Christian history, there have been those who have become an instrument of God’s love, not because their hands were busy and their feet were well-travelled in service of the Gospel, but because they dared to withdraw and had the courage to sit still. Julian of Norwich is a saint of particular interest for our times. After nearly losing her life through a serious illness and receiving sixteen visions from God, she became an anchoress and lived in an enclosed cell at the side of St. Julian’s church for almost 60 years, her only communication with the outside world happening through two windows — one into the church, the other into the outside world. Julian lived through years when the plague was sweeping Europe. She also lived in a time when this kind of spiritual calling, to live alone in a cell at the side of a church, was common (Julian was one of 36 anchoresses in Norwich alone). Our modern interest in her has focused on her stirring visions of God’s motherhood, which Julian visualized as being enacted in all three persons of the Trinity, as well as her voicing of Jesus’s promise to us “that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I have to wonder, however, whether she and all of her fellow anchoresses were also bearing witness to their people — cowering in fear, no doubt, from the ravages of the Black Death — of God’s presence with us, God’s voice speaking to us, God’s love enfolding us, even in our isolation.
Julian’s witness soundly defeats the assumption we all too often make, which is that God can’t speak into the world except through our actions and activity. God partners with us, to be sure, and our busy and full lives most definitely can be an offering of service to God. And also, we can learn to pause and surrender, recognize our own uselessness, our own limitations, our own futile efforts, so that we can remember that really what everyone needs is less us and more God.
As Julian reminds us, spiritual isolation is a particular kind of call, and God can and does use the anchoresses, hermits, and desert fathers and mothers among us to speak love into our world. And also in Julian’s own plague-ridden circumstances, we can gain perspective on a calling that we, almost six hundred years later, suddenly have thrust upon us collectively.
We have a long road ahead. We are all going to experience what it is to be stuck; there are no getaways on the horizon. We’re going to think we can’t stand being cooped up any longer. We’re going to face loss and fear and grief. And we must, as people of faith, remind one another to look expectantly for how God is going to use us as instruments of love even if we’re sick or quarantined; who will accompany and embrace us in the stillness; who promises to renew and challenge and speak truth to us, if we’ll just stop for a moment and listen.
I almost went on a destructive and dangerous trip. All of the warnings were out there for me to hear about the risks of international travel and COVID-19, and I ignored them all. I almost went on it because I was so bull-headedly determined to get away from a life that was probably on the verge of collapse, so that I could come back and continue on with exactly what I had been doing. If I had gotten on that plane to Israel, I would have arrived on a Monday morning to the news that had been decided by Israeli officials while that particular flight was mid-air: all foreigners entering the country would be put in an immediate two week quarantine. If I had gone ahead with that trip, I would still be there now. And I would likely have no way home when the quarantine was up because most international flights have now been cancelled.
Thanks be to the God who would speak into my bull-headed and ignorant ways, who would send me the voices and friends that would keep me home, who would bless me even when it’s hard to see how I deserved to be blessed. Indeed, the world needs less of me and more of God. Indeed, God has graces to bestow on us, even — or especially — when we find ourselves stuck.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: Michigan, 1997), 30.