Frances Murphy describes her experience of the current lockdown.
By Frances Murphy
In 2013, I was laid up for a couple of weeks after I slipped a disc in my back. The pain was excruciating at the time, and although I recovered more-or-less fully, I still have to manage the injury carefully.
Sadly, I don’t mention this as an introduction to a conversion story such as that of St Ignatius of Loyola. His period of recuperation after taking a cannonball to the leg was the time during which he discovered The Lives of the Saints and, inspired by what he read, begin to dream of the ways in which he might serve God, dreams which began his journey to founding the Society of Jesus. Instead, I offer it as a background to the disappointment that I felt when I left my central London office on a Tuesday evening some ten weeks ago.
I was leaving the office, quite suddenly, to begin an indefinite period of working from home, like so many others who have been lucky enough to do so in recent weeks. That meant I had to decide what I was going to take with me on this final journey from my comfortable, well-appointed, far-too-cluttered workspace to my new “office” (my kitchen). I tried to block out my trivial concerns by keeping in mind Jesus’s caution against fretting about ‘what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear’ (Matthew 6:25-34), but questions arose nonetheless. What would I need? What did I already have at home? Which office comforts would I not be able to work without? How much – and here, finally, is the relevance of the bad back – could I carry?
Not much, as it turned out, and certainly not many books of any size, let alone Bibles. And so for the duration of lockdown I have been working with one copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for company, whereas previously I was surrounded by translations galore and had access to more still in other offices and libraries in the building in which I worked.
The difference is palpable. I am sure it is not just the Bibles that I miss – they sat alongside numerous dictionaries, reference books, journals, directories, etc. – because I think it makes a difference not to be surrounded by words, as I was before. I certainly would not fare very well if anyone were to critique what sits behind me on Zoom calls, as is the current trend: the pineapple-print wallpaper in my kitchen is not quite as erudite a background as Nicholas King’s translation of the New Testament.
Although there is an absence of words, of course there is no such absence of the Word. And not just in the sense that I still have my well-thumbed NRSV to hand, and online access to the Scriptures in whichever translation I might choose. Yes, in this year of The God Who Speaks, many of our plans for events and encounters have fallen by the wayside or at least had to take new shapes, where they can, but God still speaks, perhaps louder than ever, and calls us to place our trust in him in this time of uncertainty. ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jeremiah 29:11)
Without physical access to the sacraments, many people yearning to receive the Word into their hearts are spending more time with the Scriptures: young people preparing for Confirmation and First Holy Communion are being actively encouraged by their catechists to do so. And although many people might have been hoping this year to find new approaches to engaging with Scripture, they have an opportunity now to take that desire and fulfil it, guided by the Spirit, in their own way, growing in confidence and love as they do.
The period of lockdown has meant that absence, isolation and disappointment have been writ large for many people. The God Who Speaks has always done so most loudly to those who are meek, poor in spirit and mourning, and this is no different now. We can all stand firm in the knowledge that no matter which words surround us in our current settings, the Word is beside us, behind us and before us, and is still the foundation of our hope.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from who you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15 [NRSV])
Frances Murphy is the Editor of Thinking Faith the online journal of the Jesuits in Britain.