Be a Santuary to Yourself

Part of the Communion in Times of Coronavirus series of gentle reflections
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Inderjit Bhogal, 2020

I am beginning to think we are all in our Noah’s Ark in our own homes with our families (and pets if we have them), our sanctuaries.

“And there were other boats”

Mark 4:36

Life away from others is a daily reality to people who have been housebound for years. Religious communities have developed spiritualities that have required the need to “come away” for a while. We are familiar with the value of “retreat”.

Every household, every individual, in their own “cacoon” is a new place for us all, and requires us to come to ourselves, and imagine a new world.    

Noah and his wife Naamah were in the Ark, with their family, and the animals with them, when it rained for forty days and forty nights. They were in the stormy rain and turbulent waters of the flood which eventually did subside (Genesis 6:14-7:12). They did not have a garden they could take a walk in, or social media for entertainment and communication. The story gives us the beautiful image of the Dove with an Olive leaf in the beak as a sign of cessation of conflict (Genesis 7:11), and then the rainbow (Genesis 9:13), with a spectrum of colours in an arch, as a symbol of hope for all creation. I like the image of a rainbow, insisting that there are many colours, not just one. And it looks like a bigger roof providing a more inclusive shelter.    

The next Ark we come across in the Bible is the Ark as a “sanctuary” for God (Exodus 25:8) to symbolise God dwelling in the midst of people. This is image we have to hold in our mind when we read the words of John 1:14 “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, a development of the words of Exodus 25:8.

The Ark represents a sanctuary for its inhabitants. Noah’s Ark is a sanctuary for all those in a safe space with him.

This image grows into the Biblical vision that everyone will have their own Ark, a house in fact, with their own garden (see for example Isaiah 65:21), so that no one is without a roof over their head; and no one is afraid that their house will be destroyed or their livelihood plundered.

This ideal remains a dream that has not been achieved. History is littered with stories of exactly the opposite. Homes and gardens destroyed.

The shameful fact is that today there are 70 million refugees, a new all-time high, an unprecedented global situation. This includes 28 million people who are internally displaced, trapped in their own countries (of these 11 million are conflict related, and 17 million are disaster related. Disasters include storms, floods, landslides, droughts, wild fires and extreme temperatures). Their homes and gardens have been destroyed.

People who have lost their homes and the protection of their countries value sanctuary and safety expressed in welcome and hospitality and shelter. The global image that has been before us has been of refugees in boats in sea waters, and at border fences and walls, desperately seeking sanctuary. All people with names and families, and histories. There are heart breaking images of children whose lives are in danger, and many people in the water. A traumatic situation for anyone to be in.  

In Mark 4:35-39 is recorded the story of Jesus in a small boat with his disciples. They are caught in a storm. In this storm we read that there were “other boats” with him. There was not just one boat as in the Noah story. They were not all in the same boat. There were other boats, carrying other people, all in the same storm. They all went through the fears expressed by Jesus’ disciples.

Now, in the deep and choppy waters of the coronavirus, we are all seeking or taking sanctuary in homes and rooms and apartments. We all have fears and anxiety about the wellbeing and safety of ourselves, and our families.  Others are going through a similar situation to us. No one is immune to the virus, from rulers to the ruled, rich and poor, women and men, whatever our nationality or ethnicity. Our equality in our humanity, and frailty, and desire to be safe is clear.

The reality of our world is that there are those who have “homes” and many who do not. There are those with lovely gardens, and those without gardens. There are those for whom being in a confined environment will be difficult, and for others this will hold dangers of intimidation and abuse from oppressive others.

The rain stopped in the Noah story. Coronavirus will pass. But as we take sanctuary ourselves, we will keep in our hearts and minds all those in their own other sanctuaries now, with all the surrounding concerns. And we will not forget those who are without homes, or away from homes, and refugees who continue to be “the least important” internationally, and uphold them in our work and prayers. The poorest communities will be the hardest hit by all the circumstances surrounding coronavirus. We will maintain our solidarity with those who feel most excluded and vulnerable. I hope we will not allow enforced social distancing to lead to social division.

Sanctuary in our homes is bringing us to ourselves. We have time to reflect on ourselves, and how we are with others, and to explore our spirituality. In what ways are we individually a home and a garden to ourselves? What are the points at which we are a stranger to ourselves? Where does our deepest nourishment lie? What wells do we drink from?

I love the very first line of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy great pleasure”.

Rabindranath Tagore

Each one of us is immense. We grow even more in our relationships with others.

Acknowledge the gift and treasure you are. We are to love ourselves, if we are to love our neighbour and the stranger as ourselves, and in so doing to discover what it is to truly love God. Look after yourself. Your wellbeing is a gift to yourself and to others. Care for your body for it is the Temple, the Sanctuary of God.

This is what it is to be a sanctuary to yourself. Model sanctuary in yourself. Be a wholesome, calm, healing and hospitable presence. So:

Allow yourself space to be. Allow others space to be.

Be compassionate towards yourself. Be compassionate towards others.

Be forgiving to yourself. Be forgiving to others.

Do not be afraid. Help others to not be afraid.

Be safe and non-violent in your words and ways. Support such non-violence in others.

When you do this, you can better support others in being and building sanctuary.

Noah’s time in the Ark with his family concludes with God’s universal covenant embracing all people, plants, animals and the environment around him (Genesis 9:12).

The gift of coronavirus may be to call us back to the insight of this covenant and God’s call to human beings again to commit ourselves to each other and all creation, to imagine and build a rainbow future with each other, as the “oikumene”, the household of God, and not least in terms of an ecumenism embracing all faiths, economic equality, and ecological justice, modelling an over-arching sanctuary for all.   

Inderjit Bhogal

27 March 2020

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