Memento Mori (Or, a Few Thoughts while Social Distancing Through the Rocky Mountains)
I spent two of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic practicing social distancing in my van. My daughter was attending college in British Columbia this year and late last week the directive came that dorms would be emptying, and students would have to return home. So, twenty-five hours in a forty hour period were spent bombing over the Rocky Mountains and back.
I didn’t listen to the news much along the way. I listened to podcasts and music. I prayed. I gazed at the majestic Rocky Mountains. I enjoyed the breathtaking scenes and the surprisingly bare roads. You can usually count on at least a few treacherous wintry stretches on a trip to the west coast in March, but not this time. The sun shone brightly, and all seemed surprisingly well with the world. It was hard to believe that my trip was necessitated by a global pandemic.
But there were signs, of course. There was less traffic than usual. The towns were quieter and the hotels and restaurants were empty. When I stopped for lunch, I had to use the drive-thru because all the dining rooms were closed. The guy who presented my chicken caesar wrap at the window had netting over his mouth and, while friendly, seemed unusually concerned not to touch me. Strange times, these.
On the way back my daughter and I were winding our way through Kamloops, BC and noticed the Costco parking lot jammed full. There were people lined up with shopping carts for about two hundred meters outside the store. It seemed insane to me. We both kind of snorted in derision. What is wrong with people? Don’t these hoarders have any concern for anyone but themselves? My son works at a grocery store and he has noticed similar behaviour. Empty shelves, panic buying, suspicion, selfishness. Apparently well-fed people buying enough food to last until Christmas. It’s enough to considerably lower one’s assessment of the human animal. And some of our anthropologies don’t have much further to fall. 😉
But of course, underneath all of these irritating behaviours is a rather simple, and perhaps more charitable rationale. We are afraid. We are afraid of this silent enemy that comes to kill, steal, and destroy. And when we are afraid, we do
strange very predictable things. We cling, we hoard, we protect. We attempt to keep the scary world at bay in whatever flimsy ways we can. In our more rational moments, we know that if this virus really is the ominous portent that our bleakest prognosticators are warning, a few extra carts from Costco probably aren’t going to stave off the apocalypse. But we have to do something, we think. So, we stock up.
Last Sunday, I found myself with all dressed up with a sermon and nowhere to preach it. The text was John 4:5-42 and the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well about living water and, later, with his perplexed disciples about spiritual bread. Both of Jesus’ conversation partners struggle to track with him. They’re thirsty and hungry for physical food and bread and Jesus insists on talking about “living water the wells up to eternal life” and his food being “to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
In both cases, Jesus sought to lift their gaze from the material and the terrestrial to consider the living water and the spiritual food he offers. The Samaritan woman and the disciples were so preoccupied with physical needs that they didn’t understand that Jesus was talking about a completely different kind of hunger and thirst.
I wonder if the same is true of us sometimes. This global pandemic has caused massive anxiety. We are preoccupied with our physical needs, with our health, security, safety. And this is of course eminently understandable, on one level. We cannot help but focus on our physical needs.
But human beings have needs that go far beyond the physical. We not just physical creatures but spiritual ones as well. It is often times of crisis—like a global pandemic, say—that remind us of this. We daily gorge on headlines that ratchet up the local and global death counts which heighten our anxiety and amp up our feelings of helplessness. But in our more reflective and sober moments, these also serve as daily reminders of our mortality. They force us to look beyond the routines and assumptions of everyday life and to consider what lies beyond. Memento mori. We’re all going to die.
And so, I wonder if we can hear Jesus’ words to a Samaritan woman and to his disciples addressed to us? Can we hear them as a call to pay attention to the state of our thirst and hunger? Are these confined to this life alone? Can a handful of years bear the weight of that much hope? Or does the yearning and longing of our souls stretch beyond the few decades that we’re granted on in this glorious, pain-soaked, majestic, disease-stricken planet, extending into the future that God promises?
Do we long to be known as the Samaritan woman was, to have our lives laid bare before the one who knows us truly and love us fully? Can we embrace Jesus’ call to open our eyes and pay attention to the fields where God’s kingdom is advancing—a kingdom where we don’t live by bread (or Costco-sized carts full of rice and pasta) alone, but are sustained by the word and the promise of God? Or have we become so thoroughly secularized (even in the church) that our hopes begin and end with what we can secure for ourselves here and now?
None of this is to denigrate physical needs. Jesus was human and he entered fully into the human experience. He experienced physical thirst and hunger. Jesus touched bodies, healed bodies, loved bodies. God cares about embodied human physical life. God cares about people who are infected and communities that are struggling. All of this is blessedly true. But we were created for more than physical life.
Perhaps these next weeks and months where we are cloistered away with nothing but time to think (and possibly even pray!), and where we are increasingly aware of the fragility of life, of economic systems and political structures, and communities can serve as a reminder of these things. We were created for life, both now and in the age to come. We were created to love and be loved by one another well. We were also created for union with God.