The pandemic is global. The whole world is affected. Those are big words. It’s hard to stretch my imagination to the scope of large statistics: 25,000 miles around. 7.5 billion people. Over 2 million cases in 180 countries and 200 territories. It’s big.
Statistics can be numbing. We bring them to life with stories—of nurses wearing garbage bags and bandannas because they have no PPE; of neighbors picking up groceries; of teachers struggling to make online classes relevant and lively; of researchers bending over microscopes and vials of blood in the midst of the political fray. We make the world-wide pandemic comprehensible by giving it human faces and proportions.
It’s hard to pray for “the whole world.” It often seems to me like short shrift: if I took the time to imagine and mention people dying of cholera in Yemen and living in the rubble in Syria, Palestinians whose homes have been razed, native Amazonians whose lives are threatened by bulldozers, the young couple we love whose marriage is strained to the breaking point, and the kids we love who feel unmoored as they “shelter in place” just naming the needs would take all morning. I focus on a few people in a few places. I hold them in God’s light, hoping I’m opening a channel down which blessing may move, like a mighty river, in their direction. The rest—all those seven billion, more or less, are gathered in a final prayer for grace and healing to come for “the whole world.”
This week, though, I found myself remembering that breathtaking view of earth from outer space so many of us saw with the astronaut who took it, his recorded voice catching when he beamed it back. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Look . . . .” I connect that still-moving image with words I have come to love from the Book of Common Prayer. “At your command all things came to be,” the line reads, “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” When I hear that last phrase and remember the image of our floating planet, my heart is opened to the ache you feel when someone you love is suffering.
The earth looks small in the vast expanse, and vulnerable. Other aerial photos come to mind that show areas of desertification, brown glaciers denuded of their coats of shining ice, smog over cities, the scars of mountaintop removal and strip mining. The earth has her own sorrows. Pillaging and plundering leave scars. It doesn’t seem to be the case, much as I love Hopkins’ reassuring line, that “nature is never spent.” Some of it is. Extinction follows extraction. Other creatures have found a home here for longer than we have. Some no longer can or do.
A pandemic is moving among us humans and life as we know it is deeply disrupted. What is happening and will happen to the earth itself can be told partly in the language of ecobiology, partly in the language of geopolitics, partly in poetry and song.
Some of it remains in the realm of mystery. As the repercussions begin, as the dominoes fall, what humans have to do to survive will change us all, and those changes will devolve upon the earth itself—tolerant, finitely resilient, fragile. I know this now, in a new way. These days of pandemic have changed the public conversation and, I believe, have begun to change our consciousness. In my case, it has come as a deepened desire to care for this island home.
I’m not the only one I know who has been seized by a domestic impulse in these days of “sheltering in place.” Cupboards are being cleaned, neglected sorting done while I walk around in socks and my husband’s music plays on the patio where he paints. I find my throat suddenly tightening with tears of gratitude for our small, quiet place on earth, even as I recall with dismay the noises on the morning news–sirens outside New York hospitals, and protests in the streets of India where the poor are being driven to desperation. This island is their home, too.
“Home” is a big idea. It’s where we live. It’s what we share. It’s where we’re headed: on this short journey we “walk each other home.” Home is as small as a few rooms in a Sacramento suburb, and as large as the spinning globe that wheels in its course, perfectly distanced from the blazing sun as from a burning bush, stunningly beautiful and seared by our misdirected ambitions. It deserves its own place on the prayer list.