The county in which I teach just released its tentative plan for reopening schools in August 2020. Scanning it, I saw my previous daily routine of leading children through learning, singing, and creating replaced with a new routine—one of taking the temperatures, sanitizing the hands, monitoring the desk partitions, and adjusting the face masks of twenty squirming second-graders. And, unsurprisingly, I was discouraged. In this new environment, what happens to my high ideal of educating to form souls and shape intellects? How are teachers—and fathers and mothers and pastors—supposed to care for the soul when care for the body usurps every minute, when the pursuit of spiritual wholeness is taken up by the pursuit of physical health? What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?
Wholeness has been lost; indeed, as the life of the spirit languishes for breath behind its mask, it even seems that holiness is being lost. Not that the body is profane, but that it needs the soul to lift it from good creation to imago dei, and thence to offer it for that participation and imitation of God’s divine perfections in which human holiness consists.
We confess and believe that we are made in the image of God, reflectors of His character and imitators of His acts. Thus, we are called to work and rest in imitation of a God who works and rests. We are created to create as a reflection of a God who creates. We are mandated to “tend the earth and keep it” by a God who first did so. We are made to commune in fellowship as we worship a Triune God who communes among Himself and with His people.
But in the past weeks and months, the centuries-old habits which have helped us exercise these godlike faculties have been successively cancelled. For some, work has been lost along with jobs; for others, work and rest are blurred in the new work-from-home world. The ability to create with our hands and minds has been restricted as resources have become scarce. “Tending and keeping” has grown increasingly difficult in a drastically-changed economy. And perhaps most poignantly, our ability to fellowship has been rescinded.
While some have families to maintain a sense of community, many do not. Fellowship within the church is limited at best, nonexistent at worst. The most vital expression of what we are—relational beings, created to be in both vertical relationship with our Lord and horizontal relationship with mankind—has been restricted to a logarithm of correct distances and proper masks and suitable greetings. Amidst this apparent futility, it is tempting to join one of Thomas Hardy’s heroes in living “with the bearing of one who was going to give his days and nights to Ecclesiastes for ever.”
As an educator, I am asking myself how to continue to nurture the souls of my students in the midst of it all. As an image-bearer of God, I am asking myself how to nurture my own soul and the souls of those around me. And in this questioning, I find a counterpart to Hardy’s hero in lines from a poem by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest, titled “In a Bright Field”:
Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but it is eternity that awaits you.
It is tempting, even natural, to yearn for “an imagined past,” to the days before a pandemic. It is natural to hurry on to a “receding future” where pandemic, riots, economic downturns, and elections are past. But the unnatural thing—the miracle of God’s holy presence—is only here in our present. And when the talk and the traffic all around us rushes to the past or future, dwelling in this present does require a “turning aside” out of the mob of anxiety and alarum, into the stillness of a lit-bush-brightness.
We have been given a world that is consumed with the health of the body but averse to the health of the soul. It is our present, and it is what C.S. Lewis, following George Macdonald, called a “sacred present.” Like Moses, who turned aside to see the lit bush, we also need to turn aside to it: turn aside from a present we want to the present we have been given, from a present consumed with broken fragility to a present endowed with mended strength, from a present riddled with chaos to a present seeking rest, from a present that we want to endure to a present that we give thanks for, from a present fractured to a present whole. This is our holy ground amidst a crisis.
And here we may still practice holiness. Our present imitation of God might look and feel different from our previous, as do our classrooms, homes, and churches; but in fresh ways, we can still strive for the endurance to keep the God-given rhythms of labor and rest, fasting and feasting; the faith and humility to accept whatever resources are given; the creativity and the compassion to practice the Christian duty of hospitality and fellowship; the fortitude to hold to our convictions and be convicted by what we hold to.
Our classrooms are changed, our churches are changed, our homes are changed, and our souls, too, are changed. Acknowledging this, are we seeking, straining, acting to mend these souls, to maintain a wholeness as we strive for holiness in this sacred present?