Remaining optimistic in a pandemic

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When will this pandemic end? The emotional roller-coaster precipitated by the COVID-19 virus has left me feeling that I have been running a marathon race with no established finish line. While I found comfort knowing the 1918 Spanish flu lasted about two years, it was unsettling to know that the bubonic plague, which began in the 14th century, returned intermittently over the next 200 years, with the last outbreak occurring from 1665 to 1666. Recalling these two historical pandemics left me wondering whether there were any lessons the survivors could teach us. Since our contemporary guidelines to keep us physically well are an improvement on previous plagues, I was only interested in what they could teach us about safeguarding our emotional and spiritual health.

My inquiry led me to meet two remarkable authors, Julian of Norwich, who lived in the 14th century, and John O’Donohue, who lived in the 20th century. Both left a collection of writings with wisdom that help us to become optimistic pilgrims journeying through a pandemic.

The first author, Julian of Norwich, was born about 1342 and died in 1429. From her writings and various biographies, we know that in her youth, Julian once prayed God would grant her three wishes: participation in Jesus’ passion, a life-threatening illness, and the grace of a triple wound, which is contrition, compassion and unbearable longing. Her desire to suffer a life-threatening illness was granted when she was 30 years old. She recalls in her writings that when a priest attended to administer the Last Rites, he asked her to look at the crucifix he was holding. She explains that as she did this, she found herself asking God for the second wish that her body become a vessel for Christ’s blessed passion. Over the next few hours, Julian received 15 visions. The following evening she received the 16th vision, which essentially summed up and confirmed the first 15. For Julian, these visions stressed the creative and sustaining power of God’s love. When she recovered from this near-death experience, she immediately recorded these visions. Then she literally walled herself up in a 12-square-foot room attached to Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Here she spent the rest of her life contemplating the meaning of these visions. The fruits of her contemplation were recorded in her book, A Revelation of Divine Love.

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What I found amazing about this woman is her radical optimism. Despite having lived through many rounds of the bubonic plague, experiencing unspeakable suffering and witnessing the death of so many of her family and friends, she could coin her famous phrase, “All shall be well.” Clearly her optimistic attitude flowed from her contemplation of her visions, which revealed God as love. As she wrote: “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.”

Although Julian’s experience of God’s creative and life-giving love shaped her optimism, it left me wondering how this knowledge helps us. I understand that love of neighbour would make me more likely to avoid things that might endanger the health of others. It could even mean that I would never endanger my own family by doing things that might infect them. It might make me even more tolerant of those who dismiss the restrictions as nonsense. But how does it move me to believe that despite bad things happening to good people, I can profess, “All things will be well.”

As I read the various writings of Julian and the 20th century Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue, I was reminded how some very simple spiritual practices can shape the way we react to life. The first is the belief that everyone can experience God’s loving presence. In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, O’Donohue draws on Saint Augustine’s experience of restlessness to explain how important it is to pay attention to our moments of restlessness, impatience and dissatisfaction. As Saint Augustine discovered, these restless moments are likely messengers sent by God inviting us into the Trinitarian circle of divine love. The second practice is the need for solitude. O’Donohue does not suggest that we should wall ourselves up in a room as Julian did, but rather points out the benefits of solitude. In his poem, A Blessing on Solitude, he tells us that it is in solitude that one learns to see themselves “with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees us in every moment.”

Although these spiritual practices may not reveal the finish line for this pandemic marathon, I believe if we use the stay-at-home order as an opportunity for solitude, we might find ourselves saying, “Despite the inconveniences caused by this pandemic, all will be well.” Who knows, taking time to pay attention to our dissatisfaction and restless spirit, we might meet God, who takes great delight in us.

Bill Gervais is a spiritual director and retreat facilitator who helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life.

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