Lockdown: Prison Cell or Prayer Cell? Julie Dunstan reflects upon the spiritual opportunities of this time…

Posted on May 20th, 2020

Lockdown:Prison Cell or Prayer Cell? 1 Peter 2.19-end: John 10: 1 – 10

There is, it seems, an ample supply of Covid-19 jokes these days, in good and bad taste. This week’s favourite of mine is a picture of a happy little baby with the caption – ‘I just spent nine months stuck inside, you’ll be fine’.

That’s not a bad metaphor for what we might allow to happen to us, at least spiritually, in our present confinement. And if that seems glib, in light of those who suffer, I would suggest that the promise of our Easter faith is precisely that we can emerge from even the darkest, tightest corners – be it womb or tomb – into the mystery of New Life. How we frame our experience at the moment could mean the difference between enduring the weeks of restriction, finding pleasant distractions as we can, bearing pain when we must - or seeing them as time for something new to be born.

Metaphor is a rich and poetic way of exploring realities that are nuanced and to embody them in our experience rather than hold them only in a world of abstract ideas and concepts. Not surprising then, that Jesus, according to the gospel of John, often described himself in metaphor; I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine and, from our passage today, I am the good shepherd and I am the gate.

Jesus as shepherd has always felt a bit twee for the rough edges of 21st century urban life. It’s true that London in lockdown feels a bit more like a pastoral scene than usual. The opportunity to slow down and really enjoy the bursting beauty of Spring is one of the many gifts of this time, at least for some of us. Even-so, most of the time I don’t feel much like a sheep safely grazing on idyllic hills and then led peacefully home at the end of the day. On the other hand, the metaphor of gate may, if I can be allowed to play with it, offer a bit more meaning for the tricky times we are in at the moment.

How we actually frame the experience of lockdown could mean the difference between – say – confining prisoners to their cell in an emergency or, in the famous words of one of the desert fathers, going into our prayer cell and letting that teach us everything.

We’ve been rounded up by government mandate and told to stay in our fold. Without implying in any way that this is God’s will for us, I do wonder what would happen if we were to imagine that we were – as we always are - on the greater landscape of God’s purposes and that the way to live this experience most fruitfully on a spiritual level is to imagine this gate of God.

Instead of feeling like a victim to powers that be - shielding ourselves from that bandit-virus ready to steal our lives - what if we put ourselves in the enclosure of God and allowed ourselves to be held deeply in the mystery of love? What if instead of being merely unemployed we dedicated ourselves to a greater work? Or instead of waiting to get back to normal we envisioned and prayed for something different. What if the anxiety or fear we feel at this time could be made sacred by going through the gate of Jesus – whose death and resurrection promises more than we can ask or imagine.

What if self-isolating became solitude and social distancing became compassionate retreat? What if restlessness became a time to find a greater rest? What if our pain at this time, individual and collective, was the gateway to both greater security and greater freedom? What if it were our very wounds, consecrated by Christ, that provided a way into the safest fold and out into the widest pasture? Ponder that. We want so desperately to escape any discomfort. What if by actually facing our uneasiness we found greater wisdom. By his wounds we have been healed. For we were going astray like sheep, but now we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

What if we made this a holy time, in which we learned to discern the voice of God; to distinguish it from the many voices that would steal the true meaning from our lives? It’s difficult to discern the voice of the Spirit when we are furiously driven by the endless demands of success or social image or the many seductions of consumerism and superficial pleasures.

Jesus said, I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly. Learning to discern means to notice what it is that really leads us to that promised abundance and what it is that takes us away: what is it that increases our faith, hope and love and what diminishes the same. When we do this work of prayer and discernment in this or any time is to allow something new to be born. Perhaps only as we sit within the enclosure of God’s love, with humility, self-awareness and honest longing can we emerge, through the gate of Christ, into new and eternal pastures.

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