Pandemic Imagery & Symbol: A Testimony
COVID-19 has altered the gestures and rhythms of life, and while we’re able to cope and adapt, our hearts still register these changes at a deep level. As Leanne Payne observes in The Healing Presence, we are mythical creatures who depend on symbols to bind up reality for us. I’ve recently been pondering how our hearts read the symbols of the pandemic. In many places around the world, we are seeing one another less. And when we are together, it may be behind masks or at a 6-foot distance, possibly forgoing handshakes and hugs. On a conscious level, we understand that these gestures and rhythms are a symbol of care for one another, an accommodation to the reality of the coronavirus expressing our commitment to the well-being of all. But beneath this rational understanding of circumstance, our hearts have a language we’ve spoken all our lives. And in this language, the distance and barriers necessitated by COVID-19 may symbolize the opposite of care.
In the ordinary lexicon of our hearts, declining to touch or draw near to one another symbolizes a lack of familiarity and intimacy or even ambivalence, aloofness, or rejection. A mask may symbolize illness, vulnerability, or danger (or perhaps highway robbery for big fans of spaghetti westerns). We’re finding new ways to convey a warm hello, offering a big, squinty-eyed smile that is visible around the edges of a mask, keeping our heads turned to the side for a COVID-safe hug, or using words to fill the gap of distanced body-language.
Through all this complexity, our inner translator is working overtime. Our rational minds can explain the reasons for it all, but that takes repeated, conscious effort. The number of times I’ve had to go back to my car for my face mask before entering a store proves that I haven’t learned these symbols by heart yet. I believe this is one of the factors that’s causing weariness as the pandemic continues.
There is much more to us than our rational grasp of circumstances. Coping is good, but to embrace life in God’s healing presence we must listen to our hearts and how these symbols are registering deep within us. The gestures and rhythms of the pandemic may be echoing with past experiences where the pain of separation or deprivation of touch and warmth were threatening to the life of the spirit within us. Even the present inhibition of our own reaching out may resonate with earlier times in which the love we were eager to give wasn’t welcomed and received. We needn’t suppress these echoes, because the One who can soothe them and heal the wounds they uncover is near.
At the peak of my pondering on these matters, I received a beautiful letter from a dear sister in Christ. She was writing to share how God had drawn near to her, working through the pandemic for her good. I was moved and encouraged, and so glad when she gave permission for me to share her story with you. Our merciful and compassionate God truly is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and stands ready to show us our hearts that we might receive His life more wholly. I pray the Holy Spirit will anoint her story with illuminating, liberating, healing power for you today.
As you know, COVID has altered life in many many different ways. It’s been difficult for me to remain resting in God’s peace through the changes and difficulties of life during a pandemic. An issue that is hurting me a lot, but is also being used by the Lord to reveal what is still on my heart, is my deep sense of rejection and the feelings of not belonging, not having a place, not having the right to exist, and being excluded.
I’ll share the picture of my personal situation: I live alone, a 40 minute train ride from my father’s home. My father is elderly and has leukemia, although he is currently doing well. My single brother lives with him and takes wonderful care of him. My sister has also lived with them for the past year. During the COVID lockdown they have been afraid to get sick and have remained strictly isolated because of my father’s illness and chemotherapy a few months ago as well as my brother’s asthma. I did not visit or see them for three months. When the quarantine was lifted, I went to see them for the first time since covid, but things had changed.
I thought I was understanding and accepting, but pain and hurt began to emerge strongly. I felt a bit shocked, for I was not allowed to enter the house (my family home) and hadn’t expected it. I was only allowed to be in a very small terrace they have. I was not allowed to touch anything, and they did not allow me to enter further into the living room or house. I was shocked and hurt, but tried to be understanding and patient. After a few week my father asked his doctor about my coming to see him. I only know this through my sister because my father does not speak much, but he told my father to let me in and not to be afraid of getting sick. So after some time I was allowed to have dinner in the dining room, but just sitting on the chair, right on the spot, don’t move, don’t touch, don’t go around!
I was and am hurting a lot, more and more. I tried to bear it and brought it all to the Lord. I’ve tried to accept whole situation. But as I realized last Sunday when I burst into tears, pain and anger, I was in fact burying all my emotions and pain inside. Last Sunday I went for lunch with my father and sister (my brother was out that day). It had been two weeks since my last visit as I’ve seen them just a few times. At this visit I exploded.
You should know that throughout all my life and to the present day, I have been “perfect,” ok, joyful, and without problems in front of my father. I’ve always pretended, wearing a full mask all my life. A tear has never come out of me at home, but I cry rivers and flood of tears in the street and at church. As my real I, my true self is growing, there are things I cannot hide or bear anymore. Last Sunday I burst into tears in front of him, something I think I never did before! I was full of pain, anger, and sadness. The little child, little girl inside me finally came out and poured out all her pain and expressed her anger! Sadly my feelings were and are “forbidden” at home. No wonder I have been in pieces all my life. I expressed my pain to him and said I was hurting, that I felt like a leper, excluded and not belonging. I felt their way of relating toward me was out of proportion (I could give more details about this) and I was hurting. I said I wondered whether to come back, or what I should do. My father despised my feelings and told me to “stop being dramatic.” He said that if I felt not to come back during this situation of social distance, “then don’t come!” It was painful.
Afterwards, once I was at home and bringing all to the Lord in prayer, I felt strong shame. The Lord showed me how I was confusing the present situation with my deep wounds that this situation brought to the surface. The Lord brought light to what happened. I felt so ashamed, for I could see that little girl crying, demanding to belong, to have a right to exist, to be, to be accepted. I saw my immaturity in dealing with the present situation. I believe a mature way to act and speak would be to express my thoughts and feelings in dialog with them, to listen to their fear and feelings, and try to reach a place of agreement where their fears are taken into account, but my feelings have also a place. Instead I repressed it all inside myself and related to them in the immature way I had usually done. I sense the Lord wants me to grow, to mature, to not react to present situations and difficulties, but live from my true center instead of from the hurting child. I still do not know how to do this, but I believe growth and blessing will come. I ask for prayer for this.
I also realized that when I was child in my home there was no place for feelings, I had no right to be, and couldn’t be vulnerable. On Sunday I really was despised and ridiculed for expressing my pain and feelings. I expressed them correctly, not in a way that was extreme or out of order. But I believe most importantly that the Lord revealed to me what is still in my heart, blocking my becoming: the deep sense of rejection. I began to put into words and to write concretely and bluntly what I felt and thought: “I have no place; I don’t belong; in my father’s house I am rejected; there is no place for me; I am an outcast.” It was painful, but a grace. For at the same time that I felt strong shame as I tried to digest it all and pray over it, in me there also was, and is, a small, soft song of victory, shy but real. For for the first time, I dared to speak out and express my feeling, and in the midst of the pain something in me had been released.
In prayer, trying to receive from the Lord, I see He is not asking me to change my family, though I can speak my opinion and act accordingly. Rather, He is building my sense of being and well being, my identity and belonging in Him, in the Father, who affirms me and has a place for me in His heart. He asks me to bring all my pain, hurting, and the lies that are still in my heart about who I am to Christ on the Cross, and to receive from Him. Secondly, I am also learning to communicate, to be, to relate to others from my true center, my real self, so that circumstances and the attitudes of others, whatever may happen, do not break or crush me.
I am in this process right now. I do not know how to do it and I have fear about when I will go to my father’s house, but I turn to God. I can testify how many blessings He is giving me through this difficult time we are all in. I can’t thank God enough for the grace of knowing at a heart level that He truly is my Father, and is daily present in my life. I thank Him for the grace of practicing God’s Presence more and more. The Spirit really does remind me that Another is in me! At the same time, He really is breaking all my schemas, at all levels. And often, almost always, I feel so weak, so needy, so blind. It is so hard to let go, so hard to let Him “undragon” me. My heart feels the need to share this, and as I share and give testimony more grace and light comes upon me, it becomes more solid.
Paintings: J Rossakiewicz, 1989, The Last Supper; William Holman Hunt, 1827-1910, Light of the World [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons