Ascolta, si leva l’alba: Comunità

Out of the isolation of lockdown, the dawn is rising on new expressions of community, says Fr Timothy Radcliffe.
September 12, 2020

Soon after the beginning of the lockdown, people from these Islands heard Italians clapping from their balconies. This expressed beautifully the paradox of this strange time. It was a moment of shared song and joy. Strangers joined in. Indeed people sitting in front of their computers and televisions from all over the world sang along as well.  And yet the people whom we saw singing were each enclosed in their own apartment, unable to mix and mingle with others on the streets. It was a picture of unexpected community and isolation.

Yet are these so totally opposed to each other? Ideally they are not, since a strong community enables us to flourish individually and a strong individual dares to belong to other people in community. The acute individualism of contemporary Western culture often has the effect of weakening people’s sense of identity and can lead to conformism and insecurity. This sort of individualism can lead to the tyranny of fashion and the aping of celebrities. ‘If only I wore those clothes or had that haircut or had that car, I would be visible.’ Conversely communities in which we are deeply bound together often, though not always, give space for individuality and even eccentricity! So community and individuality are not opposed.

It is impossible for us to foresee today the ultimate consequences of this pandemic. There have been many pandemics in the past, but this is the first one which is being experienced as global. Every day one can read how many people became infected or died in every country on the planet. It may lead to social disintegration. But if we grasp the opportunity, it could lead to a deepening of our mutual bonds. It is a time of peril but also of possibility.

It has been a time of social isolation in which many people have been confined to their houses and apartments. Some have had to endure this alone and others with their immediate families. When I returned to England from Jerusalem, just before lockdown began, I immediately downloaded Skype and Zoom, so that I could see the faces of the people whom I loved.  Zooming is exhausting and many are suffering from ‘zoom fatigue’. It is not the same as relaxing in their gaze but better than nothing.

And we have been deprived of the touch of those whom we love. Grandparents have been unable to hug their grandchildren. Faces and touch nourish our humanity. And so this time of isolation has been an experience of deep deprivation for many, and even the cause of mental illness. But it is possible also to live this as a moment in which we mature as individuals and so are able to live more happily in community.

In 1364, when she was only seventeen, Catherine of Siena began a three-year period of self-isolation. This was not to escape the Bubonic Plague, but to give her life to prayer.

This well known depiction of Catherine of Sienna was painted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1746. Today it is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. St Catherine undertook a three-year period of self-isolation to give her life to prayer - an experience with lessons for our Covid-19 isolation.

What she discovered was herself. She said that she entered ‘the cell of self-knowledge.’ She was confronted with a terrifying clarity with who she was. All illusions and fantasies were removed. But this was not narcissistic navel gazing. She also discovered that it was this Catherine who was utterly loved by God. This is the foundation of her spiritual life. You only know yourself when you see you are loved utterly.

She wrote to Raymond of Capua, her Dominican friend, ‘Try to get to know yourself.’ We must enter ‘the night of self-knowledge’. We discover our own shadow. She wrote:  L’ombra mia mi ha fatto paura.’ Then we shall discover God, the one whose love gives us being in every moment. Then we can rest in being ourselves for we are in God.

Catherine describes God as a bed in which one can then rest. "“Walk across the cell and get into bed, the bed in which is God’s tender goodness, which you find within this cell, yourself[1].” During this time of isolation many of us have been confronted by ourselves. Most of us have fantasies about who we are. It is hard to sustain these when you are alone or locked in with your family. But it is this real person who is loved by God. This is the real person, not the carefully created image on Facebook with a thousand friends, or the avatar in some fantasy world.

And in isolation with our immediate family, we may learn to see each other truthfully, and so see the vulnerable and fragile person whom God loves unconditionally.  So this time of isolation may drive us deeper into egocentric preoccupation with ourselves.  But if we have the courage, we may open our eyes to see others with a new clarity and learn to love more deeply.

After her three years of isolation, Catherine was able to open herself to a community of friends, friars and lay people, called the caterinati, who gave each other crazy nicknames and cracked jokes. She learnt the art of friendship through enduring solitude.

Another consequence of this pandemic was that people reached out to others with whom they had not been in contact for years. My Inbox was flooded with emails from people whom I hardly knew. When we livestreamed the Eucharist every day, ten times more people attended on-line than ever came to Mass in person before. From Oxford I took part in a webinar with a rabbi in Jerusalem, an imam from Bologna, animated by an American in Paris. People from 23 countries took part. So there has been an enormous expansion of communication.

But communicating with a lot of people does not make community. The internet has made global communication possible, but usually with people who are likeminded. Especially with abbreviated forms of communication like Twitter, people seek refuge in virtual communities in which disagreement is avoided. The temptation is to be bound together by simplistic slogans like, ‘Make America great again.’ Such vast numbers of people are mobs rather than communities.

In this picture taken on March 9, Anna, a volunteer of the Sant' Egidio humanitarian organisation, hands a bottle of milk to Lamberto Paolucci (88) in Rome. Such acts of kindness characterised much of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, as people reached out to help strangers. Picture by AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Aristotle defined the city as the place were different sorts of people interact. He wrote, ‘similar people cannot bring a city into existence.[2]’ A spirituality of the city is one that helps you to live fruitfully with difference. So the challenge for us when we move beyond this pandemic is whether we shall be able to create communities in which people with different politics, different religions, even supporters of different football teams, can live together in harmony and pleasure.

Think again of those Italians standing in their balconies, singing and clapping together, but each in their own living space.  This is a brief moment in which people who have been driven apart, come together.  Strangers sang together.  Maybe this is an image of how our communities may become stronger when this pandemic is over.  And not only our communities, but each of us too, unafraid to reach out to strangers.

[1] Paul Murray p.195

[2] Quoted by Richard Sennett Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Allen Lane, London, 2018, p.6

Ascolta, si leva l’alba: Comunità
Fr Timothy Radcliffe

Fr Timothy Radcliffe was Master of the Dominican Order. He is the winner of the 2007 Michael Ramsey prize for theological writing for his book What is the Point of Being a Christian? He was the author of the Archbishop of Canterbury's 2009 Lent book Why Go to Church?

He lives in Oxford but spends much of his year giving retreats, lectures and conference keynote addresses in the UK and overseas.

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