“Hearty Desires” in a Pandemic: Lent III

Source: Prayer Book Society of Canada Facebook page. Available here.

The world has changed in the last week. We’re only now starting to wake up to the reality of a pandemic, to the precautions that we’re asked to take, to the restrictions that our governments have lawfully and prudently imposed on us. Amidst all the other blogs, tweets, comments, reports and reflections that have come out in the last week, what can this simple series on the 1962 BCP Collects add?

Well for one, it’s easy to see the relevance of a prayer for “defence against all our enemies.” A viral pandemic threatening the most vulnerable among us is clearly an enemy of human life. Sadly, a reference to “enemies” is about the closest the 1962 BCP gets to a “plague” or pandemic, outside of the Litany. Scott Gunn tweeted that the 1979 Episcopal BCP lacks any such reference, and I can add that the 1985 BAS goes even further than 1962.

My friend Chris (who is more connected to the Prayer Book society than I am) follows up Gunn’s appeal to the 1928 Episcopal BCP with a similar turn to Canada’s first Prayer Book from 1918. With the possible exception of New Zealand, we’ve lost something vital: an appeal to God for aid in a time of great collective uncertainty. Even our traditional, Cranmer-heavy Prayer Book doesn’t deem this necessary.

Because the world changed 70 years ago. Chris mentions the exponential growth and professionalization of medical science and technology, which of course has its transparent benefits. But the context for this change includes D-day and the Baby Boom, the entrenchment of market-run democracies that did everything to preserve the expansion of capital, the explosion of the middle class, the ballooning of automobile-only suburban developments. All of these upheld the illusion that we could now be in control of our lives, an illusion that the crafters of the Litany and our historic Prayer Books could not have considered possible. Our Anglican history prof Ephraim Radner rightly points to the theology underlying the Litany, but also states accurately that they are “slimmed down and rarely said.”

So an appeal to Almighty God to be our “defence against all our enemies” makes sense to talk about right now. But what about asking God to “look upon our hearty desires?” Aren’t we supposed to “sacrifice” and “take it for the team?” If you’ve been following this series so far, you’ll know that I find this language limited and limiting. My culprit this week is another deadly enemy of human flourishing that now threatens us: isolation and disconnection.

We’ve heard a lot this week about “social distancing”: avoiding crowds, staying home, the precautions and requirements that are now upon us. Sports, conferences, fan conventions are all canceled. Libraries, community centres and even businesses and malls are now closed. Churches (churches!) have canceled public gatherings large and small. The reason is easy to grasp: limit the risk of infection, especially for those most at-risk.

But the term itself can literally go to hell. I know the epidemiologists who developed it weren’t thinking in terms of psychology and personal intimacy, but I wish they had. It should merely be called “physical distancing,” and let us find creative ways to maintain our personal connectivity. Because that intimacy of human connection is the most hearty desire we have, the desire most central in our heart.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition puts this desire at the very start of things, as something God has built into our core design. This is described narratively: God Himself looks at the first human and declares, “it is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.” (Genesis 2:18, Alter translation) After the flourishes of “And God saw that it was good” from the first Creation account, this “it is not good” sticks out like a sore thumb, like an upended routine. God’s love is so expansive, so uncontainable, that it is proper for God to share our attention and desires. “The second [commandment] is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (1962 BCP, p 79-80, quoting Matthew 22:39) God makes our lives possible…and our neighbours, our “sustainers.”

But how do we continue to connect despite the need for physical distancing? This is made all the harder by the ways we have ceased connecting as our urbanized control-illusion has emerged. In many ways, we were already isolated from each other: waking up, commuting to work, chaining ourselves to our desks, going home, watching TV, going to sleep. One of the silver linings of the current moment is the opportunity to name this isolation, to lament it, since we’re all now pressed up against it.

If you had an immediate family, if you had healthy relationships with them, this was always somewhat mitigated. Surely many folks rebelled against urban isolation by finding common interests to connect to other people: which gets back to the disappointed I and others feel about sports and fan conventions being cancelled, but also points to the continued need to find ways to connect. The Church of Jesus Christ—the local parish—was always ideally the primary location for community. I’m grateful for the parish (ststephens site) and diocese (dio Tor) I currently find myself in, which have creatively taken up the task of engaging people and addressing needs at this time.

Oddly enough, I can’t help but wonder if social media has represented the greatest rebellion against urban disconnect. Yes, it has lots of isolating problems such as ideal-image projecting and comparing, mindless feed scrolling, biased news sources, etc. It’s often non-verbal and non-tactile. But maybe it prepared us for the current moment to a degree we couldn’t have anticipated: technologies like livestreams and video chats, discord servers and facebook groups. Instagram and its power to show the world through another person’s eyes won’t be going anywhere, and who knows: maybe we’ll figure out what Twitter is good for? Oh and WordPress is literally right here. #Meta.

Of course, all of these technologies are often accessed through a device we still oddly call a “phone,” which underscores my point: the ways we’re going to keep connecting through this pandemic are things we’ve been doing for a while now. We’re more creative, adaptable and persistent than we give ourselves credit for. May God, and may we, look upon our hearty desire to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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