Last autumn my sister became a granny for the first time. In fact, in the space of six weeks, she became a granny twice over. Two little boys. Future Limerick hurlers. Future Liverpool supporters. A joyous time for us all.
Then, the lockdown came. My sister could no longer hold or hug her grandsons. Because her job exposed her to vulnerable people, she could no longer smother them with grandmotherly affection. She had to keep her distance to keep them safe. A tremendous sacrifice.
I have felt the pain of isolation, too. Though safely cocooned in my monastery, I missed my loved ones. All of us have felt the pain of separation during this time.
If the lockdown has reminded of us anything, it is of the importance of touch. Human touch is essential to our wellbeing, from the moment we are born. It’s how we transmit love, care, meaning, belonging. Touch gives life. It tells us we’re alive.
Jesus knew the importance of touch. He was deliberately tactile. He made sure to lay his hands on those who were ill. He touched them physically, skin against skin. He didn’t have to touch them. His words alone were sufficient. But Jesus knew the healing power of touch.
Having to ditch long-established gestures of greeting and intimacy, such as handshakes, hugs, embraces, has been one of the most challenging aspects of the long lockdown. Not being able to be present with loved ones in hospital. To not be able to comfort loved ones as they died.
Imagine if we had a touchless future, if we could no longer enjoy what makes us fully alive.
Hopefully, the worst is now over, and that we have a greater appreciation of the importance of physical touch and personal space. The Covid-19 crisis has offered us some key reminders.
First, that we depend on each other. We need each other; we cannot live without each other. The old Wild West notion of rugged individualism is still strong, the idea that a person is totally self-reliant and independent, not needing anyone. The lockdown has reminded us that none of us can go it alone. We live in relationship.
This truth is at the heart of our Christian faith. We are not comprised of individuals but a community, a family of sisters and brothers, sharing the one bread, the one cup, animated by the one Spirit. Think of the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, which is the model for how we should live. There is no such person as the private Christian. We are social and relational. We need one another.
This crisis has reminded us to value our loved ones more, never to take them for granted. Mark McKinnon is a political consultant in America. Some time ago, he wrote a book about a new wisdom he has gained. He describes himself as being extremely lucky. He had a good life and a great career, making lots of money. He had two beautiful daughters and a wife, Annie, who was his high school sweetheart.
Then, disaster struck. Annie contracted an aggressive form of cancer. Her chances of survival were just 15 percent. But, against all the odds, she recovered.
Annie’s battle with cancer led McKinnon to examine his life and what was important to him. He realised he had been given a precious gift, the gift of time – more time with Annie; time to watch their children grow and have children of their own; time to enjoy his loved ones.
And he was going to make the most of it. So he sat down and looked at his age, his family history, and his own medical history. He calculated that, all going well, he could expect to live for another 10,136 days. Then he bought two glass jars – and 10,136 beads. He filled one jar with the beads, left the other one empty, and put both jars on his desk. Now, every day he takes one bead from the full jar and places it in the other. That’s how his measures his days.
“Every day when I take out a bead, I stop for a moment, and say a prayer of thanks. Thanks for my health. Thanks for my friends. Thanks for my daughters. Thanks for a lucky, lucky life. And thanks, most of all, for Annie.”
Annie’s illness had led him to recognise what was most important – his wife, his family, his children. Her cancer was his wake-up call. Covid-19 is our wake-up call – to treasure our loved ones, to invest in them every day, never to take them for granted.
Covid-19 is a reminder that we’re not perfect; we are a work in progress. Being locked down for so long may have put a strain on our relationships. Reports suggest there’s been an increase in domestic violence and in alcohol abuse. The extra stress may have highlighted our faults, our weaknesses. It may have highlighted aspects of our character, our personality, we need to work on.
In his letter on family life, Pope Francis reminds us that families are a work in progress. No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed, he says; “families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love… All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse.” We must always keep aiming toward being better. Growing all the time – in forgiveness, patience, selflessness, understanding, love. Always growing in perfection.
Covid-19 has been devastating for our global family in so many ways. But one good outcome is that it has offered us a unique opportunity to reflect on and improve the quality of our relationships. Use this time well. Don’t waste it. Grasp it. Grow.