It has been recorded that during the crucifixion of Jesus – to be commemorated during these three weeks of ‘national shutdown’ – there was darkness over the whole land from the sixth hour (midday) until the ninth hour (3 pm), when he cried out in a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and breathed his last. This is the searing account given in St Mark’s Gospel. There is no pretence, no sugaring of the pill.
Another symbolic darkness covers this land with the impact of the national shutdown on all normal social and commercial activity for a period of three weeks. It is, in this instance, not the result of crass political expediency, as was the case with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, long ago. It is the outcome of a reluctant but necessary and bold decision by our President Ramaphosa and his cabinet colleagues, aimed to forestall and to counter a terrible affliction which has taken the entire world by surprise in its potency and severity.
“Stay at home” is the essential injunction now. It is particularly hard for those in unreliable shacks or trying to survive as ‘street people’. The challenge is how to provide for them too, somehow. That is why our president asked for new strains of compassion to emerge and to thrive.
The desert monks, in the early centuries of the Christian era, spoke strangely and paradoxically about a need to die to our neighbour. By this they meant that there should be no judgment whatever, only acceptance and unconditional embrace. They learnt it from their solitude and physical isolation. We, too, should seek for this spirituality of dying: no more indulgence of selfishness or condemnation, but an inner acceptance of all that derives from a fully compassionate heart.
There is much that we can learn through this time of ‘darkness’, grievous though it is. William Shakespeare, we are told, wrote “King Lear” when all theatres were closed down because of rampant disease in the England of his day. Not many years later, Isaac Newton was working from home during the plague of 1665 to develop his theories of gravitation and motion.
Flee, be silent, pray: these were the counsels and hallmarks of the desert fathers and mothers. Flee excess of any kind and self-centred living.
Embrace a spirit of silence amidst the constant chatter and gossip of the world, including elements of social media.
Pray for one another widely and deeply, in whatever way is appropriate for you, especially for doctors and nurses now called upon to exercise a dangerous role in their vocation.
Together, in a sombre time, we can in thought and concern reach across an anxious world which waits to be healed of the Covid 19 scourge.