We are moved by how many lay Catholics are engaging with lockdown as a retreat. A big thank you to our friend Marianna Nodale, a member of the Blackfriars congregation, for allowing us to publish her testimony from lockdown. We welcome more – please contact us via the website.
A Wave of Prayer: from Isolation to Community
A few months back, when Italy was still alone fighting this pestilence and the Italians were wondering, scared, “why us?”, a virologist on TV predicted the virus would spread worldwide “there’s going to be a viral wave going through the entire planet”. Perhaps she was trying to reassure the Italian people, as we say “mal comune, mezzo gaudio” (A trouble shared is a trouble halved); perhaps she was sending a warning message to other governments lest they be complacent or unprepared, or perhaps she knew and trusted her science while others irrationally believed what they wanted (conspiracy theories abounded, in Italy, as elsewhere, to cover all manners of scenarios).
In any case, as all the prophets of the past demonstrate, she was not believed and was accused of scaremongering. The political polemics continued on television unabated. The public sentiment rapidly explored all four stages of grief. Anxiety and worry soon coloured national and international affairs as the prediction proved accurate. Country after country followed Italy on the pandemic’s curve, acquainting themselves with the same sad toll of deaths and bleak statistics. Humanity, in all its myriad diversities, brought together by a common fate: disease and death. As a fearsome priest who brought so much disquiet to my heart is keen to point out, sin (or at least the consequence of it) is the common thread that haunts the seed of Adam.
This would be sad indeed, if it was all there is to it. But it is not.
In times of crisis, people also discovered a common and positive humanity, a sense of togetherness, of solidarity, of goodwill and a desire to pull together for the common good. In the early days, there were explosions of spontaneous initiatives to help each other: young people on social media in London organising shopping support for elderly neighbours, hand-written leaflets pushed through doors alerting people to phone numbers and volunteers to contact if self-isolating, an army of volunteers to bolster the NHS numbers. The clap for carers became the common sign of gratitude across the continent, it started in Italy, and it became a nightly event in Spain, a weekly ritual in the UK.
Families in lockdown started to sing, clap, dance and organise impromptu concerts from rooftops. Humour became the norm to cope with the new circumstances. Neighbours of mine, who until yesterday were fighting over on-street car parking, came out and chatted over garden fences and front porches. I even witnessed here in Cambridge something I’ve only seen in tightly-knit Italian villages: strangers greeting each other on the pavement while out for a daily walk. A nod, a smile, a wave, or a quick “good evening” while walking past. It caught me by surprise, for it came from all manner of people of different ethnicity and social status, an overcoming of the natural English reserve and subversion of the multicultural and class framework of British society.
Out of China (an atheist dictatorship) the rainbow (with seven colours and clouds) regained its original sense (as found in Genesis) of hope after a cataclysm. In Italy, they even coupled it with the motto “andra’ tutto bene” (all shall be well) unwittingly quoting Julian of Norwich. In the UK, the Queen praised it as the enduring memory of the national spirit. No reference to the mantra of equality and diversity and the culture wars that have embittered many Christians in the last few decades. In one clean sweep, the Spirit reveals truths that transcend the narrow lenses of our present preoccupations.
Prayer alone, no consolation from the Sacraments, became the sole sense of communion with the Body of Christ. From early days I came to realise, although this was a sense I had before, that I don’t see the Mass primarily as a communal meal. This goes a long way to explain my preference for the Old Rite (Extraordinary Form). In the Mass, as well as in the other Sacraments, I see primarily the action of God reaching out to each individual person, a personal relationship. Above all, I feel this of Holy Communion. I am mostly oblivious of my brethren when I kneel there, between consecration and the final bidding of the priest. Christ’s Real Presence obliterates all else.
As a Catholic, I have had a few glorious instances of a sense of belonging, of family, of togetherness at the table of the Eucharist, but these have been the exceptions, rather than the rule. Oddly, at times, it’s been the overwhelming sense at Adoration: Christ amongst a group of friends. A couple of years back, when there was an especially large number of novices at the Cambridge Dominican priory, I had a clear sense of this belonging, of family, of being both in the presence of Jesus in His divinity and in His humanity, and of us, kneeling in the chapel, being his friends, collectively held in the loving gaze of His adoring vision. A glimpse, perhaps, of the Communion of Saints.
But as I said, mostly at Mass, it’s Him and me, everything else fades away. So giving up physical attendance at Mass, for a while at least, changed the dynamics of my relationship with the Lord. It wasn’t a case of overwhelmingly missing Him in the Sacrament (it was a loss I recognised, perceived it as a personal sacrifice but not as an injustice, and readily “offered it up” as a consequence) but a case of discovering Him in His Mystical Body. Not something I find easy, especially when the only voices of dissent, negativity and criticism to reach me in my confinement came from my Christian brothers and sisters.
Still, prayer as a communal act of worship and the manifest union of the body of Christ became the new consolation. Vespers (Evening Prayer) on the radio suddenly transcended me and you. From the comforting company of a few souls in a chapel united by friendship and prayer, it became an awareness of countless others, across the city and the country, joining together in the Divine Office of the Universal Church. From the little island in Cambridge offering sanctuary from the secular world to a network of faithful across the country and even from abroad. Online I even met someone who listens in from Cape Verde.
When I prayed the Divine Office before, at work, following the monks in France who stream it, I had a notion of this connectedness but never as strong a sense. It never nourished me and sustained me in the way that it does now.
Despite some negative comments that came my way (usually lamenting the lack of faithfulness and prayer in modern Christian communities, but are we so sure that in the past people were more faithful and fervent? Hasn’t each age known doubt and indifference?), on Easter night I lit a candle on my rear window and prayed with the certainty of being united with others in prayer. In my mind I saw, in the darkness, a myriad of little lights on windowsills spreading out across Cambridge. And, from above, these lights were the only visible thing in the darkness. It didn’t matter how few lights, how feeble, how far apart, from Heaven all that was visible was the little lights. God, I remembered, was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous were to be found therein: surely He will be moved by the few lights flickering still in the city where I dwell.
From early on in the lockdown, other friends had organised prayer groups via the internet. In Holy Week I prayed the Stations of the Cross lived streamed from the Vatican. At times I prayed the Rosary with others via YouTube. Mostly, however, I found myself praying the Holy Rosary alone, at the local churchyard on Sundays, on Radio Maria most evenings.
The beloved dead are a silent lot and the Radio Maria rosary is a recording, so in a sense, the feeling of togetherness is fleeting. But on the Feast of St Catherine of Siena, joining in for the Dominican Rally, I was swept away by an overwhelming feeling of togetherness. Perhaps it was the words of introduction, perhaps it was the notion that the Rosary was being prayed across the world at the same time, 9 pm, like a wave across the world.
Have you ever seen a video of sunrise from the space station? The Earth spinning beneath the astronauts and the blade of sunlight advancing from east to west, it’s rather striking. From the rising of the sun to its setting… So it was in my mind the wave of prayer, following on the heels of the viral wave, haunting it away, from New Zealand and Australia to the far reaches of the West, slowly processing across the world, like the rising sunlight, an army of little Dominicans, all in their white cloaks (even lay Dominicans wear white habits in my imagination) intent in praying their rosaries across the globe. Not even skipping one time zone, for probably there’s someone even in remote islands in the middle of the Atlantic, a big Dominican family intent on asking God for deliverance.
We didn’t have this in the Middle Ages, the outside world was still missionary territory, large swathes of the Earth lied un-evangelised, people separated by continents and oceans had no notion of a common humanity, even the well-schooled could not have dreamed up an image of the earthly globe as we have it from the live feed of the International Space Station. The internet allows us to connect instantaneously. Prayer can envelop the whole Earth like a protective sheet. A common humanity rises up together, the Militant Church, calmly and resolutely marching on and fighting off the pandemic by the means of prayer. May we soon triumph.