Even on those days when I struggle to string together a single, coherent, sentence, I can usually write something. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve known the curse of the blank page. But I’m pleased to say that it doesn’t visit me too often. Yet when I sat down to write something with the title ‘Coronavirus and Spirituality’, I just crashed. ‘Crashed’ in the sense that nothing would come. Nothing at all.
At first, I couldn’t work out why. I’d done the research. Or as much as I could. I’d read endless articles with titles like ‘Will Covid-19 be the end of religion?’ and ‘Keeping the faith: religion amid coronavirus.’ I’d seen the stats and read the reports. And some of what I read was very interesting indeed. I hadn’t known, for example, that the number of people searching for the word ‘prayer’ on Google had doubled with every 80,000 new registered cases of coronavirus during the early weeks of the pandemic. Nor that five million people had tuned in via the BBC and Facebook to a kitchen table service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the 22nd March: the largest single congregation in the Anglican church’s history. Nor that trumpet sounds heard all over the Netherlands since the pandemic began have convinced many that the Biblical last days are here.
So many interesting facts. But nothing which led me to think that Covid-19 was changing the face of the planet’s spiritual landscape everywhere and forever. Nothing new, in other words. After all, haven’t we always known that people turn to religion at times of crisis and that dark days force people to look to the heavens for signs and portents?
Everything which comes around goes around, then. Much like a virus, really. Much like viruses always have. The scriptures had it right after all: from the harsh beauty of the Book of Ecclesiastes to the timeless wisdom of The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam. Ecclesiastes in particular, with its opening lament that: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again’ and that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, leading the writer to the conclusion that all is, essentially, ‘meaningless.’
And here was the reason for my writer’s block. I could find nothing ground-breaking or original to say about coronavirus and spirituality because it had all been said before. There’s nothing new under the sun as regards this pandemic and our reactions to it. Nothing that the writers and sages of ages past haven’t told us time and again.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been re-reading some of C.S Lewis’s reflections on learning during wartime. It seems apt, somehow, because on occasion it has felt like we’re in something approximating a military conflict as Covid-19 rages around us. Our language, at least, suggests this. We hear talk of battling the virus; we praise those key workers working on the front line; we hope that vaccines will enable us to win the war, and so on. And, of course, during our various lockdown phases, a lot of so-called ‘normal life’ has ground to a halt: much as it does during a war. In such a situation, then, how might we learn from Lewis about what the pandemic might be teaching us?
Interestingly, it’s the very same lesson we learn from the sages and teachers of long ago: that there’s nothing new under the sun. Take, for example, the notion that a war – or a pandemic – creates an abnormal situation. Lewis disagreed. He wrote: “[Do] not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your predicament more abnormal than it really is…Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties [and] emergencies…”
It is tempting to disagree with Lewis, here. Surely a war or a global pandemic is very abnormal. Don’t such awful things mean that lots of people will die who otherwise wouldn’t have done? This sounds like a damning objection, until you hear Lewis’s response to it. I quote: “There is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or that…It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.” This may sound bleak – even callous – but surely Lewis is right. Daily we hear of infection rates and thousands of Covid-19 deaths in hospitals, homes and nursing homes around the world and yet, alas, the death rate for all of us is and has always been 100%.
Despite this obvious fact, it is still tempting to object: thousands of deaths every single day and this fact makes no difference?” Indeed, writing about the war, Lewis was forced to admit: “War does do something to death.” But then he qualified this: “It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at 60 or the paralysis at 75 do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise [person] can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have been living all along, and must come to terms with it.”
In the light of this, what of coronavirus and spirituality? The picture appears bleak, but this may not necessarily be the complete picture. If Lewis is right, our current travails offer an opportunity to peel back the accumulated layers of evasion and falsehood in order to allow us a glimpse – or perhaps a longer look – at ourselves as we are and always were. And this, as many sages have made clear, is where genuine spirituality begins: with the stripping away of illusions and the recognition of who we areand where we are. In addition, Lewis – and many other thinkers – would part company with the Book of Ecclesiastes in its assertion that ‘everything is meaningless.’ In fact, even the writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t go that far: many of our translations simply make it appear so. The Hebrew word for ‘meaningless’ is hevel: ‘smoke’. Something here today and gone tomorrow; curling upwards and becoming most visible even as it begins to dissipate and disappear. For Lewis, as well as many others, that disappearing is not the end of the smoke: merely the beginning of its transformation into something else.
Not all would agree, of course. Particularly within those ostensibly secular societies in which the pandemic has raged most fiercely. For many – perhaps the majority – of persons in these societies, the end of the smoke really is the absolute end. In which case, the fight for survival becomes key. However, Lewis is worth listening to again here. In his essay On Living in An Atomic Age, he wrote: “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved.” What might this something else be? At the end of the day, the simple recognition of that question might lead the one willing to ask it into a quest for a reality which truly transcends that which is doomed to disappear. Or, at least, for the possibility of that reality. The end of that quest may well be the beginning of wisdom; for some, the beginning of true spirituality. As Laozi famously said: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. There can be no endings without beginnings; no journeys without departures. Indeed, perhaps the journey itself is the place where wisdom and spirituality might be found. Betwixt and between, and not at the end of the trail.
Of course, much comes down to how we define ‘spirituality’. If we see it in terms of practical action leading to human well-being, there is much that coronavirus has taught us; much, even, to be thankful for. Many instances of oppressions, injustice, poverty and inequality have been exposed since the pandemic began. When the plight of the homeless becomes a health risk to others, it begins to be addressed. When it becomes clear that some sections of the community are at disproportionately greater risk of succumbing to the virus than others, there is ample catalyst and impetus for change. It is tragic that it should come to this, but at the very least it is – or should be – evidence that Covid-19 has taught us something that goes to the heart – or soul – of what it is to be human.
There is a wider picture, though; even than this. Sages ancient and modern have told us in various ways the same thing: that this life is not all that there is and death is not the final word. Concurrently, they have drawn a bigger picture for this life: holding up a mirror to observers in which a true reflection is revealed. Perhaps this is what Covid-19 has done. Or could do. If so, how might we respond? Could this be the beginning of genuine spirituality?