Yesterday, out of the blue, an old friend 500 miles away, sent me a text message—just wanted to send greetings, she said. We hadn’t been in touch for over two years.
Same day, a friend thousands of miles away in Brazil, posts on Facebook how in the craziness of these days the whole world is living through, her personal practice of meditation has become more meaningful to her—it’s what has gotten her through, she says.
But that’s what I’ve noticed: Faced with a virus we cannot control, self-isolating out of love and concern for our neighbors, we seem to be driven both outward and inward.
We cannot touch, we cannot even get close to one another; if we venture out at all we do so cautiously, with distance and avoidance. And yet.
I see families doing things together, parents and children out riding bicycles, walking in the park. “Come see Disney!” I find written on the sidewalk, and I follow the arrow to a home where a family has covered their driveway with Disney character chalk drawings, reaching out with a joyful gift to all their neighbors.
People I meet give me a wide berth, but they also give me a smile, or a wave or a nod; no longer buried in their cell phones, they look up to acknowledge my presence. We are more distant from each other than ever, yet we feel a need to reach out to each other, and a stranger’s subtlest gesture of recognition is overwhelmingly touching to me.
Some of you, like me, live alone. Being careful for yourself and others, you may have been self-isolating for weeks or months. I realized the other day that it had been 30 days since I had touched or been touched by another human being, and that it very likely would be at least another 30 days. One of the last people to touch me was a nurse, who had to in order to put a needle in my arm. And it made me think how very important touch is to healing and health and wholeness; and how very hard it must be on our health care workers to find ways to care for us safely with distance.
In every Easter story, there is closeness and distance, presence and absence, connection and isolation, rejoicing together and meditative solitude. I love the story in the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, where the Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty; lost and lonely, she just weeps. Jesus, on the other hand, is out walking in the garden, as if nothing could be more important upon rising from the dead than to smell the flowers again. But he breaks his contemplation to reach out to her by name: “Mary.” So close! But he will not let her hold him.
Thomas, alone and honest in his doubts, yet again Jesus reaches out to him; Thomas, who has to touch Jesus to believe.
This Sunday, we will hear of two disciples walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24)—6 feet apart from each other, we can only imagine. A stranger comes near, maybe a little too near, but in their fear and confusion they cannot recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst. Not until he breaks bread do they recognize how close Jesus had been all along—but then, of course, he vanishes.
In the loneliness of isolation, in the pandemic fear of others and yet the pressing need for connection with them, I find a lesson I hope I will keep and never lose. I hope I will remember how these days have driven me both inward and outward. I hope I will remember how prayer and contemplation became not only difficult but ever more necessary to me; how, driven inward, the emptiness of my prayer nonetheless stumbled upon the fullness of God, nearer than I can ever realize.
And I hope I will remember that the love of God is empty religion without the love of my neighbor. That nothing has been more important in these days than to honor the command to care for my neighbor, to make no decision without regard for her safety, to acknowledge my neighbor and the God-given connection that has always existed between us, to greet him and to love him as myself.
In Matthew’s gospel, the last words of Easter (Matthew 28:16-20) are both outward and inward: Jesus’ commission to broaden my heart to embrace all nations, all people; and Jesus’ promise: to remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.