Did we ever used to notice how often we touch our own faces? How often, in public places, we reach out and touch handrails and doors; or, in shops, pick items up to examine them, or try on clothes? Did we even notice casually brushing against a stranger's sleeve, or think twice about greeting people with handshakes or hugs? Could we have imagined, even a few weeks ago, that now the only ones assured of being touched and held are the sick and bedbound - but only through sterile gloves and clothes? Did we pause and reflect on the physicality of our liturgies, rituals and sacraments? - the intimacy of anointing, ashing, laying on of hands... And did we ever imagine that we'd be struck by the same physical intimacy in Jesus' healings: his bare, ungloved hands touching decaying flesh and maimed bodies, or - as in Sunday's Gospel - rubbing the eyes of a blind man?
And did we ever, even in our most dystopian forebodings, foresee a day when innocuous, everyday interactions with our friends or relatives could be life-threatening, every moment of proximity laced with danger, for them as well as for us...? No, we couldn't; but now we must.
So now we enter the next stage of protective isolation and 'lockdown'. And now the challenge for all of us is to discern how to reach out to each other in non-physical ways: to touch, with tenderness and love, without being tactile; to give - and receive - care and concern from a distance; to strengthen bonds and build community with people we can only meet online or via a phone call. Now, more than ever, we are discovering how connected we are - and how much more connected we need to become, in order to get ourselves and each other through this pandemic, spiritually and psychologically, as well as physically. Because, as a recent poem by Lynn Ungar reminds us:
...we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful...
... our lives
are in one another's hands.
And then the call, the call of these times, to all of us:
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
Stay at home - unless you're exempt - and stay safe. Do not reach out your hands... but whatever else we do, may we never lockdown our hearts...