Solace in a Time of Isolation
The Poet David Whyte writes: “Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made-up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering, and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of.” (2018-19)*
The Feast of the Ascension in an interesting way initiates a strange kind of post-Resurrection life of Jesus with his disciples. After the devastation, of his torturous death on the cross and the ecstatic though mysterious joy of his post-Resurrection appearances, the disciples are portrayed in the Scriptures as needing a considerable amount of time to absorb this new reality of the Risen Jesus. Jesus appears to individuals, couples, groups proving it is really himself. The beginning of solace after devastating loss. And then He ascends… leaves again and in his full humanity is taken up in the mystery of Trinitarian extravagant love.
The human/risen Jesus points to our own eventual full participation in Trinitarian life. As Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner says about the Ascension, “God holds eternally within Godself the results of creation’s history as God’s own reality, and lets it participate in God’s own life for all eternity.”**
Clearly, we are involved, included in far more than we can take in. My guess is that few of us in our social distancing and quarantine are engaged in such lofty considerations. We grow restless, anxious, and bored. The disturbance of our ordinary routines, work, ministries, social life, recreation, has been severely disrupted by this strange non-living virus we cannot see that can kill every single one of us. And to prevent that devastating outcome requires a generosity of heart to be seriously inconvenienced so that others may live as well as ourselves. The interference with our habits, our comforts, our entertainments, our family routines, our work-lives and our gathering for worship and community, is disorienting and depressing. All the routines (good ones) by which we hold our lives together without having to think too much about it is suddenly gone, and by now gone for too long depending on how much patience we can muster and how much we miss the daily social connections we take so much for granted.
What is the invitation set before us by the strange situation in which we find ourselves and to which many of us are beginning to rebel against? While we are living in this secular, cloistered, and self-protective environment, we are, for the most part, actually safe if we have the conditions within which we can follow the rules and guidelines that promise to offer the best outcomes for all of us and not just some of us. Many of us have what we really need, and are aware that all of this is only for a time, we, nonetheless, are daily inundated by a constant news cycle of our choosing—some of which is accurate and much of which is more disinformation. Those of us who are capable of critical thinking are daily alarmed and saddened by the deliberate disinformation, corruption, callous lack of concern about those who are suffering and dying through no fault of their own but purely as a result of our economic disparities. While some leaders have risen to the occasion, others demonstrate their callous disregard for human life and the unnecessary loss of life we are now heading into because the country as a whole has not been able to create or buy “into” the best practices required to honor every human life and ensure their well-being.
What might the Spirit working within each one of us urge us to do? I write from the perspective of one of those whose age puts me at high risk of infection which makes almost any kind of face-to-face contact with others as a volunteer at a food bank, etc., imprudent. Since I am still teaching, and not a tech native, nonetheless, I have been impelled to touch base with my students through email in response either to their writing assignments or to their communications with me. We can offer support and care through on-line methods even though that may not be our preferred or most rewarding way of interacting with others. One of my students was stranded in South America for more than six weeks and we had a daily, brief What’s App exchange which was reassuring to both of us.
The disciples of Jesus withdrew to a common place, awaiting the promised gift of the Spirit. While we are unable to gather, we can, nonetheless, engage in intercessory prayer or a simple practice of holding those we are concerned about in our contemplative prayer whether it be centering prayer, Ignatian contemplation, or any other way of extending our care and concern for healing to those who are ill and those who are caring for them or those who are quarantined with them. We can never know the outcome of our efforts, but we do know that prayer makes a difference in healing outcomes for many.
We may also be compelled to participate in political influencing actions to support science-based, public health strategies and to resist the constant disinformation and callous disregard for the well-being of the majority for the benefit of those who are exploiting this crisis for commercial, economic, or political gain.
In the midst of the complexity and challenge of this pandemic for everyone, solace remains. For those of us with access to walking trails, spring in all its glory presents us with its stunning beauty and persistence in the renewal of life. For those of us who live alone, every walk brings some neighborly interaction with family groups, friends, and others on the trail who make visible our neighborliness without compromising one another’s safety.
“Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering, and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of it.” (218-19)
May the Consoler bestow this solace upon us in a Pentecostal flood of grace.
*David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2016
**Karl Rahner, cited by Rev. Dr. James McEvoy, CTC, Circles of Christ Series, Flinders, Australia, online 5/9/2020.
Originally from California, Dr. Janet Ruffing, a Sister of Mercy, is Professor Emerita of Spirituality and Spiritual Direction at Fordham University where she directed the spiritual direction program from 1986 until her arrival at Yale Divinity School in the spring of 2010. She has published five books and numerous articles on spiritual direction and supervision, mercy spirituality, female religious life and leadership, kataphatic mysticism, prayer, and other technical topics in spirituality. She has lectured or given workshops in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK, Ireland, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong and Macau. She was a founding member of Spiritual Directors International and is past president of The Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. She has also chaired the mysticism group in the AAR, been an associate editor for The Way, and on the Editorial Board for Presence. She has experience in teaching religion and English in secondary schools, in the formation of spiritual directors, permanent deacons, and women religious.
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