Sporting hi-vis vests and medical grade masks, staff check our number plate against their lists and wave us through to where nurses in full personal protective gear – gowns, gloves, visors – stand and wait outside temporary huts. For a moment they remind me, these nurses, of off-duty fighter pilots in those scenes from films like The Battle of Britain, where they’re all still in their kit, goggles and bomber jackets, sitting around, smoking and drinking tea and cracking jokes. The nurses aren’t smoking or drinking tea. They aren’t in bomber jackets either. Scrubs.
More than anything else, going to be tested for Covid-19 feels like a cross between an advance driving test, winding the Ibiza through endless lanes of orange traffic cones, and wandering onto the set of a disaster movie.
All the hyper-hygiene and efficiency of the testing facility serves somehow to emphasise our vulnerability, the precariousness of our situation. And all this, you can’t help thinking, on account of a submicroscopic infectious agent with a canny ability to replicate itself plentifully in our mucous membranes. We’re being colonised. This place is the frontline. They are like fighter pilots after all, and this a Biggin Hill in a new Battle of Britain.
Under the lid of low clouds on a cold late June afternoon, the test site seems overwhelmingly human.
Just before coming to be tested, I was putting a service together for Sunday. And the collect for the Fourth after Trinity is still fresh in my mind as the nurse in full PPE approaches my window, signalling.
‘Would you wind your window down for me, please.’
O God, the protector of all that trust in thee,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us thy mercy
that, thou being our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, O heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen
One of the glories of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book are the collects, the prayers for each Sunday. Some he composed himself, most he translated from the Latin Sarum Breviary into his peerless Tudor English.
I look past the nurse’s plastic gown, and open my mouth wide. Ahhhhhh.
So, the collect asks, where do we look for protection, where do we place our trust? Quite reasonably we take precautions, we take care. We’re right to wash our hands, keep our distance, wear masks and show up for tests.
But ‘Where do we place our trust?’ is a bigger question. The answer can’t only be see-through plastic and hand gel. It’s a bigger question demanding a bigger answer.
Where we place our trust is a matter of faith. And contrary to how the word is often used, faith is fundamentally not something we have; it is something we share. Like love, it only works when given and shared. I must put my faith in something. We’re encouraged these days to have faith in ourselves. But surely that’s like Baron Munchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his own hair: a joke. It can’t be done.
Where, in what, do I place my trust?
Let’s be honest, the test is uncomfortable. Aggie doesn’t baulk for a moment at having an elongated cotton bud jabbing around her tonsils or stuffed up her nose. Of course, I’m hopeless. Gagging and sneezing and generally embarrassing everyone else in the car.
Test completed, we pass, seemingly by peristalsis, through the remainder of the test site, twisting round and round its cordoned intestines, to the exit where we all breathe a sigh of relief. The busy roads beyond feel different somehow, as though we’ve been made privy to some secret, or woken from a nightmare.
The last few months are beginning to feel like an experience we’ve all passed through. How do we make sense of it? History will give us perspective, one day. Hey, do you remember the pandemic? But we can’t wait for history; prayer gives perspective immediately by settling us in the collect’s ‘now and forever.’ Amen.
And here lies the answer to our question.
What Cranmer’s collects enable us to do – what all prayer enables us to do – is to stand outside for a moment, to lay off pulling on our own bootstraps or our own hair, and to place our trust and ourselves in God’s hands, ‘our ruler and guide’. When we pray we put our trust in that which lies beyond, that which transcends us all, and in the process we find we are known and held. While we weave our way through things temporal, through traffic cones and coronaviruses, we do so always in the knowledge that our passing through takes place in a context: that in which we live and move and have our being.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.1 Corinthians 13:12
That line in the collect that keeps coming back to me:
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy…
can be read, I realise, in a couple of ways. Things are strong and holy because God ensures they remain strong and holy. Or: without God, nothing is strong or holy.
But with God, everything is.
God be with you all.
It’s almost impossible to introduce this short but agonisingly beautiful piece of music. I feel I’ve never been without it, a deep stratum of personal prehistory. Mid teens or thereabouts? And it follows me everywhere. It came to me today because it has a quality that captures, for me, quite precisely the quality of prayer. This is ‘Oomingmak’ by The Cocteau Twins…
Cranmer I ain’t, but here’s a collect for a time of coronavirus:
Almighty God, your steadfast love endures forever,
the cause and conclusion of all things:
recall us to our covenant commitments, strengthen our faith,
set our hearts on fire with love for you,
and for one another,
that we might grow in faith, live in hope,
and flourish in love
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.