|Before social distancing: St John Paul II embraces Cardinal Stefan Wysynski|
What was just weeks ago unthinkable has passed into reality, embedded itself into our existence, all has changed in the blink of an eye. So many thoughts pass through my mind during these days, I will express a few of them, but none bring me feelings of hope and comfort, but for the promise of the Immaculata: 'In the end, my Immaculate heart will triumph'.
Each and every country, I think in the entire world, apart from than those which need not invoke 'emergency powers' such as China, has done so to combat Covid-19, the Coronavirus. Britain is on a 'war-footing' which enables the government to suspend each and every cherished freedom we all took for granted. Ostensibly, wartime powers are invoked to do battle against an invisible but potentially deadly foe, the virus, but the series of human tragedies this policy will create is, well, unlimited and unfathomable and I am not entirely alone in a deep suspicion that a biological evil has already brought with it a series of spiritual evils so malignant that only immersion in prayer, especially the Holy Rosary, can offer us a spiritual vaccine. Indeed, the host of evils could not be treated in a single blogpost.
Before I begin, let us offer an Ave or three or more to the Blessed Virgin that both pestilence and this new vision of society will pass quickly, that the age of plague, quarantine and authoritarian social order will not be with us throughout the Summer and the year and beyond.
Some observations will resonate with you, others less so. Queuing outside a supermarket, each person 2 metres apart to enter was a bleak experience. Brightonians, if not Britons as a whole, are generally a sociable people, if not as tactile as Italians, talkative nonetheless. All of that has all but gone in a single day and the atomisation of individuals has been carried from the home to the street. Nobody is relaxed, nobody. Each and every face looks set on edge, marked by fear and concern for stepping outside of the infection rules. Nobody smiles. Across the street, I see two people talking at 2 metres length apart, but their voices are conspicuous by their presence. Everyone else is deathly quiet, as if characters in some dystopian film set. All of a sudden, the Brighton that once was, that most 'free-spirited', decadent and hedonistic of places, has vanished to be replaced with a laden atmosphere of total and utter order. A man at the entrance to the supermarket permits 16 customers to be in the store at any one time and it is all so chillingly sensible. Upon entrance customers are told they may buy no more than three of any item and everybody nods approvingly, as if happy to be instructed, for everyone knows that existence is now a day-by-day experience and everybody has learned to hate the hoarders, including the hoarders themselves. Everything has been suspended, including people's plans. I don't think anybody is thinking about tomorrow.
Wandering around the store, virtually everyone is taking compulsive care to observe the 2 metre rule and the wall-to-wall, heavy duty messaging by Government through media makes me nervous even of picking up an item since it has been handled by suppliers and supermarket staff. I pick something up, I put it back and then I pick it up again in case I am a carrier. Fear of infection or of being an infectee has penetrated my consciousness, hand eczema which had healed has returned because of all the handwashing. Everything I touch has microbes. Dear God! Everything is sanitized, everything must be clean, bacteria is now my enemy and I am changed. The simplest of tasks demands an extreme duty to others that a month ago would have seen me laying on a couch talking to a therapist and I guarantee that whatever the rate of infection of this illness, almost everybody has been infected by this mindset and this was day 2 of the quarantine. Whatever the immunity from the virus is, nobody is immune from the effects.
At the toilet roll aisle is a rare sight, there are about 30 8-packs of toilet roll. Relief not completely unlike that of someone who has reached the lavatory on time seems to flood the faces of all who approach the toilet roll section, as if having reached the Promised Land. I look at one lady's face and she's smiling, I say, 'Oh my, it's a miracle!' we laugh and go our separate ways, only for a sudden seriousness to take over my mind, as if a malevolent hand of dark paternal authority has been at work in the toilet roll aisle, an aisle that seems to shout, 'There is toilet roll now, because you have obeyed. Keep obeying and your fill of toilet roll will be secure', or more simply, 'Your arses belong to us, now'.
At a self-checkout and pin-pad that looks recently cleaned, but not so recently that it is still wet ('Someone else has touched this before I got here!'), I purchase my goods. A young couple are buying at the next but one self-checkout and I can hear them discussing the new regime involved in the shopping experience, saying something about feeling vaguely 'criminal'. I turn and say, 'Ah yes, we are all on an ASBO now'. They laugh, nervously. I laugh, nervously. ASBOs, as very long-term readers of this blog will know, are 'Anti-Social Behaviour Orders'. I have a friend who was on one, one of Brighton's most irritating but enduringly loveable beggars called Jason, who was in and out of jail, but who eventually got off drugs and excessive drinking and lives, albeit bored out of his skull, outside the city. Now that he isn't in Brighton, the one-time rebel without a cause is very well-behaved and has a long-term room to call home, something he always wanted. He fought the law and the law, eventually, won. His movements were heavily restricted and on some pavements he could only walk on the left / right side of the road, depending on the road. Does this sound familiar?
When Jason wasn't in prison, he was more often than not homeless. Brighton's homeless population seems to have reduced. When I do walk past them, whether I give them a milkshake or sandwich or not, they look so miserable now. After all, people weren't carrying much cash before, they're not carrying any cash now. Major outlets aren't accepting it 'at this time of Coronavirus'. Many are addicted to various things, their lives too are turned over, where are the dealers now? They are all locked up in their homes. Yes, astonishing order has been imposed on a city of dissolute life, an order of breathtaking severity, in equally breathtaking speed, of a kind that no earthly dictator could wish to achieve in weeks or months.
Remarkably, I don't see any police on the streets. It is as if they are unnecessary. No police are talking to homeless people telling them to move on, most seem to have moved on already, Lord alone knows where. Brighton is now governed by a pervasive fear. Everybody has had their text message from the government to 'Stay at home', and everybody is at home for the vast majority of the day. The few people you see around are either doing their once a day shop or doing their once a day bit of exercise, though I swear the numbers of people who used to walk for exercise on the streets of Brighton was negligible. Most people were walking to go somewhere, do something, walking was not an end in itself.
There are a number of highly disturbing things about this new society that has blanketed almost the whole world, but perhaps the most disturbing thing is how quickly we could all get used to this and even embrace it. In darker moments, it feels is as if a think-tank like the Tavistock group is running a psychological experiment on entire populations to observe how successfully obedient to the State populations can be in a time of pandemic. The raw power of the wartime conditions could lead any government to consider extending the emergency situation well beyond a season, or even two seasons into perpetuity. Right now, there is no crime. There is not even public sin or offense. No buskers, no football louts, no fights on Saturday nights, no girls throwing up outside a nightclub, no lusty affairs, no hook-ups going on. There are no rambunctious street-drinking homeless people, no needles in alleyways, even the usually filthy streets of Brighton look free of litter, the odd bus glides down the main road every now and then, the busy urban streets, if you close your eyes, it almost sounds like the countryside.
Yes, I can see how the open prison model of society, in a time of real or even perceived threat, could bring entire national States much to celebrate so much that not only would the boot on the human face be welcomed forever by the personnel of an all-powerful State, but the people themselves, realizing how much simple, regulated and ordered life could be, would even caress the boot resting gently upon their face.
My God, I have written a great deal, I shall close there. I have not yet even touched on the fact that my parish church is closed, that all parish churches are closed, that Baptism is for now forbidden, that the children of the Church may not approach the Sacrament of Confession and that nearly all men, women and children are entirely cut off from the daily Sacrifice. Brighton's priests are cut off from their people and, in desperation, livestream the Most Holy Sacrifice, not knowing who, if anyone, will watch and pray. Pray and stay close to Jesus in prayer and do watch, with Eucharistic hunger, the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.
Martyrs of England and Wales, pray for us.
Lord Jesus, deliver us.
Pray also for the liberation of Pope Benedict XVI, in whose Cross we are all sharing now. For where the Head has gone, the Body has surely followed. My, my, what a prophet he was.
Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. - Fr Joseph Ratzinger, 1969