Priests should be trained to meet the challenges imposed by lockdown. Lockdown means solitude and plenty of time to enjoy it without distraction. And there are so many things with which to fill one’s solitude. Celebrating Holy Mass; reciting the breviary; saying the rosary; Eucharistic adoration; spiritual reading; mental prayer. These form the backbone of the contemplative life.
The trouble is that most priests in parishes may, like myself, have long forgotten how to be contemplatives – if indeed we were ever taught to be so. Before one can devote oneself to prayer and contemplation, one needs first to put the world aside, and that can take a very long time, indeed a lifetime. Worldly thoughts have a habit of crowding in. That is why every contemplative also has the daily task of physical labour. Lockdown is a great time to remember the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of hard work: things like clearing out those neglected cupboards, polishing church floors and tidying up the sacristy and storerooms. This sort of activity can be purgative and therapeutic.
But there is a third aspect to the religious and contemplative life that must not be forgotten. Even if the word monk comes from the Greek monachos, one who dwells alone, the religious life is cenobitic, that is, formed of communities that share the same table. Though they may pass long hours in silence, they do gather, generally twice a day, and talk to each other. Community recreation is an important component of every life. In fact what lockdown is asking the priest to do is not embrace the cenobitic life, but the eremitical one, to live completely alone. That vocation is very special and very rare.
My lockdown has been quite busy, in that I have been streaming three times a day to parishioners and others who care to watch. I have also been doing various writing tasks which do need peace and quiet. But one does need a break from work, and that is provided by reading and Netflix. Here the limits of lockdown become apparent. I have just read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light; I have read the entire trilogy and have to say that this last work (at 800 pages, ideal length for lockdown) is a simply terrible book: self-indulgent, prolix, monotonous and devoid of any new insight into the Tudor period. As for the critics who have fallen over themselves in praise of the book, they will all be looking a bit silly in twenty years’ time. But reacting to the book like this reminds me of shouting into an empty cave. All one hears is the echo of one’s own voice; what one wants is a lively discussion with friends.
Reading is a solitary activity that tends to the social. The same goes for Netflix. I am watching anything with subtitles that helps me in the languages I want to improve. Right now that means the rich seam provided by German and Israeli programmes, some of which are excellent. But how one longs to discuss Fauda, or Charité or Shtisel – and one can’t. Social media, while useful, is simply not the same.
Lockdown will end one day – it has to, surely – and then what happens? Are we doing the right thing? Is the government listening to the right sort of experts? Luckily, I do not have to take responsibility for this: if I did, it would worry me to death. But what does worry me is the collapse of the economy and the effect that will have on people’s lives, and the toll isolation will have on people’s already fragile mental health. In addition, a passing look at social media confirms that lockdown has not necessarily brought out the best in people, as they snitch on their neighbours or berate strangers in public for perceived infractions of the rules. I have witnessed the latter on my daily Boris walk, and it reminds one once more that humility is great virtue. The slide to authoritarianism is worrying politically; but it is a hideous spectacle socially.
In addition, there is the dispiriting thought that those who will suffer most in lockdown are those who were suffering most beforehand, the people who live in small houses or flats without gardens; the people who find that they have lost their jobs; the people living with difficult family members. And what will happen to the Church? The British media seems to have missed the religious significance of Covid-19, if indeed it has one. One newspaper has pointed out that certain church services in the Far East turned into Covid infection hubs. But is there any discussion about how religion could be part of the solution rather than the cause of the problem? Not really, as far as I can see. This is profoundly dispiriting. Apart from some interesting articles by Tim Stanley and Luke Coppen – names dear to Herald readers – the press has been fairly silent, a sign that the Church is marginal to national life. Once the crisis is over, this marginalisation may be even more pronounced than before.
Finally, people ask me if I am missing my parishioners. I am certainly missing the interaction of daily life; and I am worried about the way all the threads that were suddenly broken by lockdown will have to be rejoined. Some, I fear, never will. We are in the hands of God. Some plagues of the past ushered in profound social changes. Others, not so much. Whether this plague will be like the Black Death or the Plague of 1665 (from which the country rapidly recovered), only time will tell.