Then and Now
CT 08 May 2020
May 8th was marked in our calendars as a day of memory and of celebration – that was until we were overtaken by other events. The Royal Mail stamp image that accompanies these words, taken in Liverpool on that date 75 years ago, is in marked contrast to the numerous images of nurses currently treating COVID casualties in hospitals throughout our country and beyond.
That date was also my 4th birthday and, although I clearly have no recollection of the occasion, I have lived through the subsequent years of joy, tension and conflict; but nothing to match the present circumstances of global viral infection and lockdown.
So we look for words of consolation, that we might comfort ourselves and each other in our anxiety. The Benedictus from Morning Prayer concludes with the words “He will give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death and guide us in the way of peace”. How we need those few words to speak to us now in the difficult days that it is our lot to experience.
Each Spring we change the clocks from Greenwich Mean Time to Summer Time then put them back again in the days of Autumn. Changing the clock is an easy matter, changing the time we live in is altogether different. There we have no choice, for none of us determined our date of birth and so the days of our journey are not ours to decide. We do, however, have a responsibility to use them well.
In the midst of recent anguish and turmoil have been moments of great joy and generosity that have been sparks of brilliant light in the overwhelming darkness. The many unselfish acts one to another in time of need have been extraordinary. They have been blessed moments where adversity has been challenged and overcome. Apart from the example and leadership of many, we have turned to the companionship of others who have journeyed before us, to friends and relatives, writers, painters and poets.
The American writer, Richard Rohr, whose daily posting from the Centre for Action and Contemplation based in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is known to many, referenced recently the writings and life of the poet, pastor, mystic, John of the Cross.
John, who was chosen by Teresa of Avila to help in her reformation of the Carmelite Order, is always remembered for the brief phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’. He is a witness to the impact of God in his life. Rohr writes that “John testifies to a God who, precisely, is pressing in to meet, to change, and to fill us in our deepest need. . . . Love changes people, and John’s witness to God’s love may help us to trust and to be brave.”
He goes on to suggest that “A generous God is fine when things are running smoothly. But what about when they are not and darkness is invading? What about when trusted patterns have broken down, or we feel too far gone to bother even trying? We dwell at outer limits, and some events in life—loss, failure, stress, sin—remind us of the threat of chaos. That is where John of the Cross stands: at the threshold of uncertainty; and he assures us that what dwells beyond is not simply chaos. The darkness bears the Spirit of God, who broods over the waters of death and has power to work a resurrection. In our darkness, he finds Jesus’s darkness; and what he echoes is the impact of Easter”.
We cannot prevent many of the misfortunes that it is our lot to experience but we can hopefully see beyond the darkness that we call night to greet the oncoming dawn of another day.
The photograph of nurses in Liverpool celebrating the end of a world war in 1945 is in marked contrast to current images of our, often young, hospital staff clad in PPE, administering comfort and care to their patients in the ICUs of our hospitals.
It was one such image that gave rise to the few lines with which I will conclude this week’s column. Our debt to them is immense. For some it has been a final act of their medical service as caring selflessly for others has been at the cost of the loss of their own lives. Clap for them, yes. Thank them with sincere gratitude, yes. Pray for them, always.
Soft, silent shadows hover
in the endless stretch of each nursed night.
Blue plastic-wrapped movement shifts
from life machine to metal framed bed.
Fluid piped into an unconscious form
Soft words spoken into an unhearing ear
a heaving chest, an unspoken fear
closed eyes, an unshed tear.