The Anglican Communion’s Director for Theological Education, the Revd Dr Stephen Spencer, considers the mental health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and reflects on the lessons to be learned by the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
As social isolation begins to take effect some common patterns of behaviour can be seen around the world. Most obvious in these early stages is a kind of shock mixed with denial, recently seen in the UK when against all the advice thousands of people went to the beach and into the national parks to enjoy the sunshine and have a mini holiday. It was as if the pandemic was meant only for other people in other parts of the world. In other places some religious leaders have been denying that the virus can strike down members of their flock.
A week later, partly in response to a change of tone from governments and partly in response to the hard reality of loved ones being taken ill, there is a very different atmosphere in many places. Feelings of pain and guilt are surfacing in some quarters: “if only I had been careful earlier on I might not have passed on the virus to others”; “if only I had been firmer with my elderly relative he would not now be battling with the disease”.
Expressions of anger are also beginning to appear, most obviously anger with governments for slow or confused responses to the pandemic, and also with segments of the population such as “young people” for not taking it seriously at first. As the rates of mortality increase this type of reaction will become stronger and in some quarters God will be blamed for allowing such a pandemic to sweep across our planet.
Then, as social isolation goes on week after week, it is very likely that loneliness and the lack of human contact will lead to widespread depression. There are already signs that levels of alcohol consumption have risen, with supermarket shelves being emptied of spirits and other drinks. With an increase in drunkenness comes an increase in domestic abuse, already widespread and devastating for its victims.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were taking themselves into social isolation (Luke 24.13-14). After the trauma of Jesus’s arrest, torture and execution they had left the other disciples in Jerusalem and were walking away from the city. They were contradicting Jesus’ instruction to stay in the city and wait for him. Their world had fallen apart and now they were also walking away from the women’s testimony that Jesus was alive: they were in denial.
It is also clear from their sharp response to the stranger’s question “What are you discussing?” that they were full of anger: “Are you the only one who does not know the things that have taken place . . .?”
In their self-absorbed isolation they had failed to recognise Jesus and we can see depression beginning to emerge in their confession “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel”. There was also probably some guilt at their failure to believe the women.
What happens next could give us real help in the traumatic times we are facing. Their conversation with the stranger unlocks a door for them. Their opening up to him and his generosity in sharing what he thinks and believes makes all the difference: their hearts begin to “burn” within them, they begin to see things differently, they stop isolating themselves and invite the stranger to stay with them and share a meal. It is then, of course, that the reality of the resurrection reveals itself and everything changes.
Out of this profound encounter, at the turning point of the story that begins in Luke 1 and ends in Acts 28, it is therefore possible to identity a number of discipleship responses to the ways humans experience trauma and grief. In the same way that grief has been described as going through seven stages so we might describe seven stages of healing seen on the road to Emmaus and available to all (stages that different people will work through in different ways):
- Take time out, as the disciples did when they walked to Emmaus
- Talk to others, as they were willing to do when the stranger walked alongside them
- Tell it how it is in anger and grief, as they did, expressing their anger to the stranger
- Tell it how it is in sorrow and lament, as they did when they expressed their disappointments and confusion
- Trust othersto speak truth, as they did when they started to listen to the stranger
- Take inwhat the Messiah says especially as he pieces together all that has happened based on the deep narrative of Scripture, starting with his words in verses 25 to 29
- Take the initiativeto invite the Messiahto join us, at our table, to break bread, as the disciples did at Emmaus
The outcome of all this, of course, was the inspiring of the two disciples to go back to Jerusalem, to re-join the others and take the healing gospel to the nations. In a similar way our own healing and re-inspiring can come out of the current pandemic if we become like them, listen to the one who walks with us and take the initiative as they did.