I read the book “Quarantine” by Jim Crace for the second time at the beginning of lockdown. You may remember that lockdown began during Lent, and this book is a story about what happened when Jesus went into the desert to spend His forty days and forty nights, and faced His temptations. It seemed an appropriate read for that time and that situation.
Some years ago I spent some time working with “A Way in the Wilderness”, the first Chapter of the Spirituality Workbook by David Runcorn. He says:
In the desert, driven by the Spirit, we too will enter into tough battles with our allegiences and priorities, our passions and longings and the discerning of evil.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
And he talks about waiting:
Nothing happens fast in the heat of the desert. There is a different understanding of time and it involves a lot of waiting. A world addicted to ever faster ways of doing things finds such a place deeply frustrating – a waste of time in fact.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
I do not like being too hot – I have a very low threshold for even the temperatures we call a heatwave in the United Kingdom, so please believe me when I say that I am not at all attracted to the desert and do not want to spend any time there if I can avoid it. What struck me about Quarantine though, was that the pilgrims sought out caves to spend their time of the desert in, and I had never thought of that on a conscious level before, although rationally, it makes sense. Perhaps it is because one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema as a child was “Lost in the Desert”, and the young boy who was lost, spent most of his time in the open desert, as far as I can remember. This film made a long lasting impression on me. So, while the image of the desert is prevalent as an image of the spiritual journey, the image of the cave, although it is around, is less commonly talked about in my experience.
It is the cave that is capturing my imagination at the moment, partly because we have been in lockdown, or quarantine recently, and partly because of the Mother God imagery that has been coming up in my journey with Julian of Norwich. Let me explain the connection: some years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation with the Healing of Jarius’ daughter. In that prayer, I was the young girl who was sick and dying. In the part of the prayer where, in the outside world, the girl had died, I lay down in my imagination in what was a tomb, a sealed up cave, which had a stone shelf carved into the wall. As I lay there, drifting off to sleep, I became aware that the walls of the cave were warm, and living. I was no longer in a cave, but in a womb. Hence my linking of Mother God and the image of the cave.
So what do these two images have in common that I would put them together in this way? One of the essentials David Runcorn suggests for desert spirituality is stability, and he says:
Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
and in “Quarantine”, and indeed with the Desert Fathers of the church, the Cave equated to the Cell, it was a stable place, a place of shelter from predators and the heat of the day and the cold of the night: a place of safety, of seclusion, isolated from the world and its relentless distractions. The same might be said of the womb.
In “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat”, John Ortberg describes the cave as a place of transformation, of growth. Here, hidden away from the world, in a place of relative safety, we undergo changes in our being and we become different, emerging at the end of our quarantine to face the world afresh, where things will never be the same again. It is certainly true of the characters in Jim Crace’s book, including Jesus. And of course, in the womb, changes take place from the implantation of the fertilised egg, to the embryo, foetus and full term baby to emerge at birth. Both the time in the desert caves and gestation are periods where nothing happens fast: it feels slow, and little evidence of change might be seen, but nevertheless, the changes taking place are deep and lasting. There is no going back to how it was before.
But the cave and the womb are also not the same: the cave is a hard, difficult place and dangers may have to be faced in claiming it as your space – wild animals for example, as well as the spiritual battle which ensues. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises while living in the cave at Manresa, and there was a cost to it, a great turmoil of spirits and struggle with spiritual desolation. The film, Ignacio de Loyola, depicts this struggle in a gruesome, physical way and is not a watch for the faint hearted.
Within the novel, for one of the characters, the cave is not respected and she is violated within that space. Jesus Himself might have experienced intrusion from the “devil” of the piece, had He not chosen a cave that was in the extreme of difficult and dangerous to get to. Even then, it did not stop the harassment. The cave, as St. Ignatius experienced, is a place conflict and struggle with evil, as David Runcorn says in his book. The womb on the other hand, is warm and living, and life giving: a place of just being – who can remember their time in the womb? – and of being in another who is greater and more powerful than myself. It is a place of safety and protection like the cave, but unlike the cave, it is nurturing rather than challenging, at least until the term of the pregnancy. When the time comes, the pressure forces the birth, the emergence from the womb in what at times, is a difficult and traumatic experience for the one being born, as monitors of a baby’s heart rate during labour will testify.
It is the emergence from quarantine that is playing on my mind. In the relative safety of lockdown, I have changed and grown. There is a profound recognition of what I was becoming aware of before, and there is a rising pressure for a change, but it is for a change who’s time has not yet come. There is a sense of being thrust into the world again, before I am quite ready, a premature birth if you like. My rational brain, on being back in school last week, is supportive of the measures my school is taking to reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus and have a full return to school in September – it is what staff were preparing the physical environment for last week. My reptile brain is not happy; my reptile brain is so unhappy that it is telling me to run away as fast as I can. And true to the discernment process, I need to sit with God and allow His light to shine upon this anxious fear that is presenting itself. On the one hand, the threat is real. The virus has not been eliminated, and so many people in close contact increases the risk of further transmission. It is not unreasonable to be cautious, and that fear at the level of an uncomfortable reptile brain is a valid response to the situation which will foster respect and attention to due protocols, for the safety of everyone. What may or may not be the other hand are the changes that need to be made to the day to day working procedures – teachers moving between classes with our own trolleys, rather than the students for example. What bothers me the most though, is that I will not be able to sit down next to a student when they are stuck, to give them those minutes of close, one to one or small group attention, that will make all the difference to their learning and to their wellbeing. How do I do that with social distancing? When I think about returning to the classroom, it is this thought that is plaguing me. It is this type of interaction that is the most valuable, not that it is the only one, and I am pondering strategies to achieve it within the context of social distancing.
On being out and about, there is a strange mix of more like it used to be, and not quite how it used to be. It does not feel like a new normal. It feels a bit like stumbling blindly out of the darkness, and our eyes have not yet adjusted to the light. Perhaps we are emerging too soon, too quickly. Like childbirth, the pressure is compelling us out and there is no resisting it. Perhaps our cave has become our womb, and is too comfortable; that we have grown so much that it is time and only the discomfort that will force us out to live in the world as required, rather than hide away safe. Perhaps we are rushing out of our caves, ready to take on the world because it is time, and we learned what was needed; perhaps we are rushing out of our caves because the darkness, loneliness and difficulty of it were too much for us to bear and to breathe in the daylight and feel the sun on our skin is a relief, in spite of the invisible dangers.
In “Quarantine” there was a sense of it being the right time when the pilgrims emerged from their caves and made their way back to the world renewed: there was a sense of it being done. I do not feel that way quite yet. I am looking out of my cave with a little trepidation, sticking my toe out to see what will happen, and then maybe standing just outside the mouth of my cave for a short time. I am grateful for the school summer holidays, which have given me more time to prepare, more time to emerge slowly and to be ready to leave. In the meantime, I am enjoying this refuge, this space and time and the challenges it presents. God is with me in this place, working with me, preparing me. My cave is a womb, and I am not yet at full term. Sure, there are increasingly strong pangs, Braxton Hicks if you like, and perhaps last week even a false labour. We are nearing the due date, but we are not there yet.