When I was writing the post for Diary of a Sunflower the other day and describing a scene from some recurrent nightmares I had as a child, where I would be lying on a road, or a railway line, and a car or a train would be coming towards me, and I could see it and was desperately trying to get out of the way, but my legs would not work, I was paralysed by fear, it reminded me of a scene from the film “I am Legend” with Will Smith in it, where the infected dogs are after him and his dog, but they cannot cross the sunlight on the ground. The sun is going down and that ray of light is gradually disappearing.
Of course, the social distancing, social isolation situation here in the United Kingdom, and the Coronavirus pandemic is also, obviously, playing on my mind. “I Am Legend” is a film set in a post apocalyptic world, where most of the world has been infected with a virus that has turned them into Nightwalkers. The Will Smith character, Neville, is immune to the virus which affects humans in the airborne form, but dogs can only get infected by being bitten. He is a virologist, trying to find a vaccine. A topical subject. It is an excellent film, but a white knuckle ride, you need to be in the right mood I would say, and maybe, now is not the time.
Dreams of paralysing fear are quite common and can signify being stuck or restrained, from internal or external sources, or they can come from repressing stresses and feelings in our waking life. It sounds like I am describing the current situation where school has now been closed and we are working from home, setting lessons online. I might be calm and measured in my actions, but there is a small child inside me who is freaking out, a small child who knows that closing schools, and for an undefined length of time, and cancelling qualifying exams, is a last resort and means the situation is serious.
So what to do with that paralysing fear? There is no trite answer to that, and neither would I want to give one. To freeze can be a normal response to a real threat and sometimes, maybe standing still is safest action to take. Fight or flight might just make the situation more dangerous. I am thinking of where a dangerous predator might not have noticed that you are there. As a child, I loved horror films. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch the horror double bill was a treat for us. I especially loved the Dracula films; and while I might go to bed with that adrenaline fuelled fear of:
What if there really are such creatures?
What if there are monsters under my bed?
I always put my crucifix on my pillow when I went to bed and felt safe, and if I had to go to the toilet during the night, I would take a flying leap back into bed, and hold onto that crucifix tightly until my heart rate had slowed down again..
We have become very used to the wonders of modern medical science I think, and especially in the United Kingdom with our wonderful National Health Service. It is not something we should take for granted, it is precious. We are getting a glimpse of what the world would be like without appropriate medicine, without vaccines, without antibiotics. For much of human history we did not have such wondrous technology, and there are places in the world that still do not have access to technology and medicines that are available elsewhere. To be used to depending on our own ingenuity so successfully, and to find ourselves in a position where we are not in control, but something else is, with blatant disregard to our feelings and well being; that something being invisible to our eyes but we can clearly see its effects, is sobering. I am of course talking about COVID-19. And scientists cannot decide whether or not viruses are living.
Recently, in the context of the meditation on a public sinner in the first week if the spiritual exercises, I heard someone describe sin as a virus. Hitler was presented as the public sinner, a common choice, and the contagion of his ideas spread exponentially throughout those around him who carried out his orders. It seems to me an excellent analogy, but I do not want to get into the sickness = sin equation of the Old Testament. It is to note that social behaviour driven by fear is leading to hording, fighting in the aisles, denial of the seriousness of the situation and refusing to take action by physically distancing oneself, but just carrying on as if nothing at all is happening. The disease spreading through our world is shining a spotlight on our collective sinfulness, our collective fear and lack of faith in God.
But it is not the whole story. Just as there is a cry of wonder as we turn to the crucified Christ in the Exercises, there were those who stood up: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Maximillion Kolbe….many people who refused, and died refusing to accept it, whose faith was tested right to the point of death. And there are those who are standing up in the wake of the pandemic: Dr. Li, who tried to warn the world of this new viral pneumonia that we had never seen before and died from it himself, all the key workers, responding to the crisis by carrying on, caring for others. There are those in local communities who are rallying round to make sure the vulnerable are looked after. There is less talk of Brexit, although it is still there under the surface its effects in this current situation are being considered, but people are caring more for each other and building communities online to support each other. Fear is not the only story, God is there in the midst of it all.
I have been catching up with Day 14 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. The words that particularly struck me from Julian in relation to the current crisis are when “our courteous Lord” says to Julian:
My dear darling, I am glad that you have come to me in all your woe….and now you see me loving.40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E. Dahill
and it has gone hand in hand with an image that was posted on the CCC Facebook page:
Ignatius advises that when we are in a time of desolation:
…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.The Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
…one who suffers desolation should remember that by making use of the sufficient grace offered him, he can do much to withstand all his enemies. Let him find his strength in his Creator and Lord.The Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.The Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
The image above reminds me of a previous imaginative contemplation I made on the Good Samaritan at the end of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises and by bringing it to mind, and into my current prayer, this previous consolation, I have found that my inner child is settling down and my trust is deepening. No, I do not know how we will emerge from this crisis as a world and I hope it will be different in a good way; that we will come to understand that we are all connected to each other and that we need to look after each other and our world. There will always be disease: viruses and bacteria evolve more quickly than we do and medical science is always playing catch up. Consolation, sensible and spiritual, is to be found in how we deal with it. I, for one, am grateful for all those people who have posted the positives and prayers on social media, because they have all helped me to make use of the grace offered me and to withstand the fear raining down.