Looking Forward With Hindsight

Have you noticed how buttons don’t come off as often as they used to?  Maybe it’s down to machines, rather than people, sewing them on more securely in the first place.  And have you noticed how socks don’t get holes in them like they used to – who even has a darning mushroom anymore?   It’s probably the poly-cotton mix that wears better than when they were made from wool.  Things change and hopefully for the better.  Some of you might remember the 1960 Max Bygraves song “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be”.  The virus pandemic and social lockdown resulted in a number of significant changes, things we would never have chosen to do if they hadn’t been forced on us by the situation, and some things won’t ever be quite how they used to be as a result.  What we need to ensure, as individuals and as a society, is that the experience hasn’t been for nothing and that we have learned some positive lessons from everything that has happened.   

People for whom the practice of their faith may have become a matter of routine over the years, will have found themselves having to make a real effort to find Mass live streamed to the internet that they could part in, especially on Sundays but even, perhaps, during the week.  It’s one thing to know there are always Masses at set times in your parish and all you have to do is be there.  It’s quite another to be officially excused our Sunday obligation, but then feel the need to be taking part in a Mass at those times each week because you want to and not because you have to.  Hopefully that will now develop into a greater appreciation of the place of Mass – and holy communion – in our lives than perhaps might have been the case previously.

We have certainly had grounds for a lot more prayer than might have been the case, and, for those confined to home, a lot more time in which to turn to prayer – not unlike the situation of members of religious orders whose whole day revolves around prayer.  Ordinarily we are busy people, but we should never be too busy for God.  During the lockdown we have hopefully found God-with-us (and invited him to be with us) a lot more than might have ordinarily been the case, and hopefully we will choose to continue that newfound relationship with God and the comfort and support of a more regular prayer life than might have been the case before.  And if we have never been on a retreat before, I would suggest that the experience of the past several weeks has been a little like being on retreat: more time on our hands for prayer, no visitors to distract us, and a lot more silence in our lives – an experience we might return to in the future by making an actual retreat (but filling the time with prayer and meditation rather than television!).

And while we are talking about spiritual things, I wonder whether people’s experience of funerals during the pandemic, where only the immediate family were permitted to attend, will make any difference?  There is a movement within the funeral industry to persuade people of the benefits of “unattended direct cremations”, or “cremations without ceremony” as they may also be called, which are not even attended by any family members.  I’m sure that burials can be arranged in the same way.  I appreciate that many people are not churchgoing and may have no religious beliefs at all, but surely saying a final farewell to a loved one should involve more than just having a funeral director take the person’s body away and the family have no further involvement other than paying the bill?  The sad experience imposed by the virus of a family not being able to have the sort of funeral they would have wanted, and with most of the potential mourners unable to attend, should surely serve as a caution for those families who are considering a basic committal which no one will attend and which will be the memory they are left with of how they said their goodbyes.  Once the current restrictions are lifted, hopefully people will once again opt for more than that – in our case for a funeral celebrated according to the rites of the Church.

Where our focus ordinarily tends to be on ourselves and our plans for the day, the past weeks have forced us to be far more outward looking as we watched the spread of the pandemic and the toll it was taking on people’s health and the loss of life to the virus.  All most of us could do was to pray about it and try to ensure that we didn’t contribute to, or become part of, those often frightening statistics.  It has certainly caused us to be much more concerned about the situation and well-being of other people.  The constant stream of those cycling past, or jogging past, or walking their dogs past, our windows has reminded us of the community in which we live – ordinarily we don’t really take much notice.  And we’ll have become particularly aware of the fact that our lives and well-being are more interconnected than we think otherwise we wouldn’t have been in lock down.  I also noticed that whereas in normal times, in my daily walk along the High Street to the supermarket, I hardly give other people a second glance.  But making a trip for essential food shopping during the lockdown, with the High Street otherwise deserted, passing someone else (even with a deliberate two or three metres separation) was an invitation to greet them as if a co-survivor!   Being sociable in that way is something we need to continue doing, but whereas certain parts of the country are known for the fact that strangers often say hello as they pass, in other parts (and Teesside is one of them) they don’t.  Maybe that will change in the future.    

The thousands of volunteers who were required to shore up the NHS, served to highlight the staffing shortages that existed in our hospitals even without a pandemic to cope with.  But when they return to what they were doing before – a great many were retired – will the NHS be able to do anything about increasing staffing levels on a permanent basis?  Might it be feasible to maintain a register of qualified “reservists”, a medical version of the Territorial Army, who could be called up in an emergency?

And there were also tens of thousands of other volunteers and neighbours who have regularly checked up on elderly or vulnerable people, many living alone, to make sure they were alright and that they had their medications and enough food and so on, and were able to chat with them for a while at a safe distance.  That need for vigilance won’t go away just because the lock down has.  Elderly and vulnerable people may be able to get out and about again, but many won’t and will continue to be in need of visits from friends and neighbours, or even just a phone call from time to time.  I think there was always a fear that such contacts might be interpreted as interfering or minding their business, but hopefully that is no longer the case and on-going contacts will continue to be offered and welcomed where they are needed.  Within our parish communities, organisations such as the SVP and Legion of Mary now have a renewed mandate to visit the elderly and the housebound once there are no longer any restrictions on doing so, to ensure that no one is alone or uncared for even in normal circumstances. 

Millions of pounds have been raised for various virus-connected good causes through all sorts of extraordinary solo and communal efforts.  They were, and are, a reminder of the needs that exist all the time, but obviously especially in response to the many crises created by the virus.  Despite redundancies and furloughs, British generosity has shone through as people have dug deep to help the NHS obtain life-saving equipment and essential protective clothing, but the crisis has also helped to identify needs and causes that deserve our financial support on an on-going basis once our personal finances are back on track.    

The vast network of self-sacrifice and selfless care and concern for others that we have witnessed stands in contrast to the way we normally tend to isolate ourselves from everyone else – valuing our privacy, screening our gardens with high walls and hedges and fences.  Thanks to our busy-ness and everyone being out all day working, typically we probably know very few people in our street, maybe some by sight but very few by name.  The days of looking out for one another and popping into one another’s houses for a cup of tea are more often than not a thing of anecdote.  Now that we have experienced what actual social isolation feels like I wonder if it will make any difference to our contact with other people, perhaps being a little more concerned for one another’s welfare and needs, or will things gradually return how they were before as we retreat back into our shells?   

For more weeks than we care to remember we have shopped less and were probably more careful about what we ate and of not wasting food because we couldn’t just pop down to the supermarket whenever we liked because of all the restrictions and queuing.  Is there a lesson there for us?  While the lock down may have tested family dynamics at times, hopefully it also brought out good qualities in family members – sharing chores, cooking, doing laundry, doing housework, and so on.  Is there any reason why that can’t continue?  With people restricted to their homes, there was less traffic on the roads and as a result the air we were breathing was less polluted.  That will be hard to maintain I’m sure.  More people were taking more exercise more often, and dogs were taken on more walks than ever before.  How long might that last?  Many parishes learned very quickly how to use the social media to bring services and devotions and virtual parish activities to their people, something we may be able to continue doing in ministering to the sick and housebound of our parishes.  As a result the internet has been unusually busy with the things of God and long may that continue.  (cue Max Bygraves)

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