As I write, in France we enter our 19th day of “confinement,” the term used here.
It is Palm Sunday. I tried to find a church that would be open for private worship for just two people. But the one near us, and therefore within the range of travel permitted, is inside the grounds and behind the walls and ramparts of Chateau Montréal, a classified historic, semi-public site and therefore closed. We shall celebrate here, outside, with pine branches rather than palms, birdsong as our music, the forest creatures our shy parishioners.
Palm Sunday. A pivotal time, when joy and tragedy, life and death stand side by side, bleeding into one another.
The woods slope to meadows, tell-tale signs of ancient water-courses, then roll up to ridges where Atlantic pines pierce the heavens. I am not confined to an apartment or a house or even the 2-km permitted to walk oneself or one’s dog. I can walk as far as I am able without running into anyone. What a blessing, to be confined with silence, solitude, and the land. All of which nurture me.
As I walk, I am surrounded by clouds of witnesses. They are not noisy. Their presence is soft like summer rain. My family. My parishioners. Friends and colleagues. The clouds of witnesses do not sift through the living and the dead. All are there. And of course, the central presence is Jesus.
How can you be confined when Jesus walks the path with you?
A couple of months ago I received an email announcing that “N… is in the presence of Jesus.” I could not figure out the message. Only after reading it three times did I understand that this was a death notice. I know we will live with Jesus following the demise of our physical selves. But are we not already and always in the presence of Jesus? Even in confinement. Especially in those times and places where the world aches.
Joy and tragedy, bleeding into one another. The woodland paths produce almost daily a fresh species of wildflowers. The fruit trees, wild and cultivated, are luminous with blossoms. One—I call her Angel—reaches wide her arms when I greet her every morning. Life burgeoning, while the numbers of COVID-19 deaths and infections also burgeon. Outside, life. Inside, copies of Le Monde left by our neighbour, graphs and charts mapping death, the only growth to be found in the obituary columns.
Another witness has recently joined the walk. His is a heavy presence with which I struggle. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch-Anglo medical doctor, philosopher, political economist and a writer, mainly of a satirical bent. He lived from 1670 to 1733, managing frequently to offend polite society with his pamphlets and books. He pushed himself beyond the pale with his publication of The Fable of the Bees. Simply put, Mandeville did not believe humans to be altruistic or benevolent. A cynic, he saw evidence everywhere of hypocrisy and self-deception. The supposed virtues were not useful, in fact, probably harmful, he wrote, as behaviours thereby motivated fell far from the intended targets of alleviation of misery and promotion of the good. Mandeville argued that the best way to improve society was to model and implement systems that acknowledged the vices and engage directly with those vices by appealing to self-interest. To Mandeville, self-interest is the way to get things done. You want a better society, forget the soft touch of virtue—go for the hard edge of self-interest.
Mandeville emerged out of shadows where I had left him after debates with friends in Ireland 40 years ago, and strode along the trail with the firm step of a man confident his time has come.
Has it? Could Mandeville be right? Or at least partly?
The world is in turmoil. Yet beneath the concrete of lonely deaths and exhausted care-givers, surprising shoots and blossoms are pushing through. How can this be?
The air pollution rate over the world is visibly shrinking as satellite images from space make clear.
In Paris and environs, noise levels have fallen by 50% to 80% (from 5 to 7 decibels) during the day and by 90% (9 decibels) at night.
Wildlife are walking into abnormally empty, quiet city streets in many parts of the world.
The soaring jobless rate in every country is pushing into public discourse the critical need for guaranteed annual income policies in a way no election ever has. Traditional capitalism becomes hourly harder to defend when the gap between the haves and have-nots is exposed in ever starker terms.
Individuals and governments did not decide to cut fossil fuel production, yet oil has dropped to less than $20/barrel.
During this tragedy, it is likely more advances are being made toward the Kyoto Accord targets for reduction of greenhouse gases than have been achieved in years of international consultations and agreements.
Creation needs these startling, shocking changes. But we (and I certainly include myself, air travel being among my many sins) have never accepted the level of change required, nor the rapidity of the transition. We have never taken responsibility to make the sacrifices required for the salvation of our maimed planet. These changes pushing through the crust of apathy and greed, are, Mandeville would say, resulting from desperate self-interest. Interest in life. Interest in being alive and staying alive. We might be saved in spite of ourselves. And at huge human cost.
I say to Mandeville, during our walks, “You never make room for God. You persist in seeing everything through a single lens. Yes, most of us are motivated primarily by self-interest. But God is not. Read Romans 8, Bernard. And read John Donne. I know he was before your time. No matter. Read it. And the ‘Golden Rule’, to love your neighbour as yourself, a version of that commandment exists in faith traditions the world over and in labour movements (an injury to one is an injury to all). Read current material. How about The Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben? We are all connected. We are all community members. Even in confinement. Especially in confinement.” Mandeville takes out his pipe. I say he should not be smoking in the forest. He goes his own way. We will probably run into one another again.
Already, when most countries have not yet hit the peak of COVID-19, policymakers are being pushed to think about the “sortie.” What are they thinking of doing? Some governments are opening online discussions to receive input from their citizens. Will anyone be reading them?
This “crash” should have all of us shaking in our boots. What will we do? Try to hit reset? That won’t work. The status quo has been shattered.
These are pivotal times. Tragedy and joy bleeding into one another.
The choices we make now and in the coming months and years are likely to affect us as individuals and in our collectivity more than any decisions made since the time of World War II.
Will we, as Christians, “hope for what we do not see,” firm in our knowledge that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Will our faith be strong enough? Will we have enough courage? Enough spirit-filled vision?
Will we hoard and divert shipments of masks or will we love our neighbour as ourselves?
In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland and World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote in 1920 “The Second Coming.” He concludes his poem about the tumultuous, disorderly times, when “the centre will not hold,” by asking: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We are the rough beast. We are the waiting cradle. We are people of faith and hope.
What will be born out of our confinement?