Inner Life

Longing to say adieu to COVID and move closer to God

By Graeme Garrett

We certainly wish it would. The sooner the better. After all, the virus has forced many an unwanted farewell on us. Adieu to social and family gatherings. Adieu to normal school, university and vocational training for young people. Adieu to travel options and freedom of movement. Adieu to businesses, personal livelihoods and jobs. Adieu to hopes and dreams.

And adieu to people – how many thousands throughout the world? Loved. And now lost.

So many adieus. We feel overwhelmed, confused, sorrowful, angry, frightened, at a loss. And long for the time when we can say our pent-up adieu in return. Get lost COVID-19. And good riddance!

Adieu means farewell. Separation, breaking apart, letting go. And all the anguish – or relief! – that comes with it. But adieu also means – literally – “to God” (à Dieu). The English word goodbye has a similar, if also recedingly faint, theological echo arising from the mists of its linguistic origins: “God be with you”.

Is it possible that COVID-19’s many adieus carry something of this ancient lineage hidden within their unwelcome disruptions of our lives? Is it possible to ask – without sounding simply offensive – where is God in this grief and confusion? Does COVID -19 say à Dieu?

I don’t know. Which is just another ignorance to join the dance of that whirlwind of unknowing in which I am presently enveloped.

But perhaps this is worth pondering. The Jewish/Christian tradition is littered with memories of profound moments of confusion, grief, suffering and death, moments filled, we might say, with outrageous adieus, both personal and public, in which significant (often disruptive) encounters with God took place. Think of the experiences of Elijah, Jeremiah, Job and Saul of Tarsus. Think of Mary of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene and the distraught Widow of Nain. Remember Gethsemane, Calvary, and the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The dark night of the soul and the bright light of revelation, in these stories at least, seem to be inextricably entangled.

A pivotal story of adieu stands out – the Exodus, morally ambiguous though the story is. Exodus is not an individual experience, not a personal dark night of the soul. It involves a whole nation. The Israelites are all caught up in it, ready or not. Murder, power politics, oppression, plague, dislocation, homelessness, suffering, hunger, fatigue, hopeless wandering in a trackless wasteland, and no end in sight. “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt … they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” the text says (Ex 19.1). A barren, inhospitable, godforsaken crag of rock in the middle of the desert. Nature herself was troubled. Thunder, lightning, smoke, darkened the sky above, earth tremors shook the ground beneath. Nothing was secure. “All the people … were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance” (Ex 20.18). They had already said adieu to so much. Were they now to say adieu to life itself?

At this the low point of experience, one of the most disconcerting yet intriguing verses in all Scripture appears. “Then Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was”(Ex 20.21, italics added). The Exodus has been interpreted as an act of liberation from oppression, as a journey to a better place. There are good reasons for seeing it that way. But the trouble with hindsight is that it isn’t available in the uproar of the moment. People were afraid and bewildered. Let’s get back to where we came from. In Egypt, at least we knew where we were and who we were. “This wilderness [will] kill the whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16.3). If God is reckoned to be in this “thick darkness”, let Moses check it out. We’ll keep our distance, thank you!

Moses did. And God spoke. When he came down from Mount Sinai, Moses was bearing what we know as the ten commandments.

What did this à Dieu experience uncover in the tumult of all that chaos and darkness? Put simply, it boils down to the challenge to identify what matters most when we are up against it. Two things: First, “do not make for yourself an idol”, especially not one in your own image (Ex 20.2-4). Humans are neither the only nor the ultimate meaning of things. Second, look out for others, including animals, caught up in the turmoil with you. Disloyalty, disrespect, greed, lying, killing, seeking unjust advantage, are the seeds of death. Best not to scatter them (Ex 20.12-17).

Centuries later, Jesus famously summed up the story. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself. “There is no other commandment (i.e., no other à Dieu revelation) greater than these,” he said (Mk 12.29-30).

Significant encounters with God do seem to emerge again and again from situations of disruption and chaos. That can’t be accidental. The appearance of real love – the unrelenting love that created the heavens and the earth – inevitably uncovers the presence and operation of un-love and anti-love in ourselves and in our society. Disloyalty, disrespect, greed, lying and the rest are unsheltered by the divine presence. When the light shines, the darkness stands out.

Does COVID-19 say adieu?

It depends. Will we risk entering the “thick darkness” and face the structural injustices that mark the politics and economics that have brought us to this current place? Will we acknowledge and take responsibility for our part in the troubled state of nature all around?

Or will we choose to go back to the place we came from?

The Revd Dr Graeme Garrett is a retired Anglican priest, a theologian and member of the adjunct staff of Trinity College Theological School.