One of the earliest dreams I can remember is the one I joyfully pronounced to all who could hear me in the verdant backyard of my grandparents home in Chennai, “When I grow up, I want to have a big house with many rooms and have everyone I know and love to live with me!” While my aunt within earshot just laughed and shook her head at the innocence of a 5-year-old, I was encouraged by the enthusiastic affirmation of several of my cousins nearby. (My wife would probably hold this dream as evidence against my insistent claim of being an introvert.)
I have looked back and wondered where this notion came from. Perhaps it was from hearing about a saying of Jesus in Sunday school. From wherever it sprang, it remains revelatory to me after all these years.
When the pandemic hit, like most others, there was a deep and pained curtailing of physical presence with remote work. (Discussing the effects of the pandemic on a white-collar job risks being insensitive, so I’ll forsake any claims of special hardship right off the bat.)
I missed mingling with colleagues. I missed jostling through crowds, especially at summer music festivals. I especially missed the solace of spending time with friends and family.
Before COVID-19, the ease of instant video calling and texting anywhere in the world made the majority of us, take for granted facilities that would have seemed magical and unimaginable even three decades ago. When coupled with the accessibility of global travel, the illusion of proximity loomed large. I recall punctuating the end of every conversation with someone far away with something like, “I’ll meet you soon, I’ll plan a trip!” Even without concrete arrangements, one could get away with this sort of casual promise because it did indeed seem plausible to do so. But once travel restrictions were in place, one could not blithely pledge a visit, however tentative. There just seemed to be this feeling of being lost at sea seeing an indefinite horizon without sight of land.
A number of years ago, I heard about Dunbar’s Number. It essentially is the (unsurprising) contention that it is only possible to maintain a certain number, say 150, of meaningful contacts. Dissatisfied with the diffusive chaos and shallowness of my way of being in touch with others, I had quit much of social media cold turkey. I’ve yet to regret that decision.
But increasingly, I encountered another, perhaps opposite, problem. It is one of trying to quantify and demarcate the number of friendships and how one could stay in touch. Just as it is possible to be in close proximity to someone you care about and still feel a lack of warmth, it is equally possible to have a well-thought out list of people to stay in touch with and plans to call or catch-up that quickly reveals that even when we connect, we meet each other in different modes and moments (busy, anxious, in-the-middle-of-something, distracted) in our day-to-day lives that expose the rifts and confines of human relationships. This is not to dispose habits of regular contact (I am still calling Amma and Appa every other day) but to acknowledge that closeness, and the good feelings that accompany it, is not guaranteed.
The in-built dislocation all of us can feel made me more aware of the transcendent aspect of my desire for closeness. In the early months of the pandemic, working from home and having religious buildings temporarily closed, I decided to intensify my life of prayer at home.
In the Christian tradition, times of prayer have their roots in monasticism and are called the Liturgy of the Hours as they are said at specific hours of the day. For regular people wishing to pray, it is fine to just say the morning and the evening prayer. Since my wife and I have been living next to the Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame in Ottawa, we hear the tolling of the Angelus bells every day. So each day, around noon, I decided to take a short pause whenever I heard those bells an add an extra time slot to pray and reflect on daily readings from the Bible.
During the end of the summer, after experiencing the shocking, sudden death of my maternal uncle in India, I needed a way to feel closer to my family during our time of grief. During the conversion of St. Augustine, he recounts hearing the possibly supernatural voice of a young child saying “Tolle lege, tolle lege,” which in Latin means “Take up and read.” While I didn’t hear a distinct voice, I felt an instinctual pull to do my daily Bible readings in Tamil. While I had always had a copy of a Tamil Bible, it had just lain around the house as a showpiece.
I had read in Tamil as a child, having grown up in Chennai. But my overall abilities has atrophied to the point where having me read aloud during my last visit to India in early 2019 probably had listeners suspect dyslexia.
This new routine felt like small effervescence of joy in the middle of my day. There was the thrill of having a childhood ability return to strength, to say nothing of recognizing the unmistakable mellifluousness of Tamil. The other benefit was that it made me slow down, and not rush, enabling a deeper and more serene reading than I was used to.
I mulled over what meaning my reading of the Bible in Tamil could have, other than being an esoteric pursuit. Leon Kass, a contemporary Jewish philosopher, has written that for the ancient Hebrews, their covenant with God meant that “they accept or embrace change, preserving time while partly overcoming its ravages through renewal and remembering.” One of the interesting things about time is the difference between perpetuity and eternity. Perpetuity simply means more in quantity and is actuarial in its implications. Eternity implies something deeper, and is not simply more time but a fullness within it, the kind we’ve all felt when we lost ourselves in meaningful work or in being in the presence of someone or those we love.
For even if nothing bad were to happen, had there been no pandemic, and we had all lived pain-free lives, time still erodes our bodies and all that we build and make within it. Perhaps the longing to be unbound by time is one of the deepest human impulses, and perhaps why we will always need religious faith or something approximating it to thrive. For time to be both cyclical and yet fresh, having a newness anchored through memory.
As I write this, for Christians, it is the season of Advent. Joseph Ratzinger writes that:
Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to run through her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.
I have experienced my small act of reading the Bible in Tamil as an act of renewal and of memory, and it connects me spiritually to my family members far away who are also reading the same Bible in Tamil. It has raised my awareness that I haven’t just been given a book to read, but a life to live with all its particularities, including my heritage as a Tamil. I have been encouraged to keep staying in touch, to keep reading, to keep praying, to keep working, to keep trying to help others, and within my own limits to remain open to the richness of memory and being surprised in receiving and discovering things beyond my own measure.