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On Distance, Belonging, Isolation and the Quarantined Church of Today (Reading Augustine) by Pablo Irizar

14 October 2022

Edward Dowler is not fully convinced by an Augustinian argument

I HAVE often thought over the past two years that if somebody — the devil, for example — had sought to devise a series of measures that would deliberately undermine, weaken, and eviscerate the life of the Church, it would have been difficult for him to improve on the Covid-19 restrictions.

In this short, but densely argued and, at times, quite technical work, Pablo Irizar, lecturer in Catholic Studies at McGill University, explores the situation from a different perspective.

Basing his argument throughout on the work of St Augustine of Hippo, Irizar argues that human beings exist in a state of otherness and alienation. Even when we are physically together, we find ourselves cut off from one another and, as Augustine puts it in his Confessions, each of us is a question even to ourselves.

True belonging (Irizar often writes it “be-longing”) eschews an easy resolution to this fundamental human condition: the experience of “alterity (otherness) is part of identity”. Unity with one another and within ourselves comes when we accept the interplay between otherness and sameness. Thus, togetherness in the Church is achieved in and through our difference from one another as well as our sameness. Moreover, the Church is constituted through invisible bonds, not just through physical gathering. Ultimately, this mirrors God himself: “human alterity . . . is a vestige of the divine Trinitarian alterity.”

Thus, some of the measures that were put in place to combat the virus, instead of undermining corporate life in Christ, actually serve to emphasise key aspects of the human condition. For example, he writes that “social distancing is a reminder of what it means to belong and of the place of belonging in unravelling the enigma of human identity.” In conditions of quarantine and enforced isolation, the Church is able to model a paradigm of relationship that can thrive, irrespective of physical absence. Indeed, ecclesial life in a world-wide Church demonstrates that it is possible to belong to one another at a distance.

Ultimately, in conditions in which we are separated, we must remember that it is Christ himself who holds us together. Irizar explores Augustine’s recurrent insight in his expositions of the Psalms that the psalms themselves generate belonging within the Church. In the psalms, we hear Christ’s voice speaking even before the incarnation, and his voice is one that the Church recognises as its own: as we say the psalms, our voice, becomes as it were tuned with that of Christ.

Thus, more fundamental than any physical togetherness that we might enjoy with one another, the voice of Christ unifies and draws us together even when we are physically separated. In the united life of Christ and of his body the Church, “all of suffering converges in the redemptive plan of salvation.” And it is this that the pandemic and surrounding restrictions have given us a chance more fully to discover and appreciate.

Some will be glad to find a book that asks fundamental questions about the nature of the Church of Jesus Christ in these times which rises above the familiar response of repeating government mantras such as “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”

In the opinion of this reviewer, Irizar’s argument is not only a touch obscure, but also a little too ingenious. Augustine’s expositions of the psalms were, for the most part, sermons delivered to his congregation in Hippo. He preached them in circumstances of intense physical proximity in a hot and crowded church. “From the stench in the building,” he tells them at one point, “I surmise that I have given you rather a long sermon.”

For sure, the central message is that they belong to Christ and his Catholic Church, extended invisibly throughout the world. But the context and starting point for such teaching is the bishop gathered together with his people in physical time and space around the altar of the Lord.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

On Distance, Belonging, Isolation and the Quarantined Church of Today (Reading Augustine)
Pablo Irizar
Bloomsbury £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.49

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