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Self Isolation and Self-Dependence

Corona-liturgies and Counter-liturgies Part 3

Corona-liturgies: Self-isolation and Self-dependence

I suppose this week in England might be called semi-momentous. It seems strange to put in like that, but 6 people can now gather together outside, some primary school pupils are heading back to school. In the rest of the UK similar steps are being made. They’re tiny really, but after nearly 3 months they feel significant. Over the next few weeks, Lord willing, there might be more small steps ‘towards normal.’

So, as we emerge, blinking, into the sun, I guess the question is; what have the last few months of being ‘stuck inside’ done to our home-life habits? And what might those habits have done to us?

“Self-isolation” is an interesting phrase isn’t it? It’s a relative newcomer to our regular vocabulary, along with social-distancing and Covid-19. At the same time, it sits comfortably alongside all those more familiar ‘self‘-phrases and whispers a promise. Here’s an opportunity to affirm our independence, even our self-dependence. We can prepare ourselves, stock up, and show everyone (and ourselves) that we can manage alone.

It feels like an age ago but cast your mind back to the beginning of lockdown. There was a sense that, for ourselves as well as for others, we needed to up the drawbridge, lower the portcullis and retreat into the protection of home.

It felt strange, yet it’s an idea we’re relatively accustomed to isn’t it? Perhaps not for as long or as radically, but the notion of our homes being fortresses of protection is not unfamiliar. “A man’s house is his castle” Sir Edward Coke pronounced in 1628. And it stuck.

So, being asked to head inside was hard, but perhaps somewhere within part of us didn’t find it all that strange. And we’ve developed adjusted habits of living which make that protective barrier all the more bearable, maybe even welcoming.

According to the boss of Tescos, one marker has been the return of ‘the weekly shop.’ It was on the way out apparently, but that trend more than reversed through April and May. We made a record low number of trips to the supermarket, but the quantity of what we bought each time at least doubled.

So, in the end a lot of us have fared pretty well in our fortresses. Even for those who didn’t join in panic buying as though under siege, the regular shop helps us feel relatively impregnable. In fact, think about what’s currently stored in your freezer and cupboards: If you were really pushed, how long could you last without venturing outside? Probably quite a while! If you’re asked to self-isolate, maybe you’ll be good to go, without too much bother.

When you think about it though, it might be a relatively new phrase, but the tendency to self-isolate is almost as old as humanity itself. It goes right back to Genesis 3. There it was fig-leaves—self-made coverings to hide behind.

Then in Deuteronomy 8 it becomes more sophisticated—the accomplishments of our own hands become a means of self-isolation as we convince ourselves that we don’t need anyone, let alone God, because we can provide everything we need for ourselves. As Israel stand on the threshold of the promised land, with the wilderness, the manna, the water from the rock behind them, God warns them:

11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

All of which means that this newly-common phrase is giving us and our society an opportunity to form new liturgies on an old theme. Self-isolation becomes more and more normal, not just accepted but celebrated as a heroic act. Our illusion of independence can grow.

Counter-Liturgies: Mutual Dependence on God

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine was speaking on these words from Psalm 103:

“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field: the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

He pictured humans as fragile flowers imagining we’re castles. Perhaps Covid has revealed that to us all the more. But what will flowers who think they’re castles do when they begin to see even hints at that truth? It’s true that we might accept our fragility.

Or we may be tempted to try and build castles around ourselves any way. We don’t need to be castles if we could at least make them. Even if we need 500 loo rolls to do it!

But it doesn’t work does it? No amount of self-preparation can really allow us to actually self-isolate. That’s been the painful thing about lockdown. It turns out we really do need one another. We’re social creatures, made to relate to each other. Most of all, we’re dependent creatures, receiving life and breath and everything else from our Creator. The reality is more like my friend Anne’s picture above. We can try to build a castle all we want, but all we’ll have if we do it ourselves is a ruin.

Which is why, as we continue regular habits as simple as food-shopping and cooking, we need to be careful not to forget the Lord our God, now more than ever.

And as ‘liturgies’ of self-isolation become more common, we need counter-liturgies which might even transform it into an opportunity to move towards God in dependence. How?

We could allow the phrase itself to become a trigger towards a counter-liturgy, reminding us of Psalm 103. We could use it as a moment to stop and give thanks for all that we have which comes from the hand of God, who gives life and breath and everything else (Acts 17:25).

And what might we do if we the government’s track and trace program directs us to self-isolate in coming weeks? Instead of stocking up and pulling up the draw-bridge, perhaps we could pause. We could even use it as an opportunity to embrace our mutual-dependence, instead of self-dependence. We could pick up the phone and ask for help.

Together, we can look ahead and press onwards, to glory!

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