INTERFAITH LESSONS FROM A PANDEMIC
In Falling Upward Richard Rohr talks about the “spirituality of subtraction,” the value of letting go. The first half of life is about gaining: an education, job, home, marriage, and children. The second half is about subtraction: the kids move out, we downsize our housing, retire, start to lose our health, friends or spouses die, etc.
In a spirituality of subtraction, we learn four main spiritual values: humility, gratitude, simplicity/poverty and solidarity/community. A number of spiritual leaders from various traditions have noted that a crisis can speed up this process.
Humility. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in a talk in our city a year ago, that we all tend to be “cultural snobs,” that is, we think our culture is superior to all others. There may have been famines, wars and plagues throughout history, but this couldn’t possibly happen to us because we are so scientifically superior.
The point was to not get too self-assured. My priest in Winnipeg, Fr. Firmin Michiels, similarly told the congregation “Don’t pray for success, pray for strength when everything falls apart.” This is a frequent theme in every religion. “When people say ‘peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thessalonians 5:3). COVID-19 has subtracted the illusion of our cultural-scientific omnipotence.
Gratitude. Omar Ricci, an imam at the Islamic Center of Southern California, gave a talk titled “Thank God for the coronavirus.” Not that God caused the virus, but we should thank God for this reminder we are not in control and always depend on God. Thank God for this reminder to be grateful for all things, particularly things we take for granted like groceries and good health. Thank God for reminding us life is fragile and “we had best appreciate the miracle of life God has given us.”
A rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic community in Bozeman, Montana, noted that “Jews have always said that for every breath we take, we should thank God.” In light of the respiratory problems caused by COVID-19, “it’s become very real.”
The Buddhist attitude of gratitude towards any crisis has been summed up in four words by the well-known monk Thich Nhat Hanh “No mud, no lotus.”
Simplicity/Poverty. In Hinduism, the goal at the end of life is to become a “sannyasin,” a holy man or woman who renounces all the trappings of society and chooses to be reduced to nothing but his or her relationship with God.
All this stripping away is mirrored in Christianity in people who take religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Jesus himself emptied and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
The spirituality of subtraction is about emptying the ego of self-centered pride so that God can fill you. In general, a good day for the ego (a day of gain) is a bad day for the soul, and a bad day for the ego (loss) is a good day for the soul. Subtraction is meant by God to edge the ego out, reversing Wayne Dyer’s definition of “ego:” “edging God out.”
Solidarity/Community. Churches are experiencing what they have always given intellectual assent to – that the church is not buildings but the “ecclesia” – the community. They are reaching out online far beyond their normal congregations. Adam Ericksen, a United Church of Christ minister in Milwaukie, Oregon has noted that “the role of the church in this moment is to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”
Beyond churches, mosques and synagogues, God’s work is going on everywhere, in every single person who makes the decision to love their neighbor as themselves: health care and grocery workers and everyone sacrificing themselves in inconvenient self-isolation in order to keep others healthy.
This time of subtraction will hopefully continue to be a time of great spiritual growth.
Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director, marriage preparation specialist and religious educator of adults. brucetallman.com