Many spiritual traditions include stories of natural disasters or unusual and overwhelming natural events as interventions by God to challenge humanity’s present ways of proceeding and call all to repentance. In such stories, repentance is less about being sorry for what wrongs have been done or more about changing the direction of life in a radical way. The plagues were inflicted on Egypt to push Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go, and even further to draw the Hebrews themselves into a new way of life and a new relationship with God. The flood that Noah and his family, along with pairs of animals, rode out in the ark was an event which in effect restarted all of creation on a better path, and flood stories that end the existing world show up in a variety of cultures. Given the enormity of events these stories recount in tracing the path of repentance, it seems repentance becomes more than simply stopping something and starting something else, or making a course change. Rather, repentance is almost akin to growing up, leaving behind a less aware, more reactive way of living and instead taking responsibility for one’s choices, including taking responsibility for the impact those choices will have on everyone else.
I found myself often recalling these stories during the months of pandemic lockdown, wondering if the coronavirus might be the latest such call to repentance through an overwhelming natural event. Given our long history of abusing the environment and pursuing self-interest and a consumer lifestyle without regard for the consequences such pursuits inflict on all those around us, we may well have been due for a comeuppance, something that would stop us in our tracks for a long enough time that we might actually think about the choices we had been making and whether those choices were truly right.
Now, with vaccinations coming to more people daily and a rush to remove masks and return to a “normal” lifestyle, are we missing the call to repentance the pandemic offered us? Have we learned anything from these months of lockdowns that would make a difference in our choices going forward? Will we change directions in the way repentance invites, or just keep on the path we were already taking—in which case, will another plague be necessary before we really have a change of heart and spirit?