Regular readers of this column will know that I often weave into my reflections experiences from life to show how the life of faith doesn’t stop at the church door but can be perceived in many different ways in our normal day to day existence. Earlier this year Ruth and I went to a concert (remember them?) given by the Mendelssohn players at the Gold Room at the Hotel DuPont, Wilmington. We decided to make a night of it, and booked a table for dinner at the Brandywine Room before the show. The hotel’s usual restaurant, formerly known as the Green Room, was closed for “reconceptualization” (a.k.a. renovation) before a planned re-opening later this year as Le Chevalier.
At the end of the meal we walked the short distance to the Gold Room. This is large room built in the French Neoclassic style of Louis XVI, with (and here I quote the hotel’s own description) “ornate decorations, unique scenes created in the sgraffito technique (multiple layers of hand-etched, colored plaster) and bas-relief medallions of famous women from history circling the ceiling.”
What also impressed me were the columns of tall mirrors on each wall of the room. As you looked into them, you could see the concert reflected back into another mirror, like seeing a parallel universe where we all existed in another dimension.
That was in March this year, and at the time I began to write a short meditation on the subject of mirrors, as a metaphor for our inability to see beyond our own reflection, but then abandoned it. Last week, however, as I lay awake in bed, the mirrored room returned to me as a kind of waking dream.
As we all sat together and listened to the music, I looked into the mirrors and gazed at the reflection of the musicians and audience. I noticed a startling difference, however, which was that in the reflection no-one had a face. I stood up and shouted out to everyone, “do you see that?” and pointed to the mirrors. Everyone looked at the mirrors and then looked at me as though I were a madman. All they saw was their own reflection as before. I was told to sit down.
Ten minutes later I looked again and saw a different reflection: this time everyone was dressed in old clothes that were tattered and torn. I stood up again and pointed to the reflection, but, like the previous time, I realized that others were not seeing what I was seeing. Again I was told to keep quiet or leave.
This waking dream expresses two fears: one is the transformation that Covid-19 has brought to our social interactions. The wearing of masks has become normal (and necessary, to prevent the spread of the virus) but it has, temporarily at least, changed the way we see the world and has, arguably, made our lives more meaningless. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that “meaning is the face of the Other, and all recourse to words takes place already within the primordial face to face of language…the face speaks to me and thereby invites me into a relationship.”
My second fear has to do with the consequences of shutting down parts of the economy. Putting large numbers of people – mostly women – out of work will bring its own financial and health-related problems. I lived through a period of unemployment myself, many years ago, which took away the momentum and direction of my life. It gave me an abiding respect for the dignity of human labor and so I question whether losing so many jobs is a price worth paying for stopping the spread of the virus. Someone likened it to burning down the house to kill all the spiders.
The virus is here to stay, at least until a vaccine is found, or enough of us can develop immunity. We have learned some things about it which can help us evaluate the risk to ourselves: it disproportionately affects the elderly, especially those in nursing homes; the young have a very low mortality rate; CDC guidelines were recently updated to say that while it spreads “between people who are in close contact with one another…the virus does not spread easily in other ways.” Finally, it isn’t always fatal: I have a friend whose mother-in-law is an obese 96 year old Hispanic lady with diabetes and respiratory issues who caught the virus and then recovered.
Like other viruses before it, Covid-19 poses a risk we must learn to live with. Staying at home all day has been nice for a while, but as time goes on people will become restless and it is only natural that they will seek life and meaning outside the home.
As for the church, we have received guidance this week from the governor of Delaware. He has permitted communities of worship to gather again up to a 30% capacity, subject to a number of conditions. These include the prohibition of all those aged 65 and over (including clergy) from attending public worship. Like most churches, we have a large number of senior citizens, and it wouldn’t seem right, to my mind, to ask those members not to attend church while others can. Therefore, the Vestry and I have agreed to continue our current practice of offering online worship services until such time as all of us are permitted to gather again for worship.
Most of us are experiencing a prolonged spell of uncertainty and anxiety. Depressingly, the crisis has become a political as well as a medical battlefield. What is the Christian response? To continue to hold in our hearts and in our prayers those in need, and to pray for the Church. We still need meaningful relationships with one another and with God, which the Church can provide. The challenge for us now is to find ways to build relationships without the comfort of worshipping together.
We are like a church in exile, and our return will be like the gathering of exiles who have come home to their native country. I look forward to that day, and pray that God keeps us all under his protection, strong in faith and love, for the sake of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.