(This is the second part of the lecture “Surviving the Pandemic: Solidarity at the Margins” delivered at St. John’s University, New York on December 6, 2021.)
Read the first part here: Taste and smell: Hunger and the Eucharist
One of the important senses that is denied to people in COVID-19 is the sense of touch. Researches show the following physical symptoms: numbness, tingling sensation, myalgia (muscle pains) — and they stay six to nine months even after the illness.
But beyond internal pain is the denial of touch to one another for fear of spreading the virus. We can no longer shake hands, or kiss our children after arriving from a long trip. People die alone without seeing or touching the loved ones not even the assurance of the touch of the priest in the last anointing. Even grieving is bereft of a consoling hug or calming words.
We know how touch is a source of healing. From the narrative of the woman with hemorrhage who touched Jesus (Mark 5: 27-31) to the hands laid over in prayer, we know that words are not enough.
When I heard the confession of a dying man infected of COVID from through a cell phone while he was at the ICU—I had several of those instances during the pandemic—I know that touching the screen, and hearing the sounds from there were not enough. We have icons, signs and emojies. But these are poor representations of human touch. They elicit some smile but they also bring us loneliness and anxiety.
The philosopher Julia Kristeva writes: “All of a sudden we realize we are alone and that we have lost touch with our inner core. We are slaves of the screens that have not abolished loneliness but have only absorbed it. This is where the recent anxiety and anger are coming from.” The loss of the sense of touch has truly impoverished our human experience.
Let me reflect here on three related issues: the challenge of lament, the challenge of the incarnation and the groaning of creation.
- The Challenge of Lamentation
First, let me show the pictures of these women who have suffered in different ways—maybe a death of a loved one, or losing one’s job; or to have a child with mental health issue brought about by the lockdown. They are all praying to a God who is totally silent even as they cry nights and days.
You and I personally know of one or two or three of them. Or we went through it ourselves. Our “why’s” fall on a deaf ear. Sometimes, all there is, is a lighted candle or a religious image to hold on to.
As a theologian, the pandemic challenges us to recover “the theology of lamentation.” It is a sign of our deepest, uncensored and gut-feel relationship with God. Lamentation is an act of calling out on God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) was echoed by Jesus on the cross.
God has seemingly abandoned the psalmist. God is seemingly dead, together with our loved ones. And we are left to grieve alone. If the Church intends to listen to the pains of people today, we need to recover the prayer of lament.
Lamentation actually blows on the face of all celebratory theologies, against our talk of God’s grandeur, of the glory of Christianity, of the power of Jesus’ word, against all our Alleluias and Amen!
These triumphalist theologies have also made us think that we were superior than other faiths, higher than other races, better than other cultures. These are the theologies that lend support colonialism, racism, misogyny. We thought we are “exceptional” because Christ already “conquered the world” for us. COVID-19 reminds us that all these are illusions, and our only response is lamentation.
- The Challenge of the Incarnation
The second point is the challenge of incarnational solidarity. Jesus wept for the death of Lazarus. But he was also there standing, calling and waiting for Lazarus to come out. The next photo are priests who dared to defy the government’s strict “stay at home” policy. They wore PPEs to bless dead bodies in morgues and crematoriums, just to be with their families in these difficult moments of grief.
These religious sisters climbed walls or waded through mud to reach out to those trapped and hungry. In the spirit of incarnational solidarity, they risked their own lives to touch, to be physically present, to incarnate Jesus while others were complacently hiding in their homes, clicking their gadgets and watching the world die.
There is thus a need to rethink the euphoria of the “virtual”. Beyond all the excitement generated by online ministries and online education as the new normal, the real challenge of Christianity is to be physical, to be incarnational. Beyond touching screens, the real challenge is to touch bodies. The traditional Catholic category of “corporal works of mercy” — e.g., feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, healing the sick, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoners, burying the dead — become the real challenge to our churches. If God has become flesh and dwelt among us, his bodily presence must be felt. The mothers of Payatas are right: “For how can we stay home safe when our neighbors are dying of hunger?”
- The Challenge of the Groaning of Creation
My third point is the challenge to listen to the groaning of God’s creation. Though COVID-19 also leads to hearing loss, the mothers of Payatas hear the groaning of people’s hunger, and beyond that, the groaning of God’s creation. Romans 8: 22-24 writes:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope.”
Pope Francis describes COVID-19, following the Greek poet Virgil, as the “tears of things”, the weeping of reality. Scientists points to it as the “disease of the Anthropocene”. The unsustainable lifestyle of humans, the way we destroy vegetation, trading animal and destroying their habitats, our reckless urbanization and carbon emissions are the ultimate causes of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
From the perspective of Christianity, this “groaning of creation” is an invitation to heal the earth which the women of Payatas are the first to hear. If Laudato Si tells us that “the cry of the earth is also the cry of the poor”, these women know that “caring for the earth is also caring for the poor”. In a place as arid as the garbage dump, these women—15 groups of them now—are harvesting veggies for their families and others, transforming garbage place into small pockets of hope. And groups like them all over the world, the social poets, tell us that this is the only way to heal in the time of the Anthropocene, to heal the earth in the post-pandemic era.
(To be continued)
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.