Sheltering in place has been a blessing and a curse for so many of us. Many Lenten promises were made to reduce time on social media or technology use, only to be broken as scrolling the feeds became a way of keeping in touch, of seeing the trends of our hearts, and holding on to what sense of community we could.
As we begin to come out of lockdown, the word “normal” has become something paradoxically strange; we do not yet know what “normal” actually means. Staying at home, learning new hobbies, distancing learning, etc. have become a “new normal” for many. At the same time, we find ourselves wishing for the “old normal” to return. The normal that feels “normal.” It will take time to develop the kind of normal that we all really need—a balance between leisure and work, or better said, a work that is oriented toward leisure.
The Mass readings throughout this time of pandemic have been ironic. It’s always remarkable to see the hand of tradition and the Holy Spirit scrawling salvation history across our lives even in the midst of a time that is difficult to understand. The two readings that seem the most apropos for me was when we walked through the desert with the Israelites and when we stood in the garden of the Resurrection with Mary Magdalene—the “wishing for the normal” meeting the reality of “the new normal.”
Think of the Israelites wandering the desert after being freed from the slavery of Egypt. Their new “freedom” didn’t look like what they thought it would, and the Promised Land seemed so far away. So they did something completely irrational (but thoroughly human): they wished to return to slavery. Their blindness to the hand of God in their journey to freedom turned their song of thankfulness (Exodus 15) into complaints and bitterness ultimately wishing not just for slavery but even death (Exodus 16:3).
Throughout the lockdown, I’ve mused aloud and online that I’ve enjoyed the time to slow down. One of my friends had a comical (and truthful) response: “I don’t mind the slowing down but I could do without the screeching to a halt!” Perhaps true for many; but I remember praying for more time, and while the impact of this pandemic (economically, spiritually, politically) has had many pitfalls, I’ve found it wise to pause and return every moment of complaint and bitterness to the song that I sang at the start of this journey, to be thankful for having nowhere to go, no rushing around in the morning and afternoon, for later bedtimes and sleeping in, for the gift of technology to virtually see our neighbors when we cannot embrace them.
It is a natural human response to desire a return to what once was when the new realities are difficult, tiresome, and sometimes scary. But endurance in the midst of pain can only make the bearer stronger for the journey and inevitably changed for the better by journey’s end.
Think of Mary Magdalene in the garden of the tomb where Christ had been laid to rest (John 20:1-18). After the Resurrection, a weeping Mary ends up being the first to see the Risen Lord. And he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (emphasis added). Paolo Prosperi’s reflection on this is profound:
What Jesus is saying is not that Mary is indefinitely forbidden to hold him, but that he has to ascend to the Father before she can touch him. In other words, the condition of the superabundant fulfillment of Mary’s desire, ironically enough, is the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Lord’s . . . ascension to the Father, is the condition for an intimacy with the Lord that is greater than Mary ever imagined possible, an intimacy more interior and therefore freer, and no longer troubled by physical distance. (Communio International Catholic Review, Vol. XLV, No. 2, “Do Not Hold Me”)
Our holding on to what we have lost amidst the social distancing and isolation of the pandemic can be an obstacle to a greater freedom offered in the slowing down, the re-prioritization of goals, the quiet care of our own souls. This exchange between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Lord also reveals a new understanding of friendship. Physical distance does not have to be an obstacle to intimacy. Instead, it can be a way to understand what truly is important: interior freedom.
Now, allow me to weave a thread through these Scriptures and musings into our pandemic reality, into “normalcy.” As we are wishing for a return to or a redefining of “the normal,” it is worth a re-orientation to the idea that our “normal” is being redeemed, to ultimately view this time as a gift, not to be abandoned when social distancing has been lifted, but to be a way to discern what normal actually looks like. Normal does not mean returning to the slavery of the workaday world. It doesn’t mean clinging to what once was. However, it does mean a renewed understanding of why you work, of what freedom means, and trusting that whatever this is, it is for your good.
One of the things that has helped me is to sit down with a sheet of paper and make three columns, labeled:
- What I’ve missed during social distancing
- What I’ve enjoyed during social distancing
- What I don’t miss about life before social distancing
Filling in each column helped me discover the building blocks to redeeming your normal while adapting to its newness.
The Israelites had many problems, but one of those was failing to see the hand of God throughout their journey to the Promised Land. When their hunger pangs were deafening and their legs were weak, their gratitude turned into complaint. Listing things out can give you the eyes to see God’s hand throughout your journey of the “slavery” of isolation and the Promised Land that awaits you when social distancing is lifted. It doesn’t eliminate the current turmoil but it pushes it into the hopeful light of eternity.
Your normal after this lockdown should look different than your normal before this. Do not waste a moment to adapt to the new. Learn from the docility of Mary Magdalene beneath the command of the Risen Lord. Do not cling to what life was like before. These last few months have changed what your day-to-day life looks like, and much of that change needs to continue.
Don’t give into the rush of the workaday world. Fight for dinners together and time with your family. Keep FaceTiming and Zooming with faraway friends. Tell your priest how much you missed him. Leave work at work. Turn off the screens as often as you can. Get outside! Embrace the community that you have and reach out to help it grow. Read. Write. Pray. Make time for the things that have kept you sane during social distancing, and find ways to abandon the things that you have not missed in your life before COVID-19.
Do not wish for slavery and death. Run toward what has been promised. Do not cling to what once was, but believe the promise of greater intimacy, greater freedom. Redeem your normal.