On supermarkets, visits, and the ordinary
Updated: May 7
I'm finding the etiquette of social distancing not always easy to manoeuvre. For example the queues to get into the supermarket are easy enough - we all know how the English have perfected queuing to an art form - but once inside it gets a little dicier. The aisles aren't wide enough to have six feet between us if we're on either side, so should I not enter an aisle at all if there's someone in it? I have to admit that I do - I'd never get my bacon if I had to wait for a completely empty aisle - I usually just sort of rush past quickly and turn my head, as if any virus present would just know that I was not interested in encountering it and respect my wishes. And there doesn't seem to be a well-designed system of queuing inside either. If I'm waiting for someone to leave the bacon counter (it's just an example - I could have said kale but I don't think people would believe me) and there are others waiting for bacon, who goes first? This is where the Italian system works well; not particularly known for order, anytime you enter a place where people are waiting you simply ask "Who's the last?" and then you know to go after that person.
Taking walks can also present a dilemma. Oh, for the most part we're all good at crossing to the other side of the street in what someone deliciously described to me as "the Good Samaritan in reverse." But what if you're following someone who is walking more slowly than you? Do you speed up quickly and overtake them? That seems slightly rude to me, and I have to admit that, in this period, if someone did that to me (walkers, not joggers - don't even get me started on joggers) I'd wonder what they had going on that would render walking so fast necessary. So I tend to just slow my pace and walk at a discreet distance behind until either they or I turn off. But in so doing am I causing the person ahead of me to be anxious, wondering why the strange man with a potentially vicious sausage dog is always behind?
This is a rather long introductory aside to a point at which I could have arrived earlier, but, again, have you got something going on that would render reading fast necessary? The other day Linus and I were following a woman from a safe distance who was walking more slowly than we are accustomed to walking, so I just sort of hovered behind as I do. She had on cargo shorts and Birkenstock sandals even though it was a chilly day, a patchwork poncho, and a mass of curly grey hair held in place by what appeared to be a bread wrapper. She was clearly the kind of person whom, in different times, I would've gone out of my way to meet, as she most definitely has an interesting story. (Who doesn't?) As I followed behind, imagining her story (I had already named her Marguerite in my head) she stopped at a door and knocked. I stopped, pretending to fix something on Linus' lead. She stepped back more than six feet and waited.
The door opened a crack and then I heard what I guess I could only describe as a squeal emanating from inside. Another woman stepped out on her stoop and jumped up and down and waved like a child begging candy at a parade. The joy on her face was overwhelming, and I stood rooted to my spot, not even pretending to do anything other than drink in the wonder of the scene. The women began talking and I felt for the first time an interloper, so I said "Come on Linus!" loudly as if he were the reason we had stopped (he shot me a withering side-eyed glance) and moved on. But, having walked maybe a fifty yards or so, I just had to turn back. I wanted to see it - to see them - again. And looking back at those two ladies in animated conversation, I was shocked at how the scene affected me, overcome by the power present in something so simple as two friends connecting.
We don't know how things are going to touch us, can never be sure of what chords a certain word or look or gesture might strike in us. And perhaps it's not so important that we do understand. Maybe it's enough to know that somehow the simplest of moments – from a kind word over a telephone line to a tear shed in helplessness – can be vehicles of grace. Sure, there can be grander gestures, and there is no magic wand that is going to make sorrow disappear, but I think we should never discount the glorious wonder of the ordinary.
In this morning's lessons we have two stories of visits which couldn't be more different. Moses goes up to the mountain and visits God himself, wreathed in a cloud, "like devouring fire." Pretty spectacular - no doubt about it.
But the second visit - of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth - is the one I find more compelling. There are no miraculous healings here, no giving sight to the blind or mobility to the lame. No one is raised from the dead. There is simply one woman going to visit another. While on one hand it's true that the circumstances of the two women are extraordinary – a virgin and an elderly woman who are both pregnant – on the other hand there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the meeting. It is the ancient equivalent of our dropping in on someone for a cup of tea, back when we could do such things. How utterly ordinary.
And how utterly extraordinary. Because this ordinary visit is nothing if not a precursor to the wonders of the Incarnation, the wonders of God so desiring to be a part of who we are that he became a part of everything that we are: from the niceties of genteel daily life to the struggles of those who suffer, from the uncertain solace of words to the surety of connection, from the exhilarating dance of new life to the solemn stillness of death. Our God seeks to be a part of it all with us. For us. So much so that even the ordinary elements of a routine life can be vehicles of grace, if we but open our hearts.
How wondrous. How marvellously and indescribably wondrous. Sure, there can be grander gestures, and there is no magic wand that is going to make sorrow disappear, but I think we should never discount the glorious wonders of the ordinary.