Inner Life

Coronavirus, Easter and the rebirth of compassion

By Roland Ashby


While the coronavirus pandemic has led to much suffering, hardship and anxiety, it has also been a time of reawakening and rebirth. Which is what Easter is all about. Lent, traditionally a time of fasting which prepares Christians for the new life and joy of Easter Day, offers rich insights into the solitude and privations imposed on us by the virus.

Jesus’ 40 days in the desert was the precursor to Lent, and was the springboard of his ministry of compassion, healing and sacrifice. In the silence and solitude of the desert Jesus was forced to confront his primal human desires, which, if left unchecked, can become demons: the desire for security and survival, the desire for power and control, and the desire for approval and esteem.

Once Jesus was able to experience a first death, the death of his ego, in the desert, Luke tells us “he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit”. (Luke 4:14)

Some of the early Christians, inspired by Jesus’ example of spending time in the desert, fled to the deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the 3-5th centuries because of what they saw as the corruption of Christianity once it had been adopted as the Roman Empire’s official religion.

These Desert Fathers and Mothers, these Abbas and Ammas, left us many sayings of profound wisdom, such as the following: “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”

Solitude presents us with an opportunity to acquire self-knowledge, to gain insights into what drives us, and to reflect on what is of ultimate value in our lives. It’s an opportunity to drop the masks, the personas, we put up at work or in social situations, and to delve deeply into who we truly are. “We are not our personalities,” says Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, “these are created when we lose touch with our Essence, our Source, and help us cope with the suffering of being separated from our Essence, our Source.”

St Anthony, one of the most influential of the Desert Fathers, believed that “Our life and death is with our neighbour”. When we connect with our Essence, our Source, compassion flows. It has been wonderful to hear of many examples of people behaving with compassion. One of my favourites is the woman who left a toilet roll with each of the neighbours in her street, a message of hope, and her phone number if they needed any help.

Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. Writer Kelly Wendorf says we should “make the coronavirus into the karunavirus”.

This is an edited version of an article that was published in The Sunday Age on 12 April, 2020.