lent in the time of corona

There’s a much more serious feel to Lent now.

Normally I enjoy Lent as a time to focus on some new practice or helpful habit like (for instance, this year) listening to a poem every day around 4-5pm (that’s the lull in the day when I’m tipping inexorably from productivity to sleepy down time (know that feeling?))

In ‘normal’ Lent I might attempt some sort of ‘fast’ – more likely a digital one than anything food-related. Right now, a fast from Corona-related news is in order for me, if only for my mental health. This includes reducing time on Facebook, which, much as I love its communal and often friendly feel, can also tip me into consumption of nerve wracking virus related statistics that I can’t easily shift.

I think we’re all a bit more sensitised to bad and scary things right now. ‘Hyper-vigilance’ is a term that describes a state of being where you expect terrible news all the time, and it’s very exhausting.

The smart phone adds to this by promising connection and more often than not delivering yet more anxiety. So there’s a set of smartphone behaviours for a time of Corona (obsessively checking all the time to see if someone is in trouble) which for me have to be replaced by 1) not looking at the screen till after my morning prayer time; 2) limiting social media to 30 mins per day, at a set time of day, and 3) putting the smartphone to bed by 9pm.

News-wise, it’s an interesting phenomenon that if you focus on the local, look around and listen to what’s happening on your doorstep, in your neighbourhood, you can feel much calmer than if you try and keep up with all the terrible things that are occuring at any given moment across the world.

Before 24 hour news we didn’t feel hypervigilant, and it was much better for our mental health. I have to keep asking myself: is something terrible happening to me right now? The answer is, 99.5 times out of 100: NO. Therefore just live in the moment. Take a deep breath. Be.

For the other 0.5% of the time, you can deal with that when it comes, rather than obsess about how you might or might not be able to deal with it, when it comes.

Lent is a time when Christians reflect on wilderness experience. The wilderness, or desert, can be physical, or it can be metaphorical. A desert experience sounds like a bad thing at first. It’s a place where you thirst, where you are alone, and where the heat of the day and the intense cold at night remind you of your extreme vulnerability.

But a desert experience is also a place where other things are stripped away, and that could be a good thing in the long run. This Corona desert finds a lot of us with more time alone and feeling our collective vulnerability, but also phoning our loved ones and reaching out to the vulnerable and housebound.

Even large companies like Supermarket chains are suddenly moral agents of good, putting the needy first (as anyone who has tried to get a delivery slot online will have seen). And suddenly we realise that walking to work was a blessing, the bin men and paramedics are super important and the government likely consists of, not monsters, but hard pressed human beings.

Even thirsting is a positive in desert spirituality: It’s discomforting to thirst. Normally we do not experience this level of discomfort, this thirst, in our desire for serving others, or in our desire for God. Normally we pray because it seems like the right thing to do, not as if our lives depend on it. But there are signs of thirst everywhere now…

Having held a rationally cool ‘God doesn’t really intervene like he used to…’ approach to prayer, I’m now aware of my attraction to Instagram posts that are seeking a global prayer breakthrough, along the lines of ‘SMASH THE VIRUS, GOD; COME TO OUR AID’. Yes, I want this but something tells me we are always involved in the answer to our most desperate prayers.

Interesting to me was the insight, shared at the start of the outbreak, that in the West we get anxious when we’re not in control. In the East, the feeling is, well we’re never in control anyway, so therefore, relax. Control is an illusion and it takes a pandemic, or something worse, to remind us of this fact.

Giving up the illusion of control is at the heart of the Lenten experience, based on the experience of Jesus when he faced his temptations. In his desert experience he is often depicted by artists as alone, sitting on the ground, hungry, and battling with thoughts planted by the Evil One (sound familiar?)

And in his death we see the ultimate loss of control as he ‘gives himself up to death, even death on a cross’.

We have a long time to ponder these things now that our desert might extend way beyond the time when normally we would have been segueing from Lent & Passiontide into joyful resurrection, from the chocolate-buying lead up to Easter to those blowy spring days off when we put work down and eat roast dinner with our relatives.

But there are many ways to celebrate. Often at the end of an ordeal it is more a sense of quiet relief and thankfulness than an ebullient shout of triumph. Perhaps that’ll be appropriate as we emerge some time in the summer to ‘normal life’, remembering that for many, for whatever reason, life can never really be normal again.

And anyway, in these convulsive times at the start of the third decade of the 12st century, we might ask: what exactly is normal?

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