From the minister...
Another month, and another reflection on Covid, working at home, church online and Zoom… six months on from the beginning of the lockdown, introduced in light of the first wave of Coronavirus, many of us now feel an increased sense of resignation as we consider the realistic possibility of living with the virus well into next year.
Our hopes of returning to ‘church as normal’ for Christmas have given way to a notional aspiration of worshipping together in large numbers by Easter. Having cancelled holidays in the summer just gone, we now wonder what getaways will be possible in 2021. And, for many of us, the novelty of working at home has long since worn off.
It’s no surprise that this latest phase of this crisis has introduced another new term to our everyday conversations: ‘pandemic fatigue’. Speaking in early October, Hans Kluge, Europe Director for the World Health Organisation, spoke of the ‘huge sacrifices’ made in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, which have come ‘at an extra ordinary cost, which has exhausted all of us, regardless of where we live, or what we do’. He went on to add that, ‘In such circumstances it is easy and natural to feel apathetic and demotivated, to experience fatigue.’
Pandemic fatigue is a phrase which many of us are becoming increasingly familiar with. However, my guess is that many of us will not be aware of a word I came across recently that also gave expression to what we’ve been going through. In the early 5th century, John Cassian, a Christian monk and theologian, was among a number of those dedicated to the monastic life who complained about an emotion they described as ‘acedia’.
Those who committed themselves to living a life dedicated to God, but in isolation from others, seem to have been especially susceptible to this affliction. According to the American academic John Plotz, ‘Acedia, also known as the ‘noonday demon’, appears again and again in the writings of the Desert Fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries. Wherever monks and nuns retreated into cells to labour and to meditate on matters spiritual, the illness struck.’
The origins of this term come by adding a negative ‘a’ prefix to the Greek word kedos, which means ‘care’ or ‘concern’. We could think of this state as a sort of weariness or apathy, but it’s striking that, as noted by the Australian Catholic writer Jonathan Zecher, those who originally spoke of acedia didn’t think that it impacted people who lived in community with other Christians. ‘Rather, acedia arose directly out of the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.’
I came across the word ‘acedia’ a few weeks ago, and since then I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Could it be that the emotion experienced by those lonely monks centuries ago is also a good description of what we are going through right now, as we try to follow Jesus but are starved of the sense of together ness and community we crave and long for?
Church is not meant to be like this. We need the support of our brothers and sisters, which means regular contact with them. We need fellowship, we need words of encouragement supplemented by hugs from the fellow Christians who love us and are committed to walking together with us. Worship songs should be sung in the company of many others who loudly offer praise that joins with ours.
Left unchecked, these feelings of weariness can come to dominate our perspectives on church life. It’s hardly surprising that another unfortunate consequence of Coronavirus and the lock down has been a rise in cases of church conflict, a theme which has come up with increased regularity in conversation with local and regional ministers. It’s all too easy to lose a sense of proportion when we don’t have the regular meetings with each other which offer the chance of a chat that provides encouragement or puts things into perspective.
There are no quick fixes to these problems we are experiencing, no easy solutions as we all face the winter with the prospect of continued restrictions on church life. However, I think there are some steps we can take, some resolutions we can share, which might enable us, together, to stand strong against the worst excesses of acedia and pandemic fatigue. None of my ideas are original, but are rooted in the book of Romans which we’re currently studying in SBC, specifically some pieces of advice Paul offers in chapter 12. What difference would it make if we all agreed, together, to make a habit of the following actions?
Let’s ‘be devoted to one another in love’ (Romans 12:10): Let’s remember that the number one calling of Jesus on our lives is a calling to show love, including to our brothers and sisters in church. What difference would it make if, every day, we made a priority of showing love and care to one other person in our church, by writing that card, offering to help with shopping or picking up the phone?
Let’s ‘practise hospitality’ (Romans 12:13): We all recognise that hospitality isn’t easy in the midst of rules of six and restrictions on mixing between households. But there is still some scope for serving and helping each other. You don’t need to invite someone to your home to give them a meal, could you just deliver it instead?
Let’s look for ways we can bless and not curse (Romans 12:14): These are challenging times for all of us. Church leaders are weary from disappointing people in a season when none of us can get what we really want and not every issue can be resolved. The temptation is always there to complain about what others are doing as we all deal with our frustrations about the impact Covid is having on our lives. So when someone is critical, can we resolve not to join in? When someone is frustrating us, can we resolve to pray for them? When lockdown means that we innovate and do things differently, can we celebrate that creativity and the best efforts of our fellow believers?
These are small steps, but taken together I believe the impact could be highly significant, as we walk together into whatever awaits us in the coming months.