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And the waters were stilled

Thursday, April 02, 2020

By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.For those of us who are confined, this time is a precious gift which can be used well or wasted. We can no longer hide from the fact that our freedoms do not exist in a void, that we are dependent and bound in solidarity to one another. May this be a chance to pause and reflect.

The Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is probably best known for coining the phrase ‘liquid modernity’. In this concept, he tried to capture the ‘fluid’ nature of contemporary society, where individuals shift from one social position to another, flowing through life changing places, jobs, spouses, values or identity. Definitive choices or permanent loyalties seem rash or unrealistic: life-long commitments dissolve into temporal or provisional arrangements pervading all facets of human interaction. Market forces emphasise the importance of flexibility and mobility, the need to adapt to the free flow of individuals, goods, labour, capitals and information that has only been made possible by global transport networks and the digital revolution of our time. The virtual world has been called the ‘space of flows’, and nowhere is the metaphor more salient than when talking about money: economists speak of market ‘liquidity’, of ‘injecting’ money into the economy, of ‘leakages’ of capital to foreign nations.

Water, in the Scriptures, is a sign of regeneration and purification, of baptism and life. Yet at the same time, there lies deep within Israel’s memory an ancient echo of water as a force of chaos and destruction. From the opening pages of Genesis, ‘the waters’ are an unstable and untameable reality that only God’s power can set bounds to: the earth emerges out of them as orderliness out of shapelessness, thus allowing life to develop. Later the earth is again destroyed by the Flood, leaving to posterity an enduring imagery of water’s capacity for both death and rebirth, the vigilant awareness that our world can revert to a primordial state of formlessness.

What we have witnessed these days is no less bewildering than the parting of the Red Sea, or the turning of the river Jordan, when God’s people entered the Promised Land. For the waters have been stilled. World conferences, sport and music events have been cancelled. Tourist activity has ceased. Universities, schools, museums, and other public institutions are closed. Flight connections and travel routes around the world are suspended or stalled. Entire nations have entered into lockdown. Prices at the stock market have plummeted. The flow has stopped.

Like Noah, most of us feel we are floating adrift on a calm sea, awaiting forces beyond our control to remit. Like Noah, we know that the world which will emerge from this will have been radically transformed. And like in this ancient story we know that this extraordinary circumstances are in the first place a testing of our hearts, a time when acts of cowardice, flippancy or selfishness stand side by side with the courage, heroism and generosity of those at the frontline, doctors and nurses, caregivers, cleaners or supermarket employees: ordinary people who do not make the headlines, as Pope Francis remarked in his momentous Urbi et orbi address last Friday.

In the first few days of Spain’s lockdown, a video went around the web showing a tired, irate nurse ranting against witless youths who were ignoring the government’s restrictions and occupying hospital waiting-rooms without any symptoms, in the hope of getting their own COVID-19 test while revelling in their defiance, and documenting the feat on their Twitter and Instagram accounts. The video was shown by the main national media as a wake-up call to the seriousness of the situation. None of us can any longer elude the fact that we are bound by ties of solidarity to one another, that the freedoms we so much value do not exist in a void, but depend on the complex fabric of our social, economic and political context. Our sense of independence from natural constraints, from coercive authority, and even from considerations of the public good, is no longer invulnerable to the awareness of our duties and responsibilities to the wider society in which we are immersed. We do not live alone. No man is an island.

For those of us who have to stay confined, this time is a precious gift, which can be used well or wasted. It is certainly a time to slow down and rest if we can, but also to learn to be alone with oneself, to think and reflect. For the first time in decades, as one commentator acutely observed, ‘our materialistic society has been put on pause, and people are looking around and asking themselves, “What is this all for? What is the value of human life? Am I willing to sacrifice my freedom to protect my neighbour? Can I sacrifice some comfort to protect life?”’

Never before have we had access to so much information, and while some people are facing this time simply as a chance to entertain themselves, we can choose instead to learn more about the virus, about ways to support our health systems, about the policies adopted by our governments. We can try to gain a better understanding of the material abundance in which we seemed to live, the sources of which we might have thought inexhaustible. Some comforts we took for granted may turn out to be luxuries, and goods we thought indispensable may in fact prove inessential. Numerous satellite records are showing a fall in air pollution levels in many regions of the globe. Learning to live with a bit less should teach us to share with those who in fact have less. Living in a society where consumption or economic growth are no longer top priority might remind us that certain goods, especially those that serve the common good, cannot be priced or monetised. So many aspects of human interaction have an unmeasurable value. We cannot hide from our dependency on others, from the often uncomfortable awareness that human relationships are difficult and require time, dedication, if not sacrifice and suffering.

This time is a chance for us to seek the rock, the solid foundations that will enable us to build on firm ground, once the waters start moving again. It is a time of great fear and anxiety, but there is also much good that is already occurring. This was captured beautifully by Br Richard Hendrick, an Irish Franciscan and poet who a couple of weeks ago wrote the following:


Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,

March 13th 2020

Br Pablo Rodríguez-Jordá O.P.

Br Pablo was born and grew up in Alicante, Spain. He first lived in the UK as a student of History and English at the University of Southampton, and after graduating worked as a language teacher in Oxford, where he met the Dominicans. He entered the novitiate in 2017. Reading the works of Thomas Merton was a particular catalyst for his calling to the religious life. Similarly, reading G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. H. Newman led him to the practice of the faith earlier during his university years. He is interested in languages, 19th century literature and the history of English Catholicism. | pablo.rodriguez@english.op.org



Anonymous commented on 03-Apr-2020 07:54 PM
Very insightful observations, Br Pablo, thank you for sharing!
Anonymous commented on 04-Apr-2020 05:47 PM
Beautiful reflections on today's events, Br Pablo! It brought a lot of peace to my soul. God bless you!
Grarme commented on 05-Apr-2020 07:26 PM
This writing shows us different way to think, different choices we can make, a different way to live life. I hope that I will remember these words when the lockdown ceases and life again assumes it's busy course. Thank Brother.

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