Emmaus & COVID-19: Transitional lessons

Dear Friends

The disciples on the road to Emmaus find themselves in a liminal space (Luke 24:13-35). They are grieving what they have lost and wondering how their futures will shape up. Cleopas and his companion are in a transitional space. They are still living in a space between death and resurrection.

Liminal spaces are transitional ones. They are like ‘waiting areas’ between one point and another. They are transformative spaces. They are also challenging places to be in because they signify change. They tell us that we are on the verge of something new. They require that we begin to think and act in new ways. We do not choose liminal spaces. We seem to fall into them.

We enter into a liminal space, like the disciples plodding on to Emmaus, when our former way of thinking and living is changing. One of the lessons that Cleopas and his companion learn is that they are not in control.

The account of the two on the road to Emmaus also reminds that in a liminal space something new will happen. Liminal space can be a moment of frustration but also one of great learning and remoulding. St Ignatius of Loyola discovers this when a cannonball shatters his leg and he spends months convalescing.

Ignatius learns a number of lessons when he is in liminality. He learns that God is in control. He learns that he has to wait on God. He sees how he has faltered – he experiences his vulnerability. He experiences emptiness in himself and begins to recognise the movements in his emotional life, in his soul. He learns too that he has to leave a world behind and enter into a new one. He goes from the world of ambition and being a soldier to seeking a life of simplicity and humility in the service of God.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into a liminal space. We are caught between two worlds: the one we knew six weeks ago and the one that is to come. Just as the disciples heading to Emmaus – or St Ignatius after the cannonball – could not go back to ‘life as it was’, we cannot either.

Our lives will continue to be changed – psychologically, socially, professionally and as a church. It will take time but, hopefully, like the disciples and Ignatius, we will approach whatever awaits us with freedom and creativity.    

The Jesuit Institute feels this liminal space acutely, like so many in the Christian community. The very essence of our work – having personal contact and being in community – has abruptly ended. We feel the frustration, the unease. But we also believe that something new will, in God’s time, emerge. We believe that change is inevitable and we cannot simply sit around thinking “when life goes back to normal”. Liminal spaces never take us back, only forward.

As we live in this liminal space we are thinking, consulting and praying. We are trying to ‘tune-in’ to where the Spirit is blowing. We know that as we move from level five to level four of lockdown, the place of liminality will not change. It could be weeks or even months before we move levels again. We know too that the Christian community will not be able to gather for a while to come. This makes our task of allowing the Spirit to blow in new directions even more essential.

As we live through this time, we will continue to broadcast Sunday Mass at 09.00 on Sundays. Our series, The Journey, will come to an end this week. However, watch this space for what is to come! We will continue to offer short daily reflections on the Scriptures of the day – you can subscribe to receive them on our website.

We will soon share what we intend doing as we move forward.

Finally, thank you to all of you for your feedback and support. Thank you too for your generosity which has enabled us to pack food parcels for distribution. We intend to pack more as resources allow.

Don’t run from this uncomfortable time of liminality. It invites us all to discover the essentials we may well have lost touch with. It invites us, like those disciples, to have our eyes opened and recognise the Lord in our midst in a new way. It invites us to see ourselves, our Church and our world through new eyes.

Keep safe, know the Lord walks with us – even if we don’t recognise him! – and may God bless you.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
Director: Jesuit Institute South Africa

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
See more from Russell Pollitt SJ
1 Comment
  • Stephen
    Posted at 11:20h, 28 Apr

    Thank you Fr Russell for the series “The Journey” and reflections. These are words of inspiration and hope during these difficult times of lockdown. A time when we should open our eyes and see the Risen Lord in our midst who accompanies us throughout our lives.

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