The last public worship service, at which I officiated, took place on March 15th. The government authorities, heeding the advice of medical experts, set in motion the covid-19 social restrictions that included the cessation of large (and eventually even small) gatherings of people. This meant that gathering for worship had to be suspended. Not only was the pandemic disrupting social, political, and economic spheres of life, it was intruding into our spiritual domain. Spirituality is fundamental to human existence. Christina Puchalski, a Professor of Medicine and Health, wrote in 2009: “Spirituality is that aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”
Covid-19 offers us an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual impact it has on the world and our communities. While such reflection does not always take us to places of positivity; in this reflection I do want to accentuate the positive impact of the pandemic on spirituality.
Firstly, while covid-19 is a worldwide threat, it reminds us we are a global community. In its initial days, the virus was found only in China, but in a very short span it went global; covid-19 became everyone’s problem. It left no space for stigmatization of a particular country or ethnic group. However, it does face counteracting forces which push in a ‘non-spiritual’ direction: stigmatization, blaming, and scapegoating, capitalized on by certain politicians and their adherents. But overall, the people of the world are buying into the mantra, “we’re all in this together”. Covid-19 has removed barriers of ‘we and they’, ‘here and there’, and stirs up the value of belongingness amongst us. It has demonstrated that it sees our globe as one single interdependent community, as strong as the weakest link. We have realized that covid-19 is the problem of the world community, the global neighbourhood.
Secondly, covid-19 demands physical distancing, but requires unified societal action. The coronavirus has made it difficult for people to be fully ‘social’ (as we are by nature). Without any vaccine against covid-19, or any cure, controlling the spread of the infection largely rests on a unified response form the general population. Restrictions have been made on travel, tours, social gatherings, public functions, and people are urged to follow basic hygiene, not to meet others or maintain a 2 metre distance when they meet.
At the same time as we are forced to reduce or restrict our contact with one another in a physical sense, we are encouraged to connect with others in an emotional and spiritual sense. We do this by responding to opportunities to care for each other. In many countries, we see societies pulling themselves together (e.g. via the national anthem, or just by singing together out of their balconies/windows etc.), uniting them to face, together, this common threat. As one writer expressed it, “Global health embodies a spirit of interconnectedness and it recognizes the need for global cooperation to solve these problems.” Social distancing may raise concerns over the cohesiveness of our society, community, or family; yet, it is crucial to stop the spread. Covid-19 has aroused the spirit of unity and interconnectedness in the health systems of several countries and has been animating and coordinating decisions and actions at national, provincial/state, and local levels. It demands global cooperation – unified action in the interest of wider population health and as the World Health Organization Director himself said from the very beginning, “Solidarity is the key to defeating covid-19”. We have to be, around the globe, societies of ‘caring’. The young and old need to care for each other; people with good health should care about the people with health conditions; and countries should also care for each other in this global pandemic. In other words, we need intergenerational, cross-national solidarity. In Christian terms it is about “loving our neighbour as ourselves”.
Thirdly, covid-19 attacks human beings but stirs up a humane response. To quote one author, spiritual values are “creative and constructive mechanisms working to stabilize the society, to prevent its destruction….” Compassion, kindness, sympathy, and caring are some of those spiritual values that drive humanity in its basic form. As Christians we believe God enters into our suffering with us bringing healing, hope, transformation; new life. That is one of the lessons of the Cross and the Empty Tomb. We, likewise, are meant to enter into the suffering of others.The pandemic has the potential to change our outlook towards others in our global community. It encourages us to be compassionate, and to protect people we know, but also people we do not know including elders, economically weak, and those marginalized in their own countries.
Frontline health workers are appreciated like never before, but so too are grocery clerks, truck drivers, delivery people, all those who continue to provide essential services. Covid-19 has, for some, changed perspectives to value the hard work of such folks and to see them with respect and dignity.
And finally covid-19 restrains religious freedom but kindles faith. Human beings tend to turn to prayer in a time of crisis. Unfortunately religious places such as mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples have closed their doors: the weekly Friday prayers banned, worship suspended; and rituals curtailed. Getting through this time will require a lot of spiritual innovation. Amid this situation people are encouraged to pray from home, to use the liturgy and prayer resources provided, to read holy scripture, devotional material, to meditate, to walk with spiritual focus in nature, to watch on-line worship services. I am so heartened to know of the resources provided to you by Allan and Megumi including Allan’s daily prayers and readings; Megumi’s development of a pastoral care process – designed to keep us connected to God and to one another. And now Amy and I have managed to offer our first on-line worship service which we will continue to do until covid-19 restrictions are relaxed and we can worship together in our sanctuary – in person!
In the meantime, I encourage you to pray and worship, read and study, at home. Whether you are at home or in the church sanctuary – you remain the real church, the Body of Christ. And remember that God is present with you. As the Psalmist declared about God: “I can never escape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence!....every moment you know where I am…”
To sum up, the covid-19 pandemic reminds us we are – through and through – spiritual beings. As such we recognize the problem of the coronavirus is right here impacting the global community of which we are a part. It is a challenge that requires global cooperation and unity; that requires compassion to alleviate suffering; and a greater responsibility to exercise our faith in a manner that partners with God, and trusts God that this crisis will, indeed, pass and that out of this crisis, by God’s grace, the world’s people will become more unified, more compassionate, more understanding, building bridges rather than walls between our differences. Let us hope and pray that this will be the good that will come out of this tragedy.
We are in this together! We will get through this together! God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
(inspired by an article by Solomon Salve from International Health Policy.org/blogs/a-personal-reflection-on-covid-19-spiritual-impact – March 24, 2020)