After the Crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples spent most of their time in a kind of exile – this was seen physically – they locked themselves indoors, and this was also seen psychologically – they returned to the things which they knew, they were familiar, and comfortable with – they returned to their trade as fishermen. It was not easy to have left their old ways to follow the Lord, and in this time of difficulty, they returned to the assurance of their past. And the Lord God with His gentleness and tenderness, knew exactly where to find them, and He knew exactly what they needed. As the disciples fished, Jesus himself, was preparing a barbecued breakfast of fish on the shore. Where did He get the fish from? Was He fishing simultaneously with the disciples?

Even, after the Resurrection and Jesus was dwelling with His disciples for 40 days, the disciples still did not get it. They were still expecting a kingly Messiah; they still lacked the boldness to proclaim the Resurrection.

The word, “exile” can be traced etymologically to its roots in Old French, exil meaning “banishment” and Old Latin, exul meaning “the one who is taken out” and exilium to mean “place of banishment”. It implies a scenario where someone is forcibly removed from his/her home and homeland. I like the meaning proposed by Old Latin: we have been taken out of the ordinary for this time and season. COVID-19 has shaken us from the scenarios and routines which we have grown accustomed to, and has taken us out of the world and to be in exile from the world.

An exile, or a taking out from may not necessarily be a bad thing.

We recall the Deportation of the Jewish People under the yoke and the exile of the Babylonian regime in the 6th century Before Christ. The Jewish People had been displaced from the Promised Land that the Lord God had given to them. They were forced by the circumstances to live in distant, pagan lands. The chronology is as follows: Israel is united by Solomon, the son of David, by the building of the Temple. However, the kingdom becomes divided following the death of Solomon. At the end of this period, the Northern Kingdom had been conquered by Assyria. This is followed by the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and the exile to Babylon (1 Kings 1:1-11:43; 1 Kings 12:1 – 2 Kings 17:41; 2 Kings 18:1 – 25:30).

How and why did this exile take place? The answer to this question is that the Jewish People brought these troubles upon themselves. They had the Covenant and God was always faithful. However, the people themselves were not faithful and turned to their idols. God thus permitted these Jewish People to suffer the consequences of their sins.

The exile was meant as a teaching moment:  to understand the cause of the fragmentation and breaking away from God’s Law and Covenant, to come to re-encounter the faithfulness of God, and as a means to reflect and to repent. The time in exile would have been wasted if the Jewish People remained in their old stubborn, and sinful ways. The remedy in the time of exile was this: Humility, to Return back to the Lord, Increased Faithfulness to the Law of God, and Attention to the Purity of Worship – a worship purged and cleansed from any hint of false gods, idolatry, and paganism.

A time of exile, of withdrawing away, can be an exciting time of self-discovery, as one listens out for the voice of the Lord. It is a time of pruning and preparation. The ground is furrowed and excavated; the seeds are made ready in their sowing and planting. Whatever is unnecessary or detrimental is weeded out. Sounds familiar?

COVID-19 represents a modern exile on our part. We have been removed from the sacramental presence of the Lord. While the Lord is for sure, working behind the scenes, it is an exceptional time of Grace for us in the Church. For the first time, in a very long time in the Church, we are asked to encounter  Christ in a manner similar to the Early Church. The early Christians were persecuted and lived out their faith in the hidden arenas of the home and the catacombs. As Scott Hahn says, “The Church is not empty, we have been deployed.” We have been deployed to be the Church in our domestic spheres. This time, is a time of powerful encounter, where new ways of evangelisation are being explored, as cyberspace is sanctified by the livestreaming of prayers and the Eucharistic Celebration.

We, the Faithful are exhorted to live the faith of the Centurion – that the Lord who transcends Physics, space, and time, can minister to us and we will be healed if only He commands it.

This time of withdrawing from the world, may just be what we need, to encounter the Lord is a fresh outpouring of His love.

Perhaps, this exile needs a paradigm shift.

There is a need to re-frame this exile. It is not a withdrawal by force into the wilderness, but it is a joyful choice to retreat into solitude. In Luke 4: 42, we read, “At daybreak Jesus went to a solitary place,” and again in Mark 6: 31, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Our exile is thus this solitary place. In this stillness, is the Upper Room where we, like the disciples, are waiting for the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated to the outskirts of the cities and into the Deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine to think through the meaning of the change that the world was encountering during that time and to find a different way of being a Christian in the world. Paradoxically, many people came to them for spiritual guidance, help and instruction so that within 50 years, eyewitness accounts reported that the population of the desert equalled that of the towns. This was the work of the Lord. In strategically, retreating from the world, the Lord gifted with new ways of helping His people.

This exile is precisely that invitation to an interior monasticism. A time to cease the busy-ness of our normal routines and actions, to contemplate the mystery of God in the silence, to re-think our place as Christians.

Sources: The Didache Bible, Understanding Desert Monasticism

By Brian Bartholomew Tan