Monday, August 10, 2020

We just aren’t made for social distancing as human beings – even God doesn’t distance himself from us.

There has been a lot of fallout resulting from the on-going COVID-19 pandemic that the world is currently mired in right now. Understandably, most governments have at their topmost concern is how this has affected and continues to affect their economies as this is the engine that they are put in power to maintain and keep running as best as they can.  It doesn’t take an astute economist to see the kind of impact that this virus has on the countless jobs that help to put food on the table in millions of families. For many people who live from hand to mouth with hardly any savings in the bank, the loss of a regular paying job can have devastating effects.  As long as the search for a vaccine against the Coronavirus hasn’t reached its end, more and more jobs and the financial stability of families will continue to be negatively impacted.

But that is just one of the ways COVID-19 has changed the world and has changed many lives.  There are a lot more other non-economic related effects which human beings have experienced the world over as well.  One of the more significant of these is the way that we relate to one another socially as human beings.  As a priest who is ordained for the care of souls, and to pastorally shepherd the flock that he is sent to, I see this clearly in my ministry, and cannot help but feel a certain sense of foreboding, especially where the dynamics of human interaction are concerned.  There had never been any course in the seminary that prepared us for a time when it was not possible to physically meet with our parishioners, or when so much restrictions are put in place by the authorities.  

The catchphrase in these unusual times is to “socially distance” ourselves.  None of us would have ever thought that there would be a time in our lives where, in order to keep the other safe, we would have to keep away from one another. Understandably, there have been much reactions against this new norm, largely because the human person was not made for social distancing.  Right from the first chapters of Genesis, God makes for Adam a suitable helpmate, one who is taken from his side to be with him side by side.  

It isn’t surprising to see large swaths of people from all nations resisting this call to socially distance themselves from one another.  It just goes against the human need and appreciation for contact, encounter and what the bible terms as koinonia, the Greek term for fellowship or community.  Yet, it is within that call to truly love one another in the truest sense of the word, where we will the good of the other for the sake of the other, that we practice this tough call of social distancing.  

Thankfully, the pandemic comes to us at a time when the supporting structures are in place for us to do many things online.  The negative impact of the pandemic on society would be far worse if we were not living in the largely digital world, where one can work from home, learn from home, shop from home, run a business from home and to meet friends both near and far from home.  The world is so heavily dependent on our strange ability to live in a ‘virtual world’ in these challenging times.  I was rather amused to see how there is even a virtual open-house tour of the Istana (the office of the President of the Republic of Singapore) to observe our nation’s 55thIndependence Day online.  It certainly isn’t uncommon to hear of the many things that one can experience on the virtual platform, including virtual meetings, virtual concerts, virtual classrooms and virtual workshops and seminars. 

The Church too, has benefitted from the use of this technology, and there are many virtual or on-line Masses that are broadcast live to devotees all around the world, though this too, has its challenges. It doesn’t surprise me one bit to find out that there are segments of the Catholic population who say that they are getting so used to these ‘virtual’ Masses that they don’t really look forward to the time when we can once again come together physically to be with each other in community in a physical Church to celebrate and encounter the oneness that we are as members of the Body of Christ.  

When asked why they are now partial to virtual Masses, some of the responses have been that they can view them at their own time and schedule, and need not bother about how they dress or attire themselves when doing so.  Some have even said that as a family, they even snuggle under the comfortable duvet on their parents’ bed, and ‘attend’ Mass in a supine position, surrounded by their fluffy pillows and favourite stuffed animals, and dressed in their pajamas that they wore since the night before.  It’s just so convenient.

I noticed that what is making this going so well for these “virtual Masses” is that they seem to be centered on the self, with reasons being those of comfort, convenience and availability ‘on-demand’. These, after all, are the very same reasons why the cyber world has become so successful – the world is becoming more and more about the self.  And this is where, if we are not careful, we will start to apply the same attractive qualities of the cyber-world to our spiritual lives, and see the very foundations of our faith begin to disappear beneath our very feet.

What is the foundation of our faith and our sacraments?  It’s ultimately based on love, and a love that is willed for the other, and for the good of the other.  God’s love for us is what compels him to go out of his own Trinitarian comfort to create us and to share that love with us.  If we strip away all that the externals of every Sacrament of the Church – their actions, their liturgical trimmings and adornments, their exquisite settings and the carefully formed phrases used in the various rites, each Sacrament is ultimately an experience of this love of God who wants to be close to us, and not distanced from us. And certainly not socially distanced either.  

If we fail to see this, we will easily end up making it all about us - be it our comfort, our convenience and our ability to have things on-demand. And when that happens, we will ultimately forget or fail to see that because pure love requires effort and sacrifice (especially where God and the other is concerned), there is therefore also a great value in putting aside our comfort, our convenience and making it all about us. This is where our faith sits stridently opposite to the narrative that the world promotes and upholds as almost sacrosanct.  The effort to come to Mass celebrated at a time that may not be convenient to you, the effort to turn up in an attire that shows we value what we are doing at Mass, and even the effort to pay attention to what may appear to be something ‘boring’ is really an effort to love.  

The virtual life may be something that is sweeping over our lives like a powerful tsunami, but if we are not careful or discerning, we may forget that the more meaningful life is not the virtual life, but the virtuous life.  And that is always effortful.

1 comment:

  1. Very relevant... this has been on my mind and so, Thank you and God bless.