What was it like when Mary and the disciples left the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost? As they stepped into the streets of Jerusalem it must have felt very familiar and very new at the same time.
Many of us are having the same experience as the Covid-19 lockdowns are eased. We can venture out of our homes for the first time in weeks. We can meet up, cautiously, with family and friends. We are not sure if we are falling back into a world we know or forward into something new.
I went for a walk last week and was overwhelmed with gratitude for things I took for granted just three months ago. Seeing the gates of the local square unlocked and wandering in as if I had discovered the Garden of Eden. Sitting on a bench to read my Kindle. Talking to a stranger as he leant out of his first-floor window. Admiring the architecture in the new Coal Drops Yard development. Spotting the narrowboats on the canal at the back of Kings Cross station.
These are simple things that before the virus would hardly have registered. But to me, in these strange circumstances, they were things of wonder. I felt like Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire. And then coming home it was as if I had been on a Great Adventure.
GK Chesterton wrote about the sense of wonder we naturally feel when we begin to discover the world as children, and how quickly it can disappear as we grow older. We become serious and weighed down with responsibility. Familiarity causes things to lose their enchantment. Why are we so thrilled to discover a golden apple in a fairy tale? Because it reminds us of the wonder we felt when we first saw a real apple.
Maybe the lockdown can help us re-enchant a tired world and see it again with the eyes of a child. Maybe the deprivations can give us a new appreciation for the simple things we took for granted, and a new sense of gratitude.
My morning stroll also brought me face to face with the unfamiliarity of a Covid-ready world: fluorescent signage everywhere I looked, security guards patrolling the shopping centres, two metre social distancing lines painted onto the floor, and queues for places I didn’t even know there were places. I found a Pret a Manger that was open. Great! My first cup of barista coffee in three months. But then my English awkwardness kicked in, my terror of not knowing the correct social norms. How do I queue? Do I need a mask? How do I pay? Is the disposable cup safe? But hang on, isn’t it unacceptable to use a disposable cup? So should I bring my own reusable cup instead? And what if they won’t accept it?! Aaargh! My brain seized up with the weight of existential questions and the potential for a catastrophic faux pas. I simply gave up and walked away without my coffee…
So it’s a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s an old world that needs appreciating in a new way, and a new world that needs new understanding.
Covid-19 has brought a great deal of suffering to so many people. But we can quietly admit that it has also brought some unexpected blessings. There has been an outpouring of kindness and compassion. Many people have been able to slow down, to reflect on their lives, to re-evaluate their priorities. Air quality has improved, carbon emissions have been reduced, and we’ve realised that 90 per cent of our meetings were completely unnecessary.
We have been forced to imagine a different future, and that has made us realise – perhaps for the first time – that the future is not set in stone. Things can be different. We can step off the hamster wheel.
It’s about discernment. What have we learnt in this time, as individuals, as Christian communities? What would we like to hold onto? What would we like to be different? We need the help of the Holy Spirit, just as those first disciples did. We need the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And as a Church I think we need to avoid just reactivating all the old plans and programmes, as if we have learnt nothing and nothing has changed.
The Lord said to Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth, can you not see it?” (Is 43:19). It’s the call to discern what is truly important in our lives and in the Church, and then to do it. It’s not complicated, but we are often too tired or too busy to reflect. Covid-19 has given us a chance to stop doing the unimportant stuff and rediscover what really matters. I hope we can seize the opportunity.
Fr Stephen Wang is Senior University Chaplain and Vocations Director in the Diocese of Westminster. He is live streaming each day at “Pause for Faith”: www.youtube.com/c/PauseforFaith