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Beatitudes for our troubled times amid COVID-19

If the Beatitudes can speak to us in any age, they can speak to us now in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, writes SUSAN MANSFIELD as she continues the Ignatian Lent Retreat through these extraordinary times

THE past week has been a strange one for many of us. For me, at times, it has felt like living in two worlds. I’ve been doing the daily reflections on the online Lent Retreat being offered by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow. So, in one world, I’m well through the Second Week of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, exploring the life of Jesus, often using techniques of imaginative prayer to picture scenes in first-century Palestine.

And in the other world, life as we know it has been changed by COVID-19. Country after country around the world has imposed restrictions on daily life. In not much more than a week, much of what we regard as ‘normal’ has come to an end. Many of us have stopped going to work, to school, to church. Once busy streets are now quiet. Supermarket shelves have been emptied by panic buying.

How, I wondered, might these two journeys intersect? One of the things I learned early on in Ignatian spirituality is that God meets us where we are, when we’re real about ourselves and our situation. But where is God in this?

Container for surprises

However, the Spiritual Exercises is, among many other things, a container for surprises. And so, this week, I am not writing the column I planned to write, the one about imagination, because suddenly, a few days ago, I found myself reading the ‘coronavirus Beatitudes.’

Fr Henri Nouwen, author of Living the Beatitudes, writes that ‘every one of the eight Beatitudes that Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount are for all people and for all times,’ but that some will strike us more than others depending on our circumstances. The person making the Spiritual Exercises is encouraged to consider which ones most apply to our own lives and how.

What follows is not meant to be reductive about this profound and sometimes mysterious text. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ radical manifesto for living differently, a succinct description of how the values of the Kingdom of God turn conventional values upside-down. They can speak to us in all circumstances and, I believe, that includes now.

As I read the words ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ it occurred to me that my spirit did indeed feel somewhat impoverished, my inner resources depleted by the sheer effort of dealing with the situation. Every news bulletin seems to bring fresh fears, for ourselves, for our loved ones, our country, our world.

Normality

And we are mourning—for our normality. For being able to get up and go to work, take our children to school, meet friends, visit family, take a walk down the street without having to think about social distancing. We are mourning for the holiday we’ve had to cancel, the concert we had been looking forward to, the graduation which is now postponed, the Easter celebrations which will be muted.

Of course, these are small acts of mourning, and may God protect us from greater losses, but it’s helpful to acknowledge that’s what they are, even just to ourselves.

Meekness is a difficult quality to define, but I feel that coronavirus has given us a taste of it. Once busy people who felt in control of our lives, we are now all too conscious of how vulnerable we are, and how fragile are the systems in which we once placed our trust.

Putting aside our authority and freedom, we stay obediently indoors in the hope that will slow the spread of the virus. When I found myself on my knees in a supermarket, trying to fish out one of the last two packets of rice from a near-empty bottom shelf, I felt unexpectedly meek.

Kingdom of God

These first three Beatitudes are about the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God: the last shall be first, the person who loses his life will find it, in true poverty we become rich. In a situation where we are forced to admit our vulnerability, our limitations, we also admit our need of God, and in this we can be blessed in ways our busy, in-control selves could not have understood.

In his book on the Spiritual Exercises, The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy, Monty Williams SJ writes that the first Beatitude is a key to unlocking the others. “Poverty of spirit is the radical awareness of our nothingness and of our dependence on Divine Providence for health, approval, image, identity, friendship, even life itself.” COVID-19 is giving us a taste of that.

Beatitudes

The next four Beatitudes are more about how we are called to live. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a right way to live in this situation, to learn what it has to teach us. Blessed are the merciful, who go on managing to help others when fear drives us all towards insularity.

Blessed are those who continue to treat others with integrity and kindness when so much of the world is pre-occupied with self-interest. Blessed are those who bring peace into situations where tensions mount. If you do this, know you are esteemed and upheld by God. Know you are blessed.

The aim of writing this is not to make of our present sufferings more than they are. For most of us in the affluent West, this situation is temporary. We will get our old lives back; not as soon as we’d like, perhaps, but we will. Though we would do well to remember that the same insecurities we are now experiencing—over our wellbeing, regular income, access to healthcare and well-stocked shops—are some people’s reality, all the time.

Nor it is trying to claim we need to see the good things about this situation—there are very few. But it might remind us that, in this journey we find ourselves on, we are drawing closer to the heart of the Kingdom, to the path of Christ, who gave up everything. When our path touches His, in however small a way, we are blessed. And, if we can open ourselves to do so, we can find ourselves touched by blessings untold.

n To find out more about Ignatian spirituality, visit www.iscglasgow.co.uk or contact Ignatian Spirituality Centre at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

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