Provincial's Reflection

Lockdown as desert

You have to learn to be attentive to travel the desert, says Fr Brian McCoy SJ in his latest video message.

You have to learn to be attentive to travel the desert, says Fr Brian McCoy SJ in his latest video message. Attentiveness will keep you alive. You also have to learn to let go of baggage, to focus on what can sustain you in difficult conditions. Our present lockdown is something like a desert experience. Full transcript below.

At the heart of Australia is the Great Sandy Desert. And the image I present to you this day is actually from the community of Balgo in the south of the Kimberley, on the edge of a vast desert where Indigenous Aboriginal people have lived for thousands of years.

I first went into this desert country more than 40 years ago. And to be honest, when I first went there it was incredibly new, incredibly hot, incredibly dry. It was new. It was uncertain. At times it was frightening. And at times over the years I realised that it could cause death, and I know people that have died and perished in this Sandy Desert.

At the same time, over the years, the people of this desert have taught me to be attentive. Attentive to the signs of life, food, water, and in this very particular image, the meanings behind some of those outcrops, and land and tracks that lie behind me today.

This desert is full of mystery. But it is also full of life.

In the early history of the Christian church, men and women deliberately went out from the cities into the desert to live. The Desert Mothers and Fathers, as we now call them, chose to move away from their cities and urban centres to quite deliberately choose life on the edge, and the desert life, giving up so much of their world. Becoming attentive to the demands, difficulties, and the sparseness of desert life.

But they became people who others came to, to learn what it meant to be stripped away, to surrender, to allow new life to come when all things material particularly had been taken away.

And the Desert Mothers and Fathers were strengthened by two important values, one called in Greek, agrupnia, the other apatheia.

Agrupnia is to be attentive to what’s most important. You have to learn as you travel the desert to be attentive, to watch out for signs, for tracks, so you don’t get lost. And to be attentive to the wind, and to the rain, and to the signs of food and life around you. Agrupnia, attentiveness, will keep you alive.

The other side of the coin of agrupnia of course is apatheia. Close to Ignatian indifference, where you need to let go what’s not important. We all carry baggage from the past. Sometimes for many of us it’s material baggage, but other baggage we carry as well. You cannot carry that baggage into the desert. You must let it go.

So there’s agrupnia and apatheia that can sustain one in vast, uncertain, dry and difficult conditions.

Our present lockdown, especially in Melbourne, is somewhat like a desert experience. It’s new. It’s uncertain. And we know that people are dying every day. It’s dangerous.

So it is helpful I think for all of us to consider the gifts of agrupnia and apatheia. To focus upon what is really important. To allow our attention to be on what gives us life, to keep searching for the divine in the human, the difficulties we face, because the divine is present. As the divine is in the desert as the mothers and fathers found. But in a new way, in unexpected ways, surprising ways. 

But also not just agrupnia, but apatheia. to let go. To let go of the things we used to consider were important to carry with us. To let them go. Sometimes it’s hurts, and memories. Sometimes it’s simply material things.

Agrupnia and apatheia. Lockdown as desert. Lockdown as life. Seeking a deeper life of the human and the divine.

Travel safely, travel gently, travel well. Thank you.

Fr Brian F McCoy SJ, Provincial.


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