Face masks – a spiritual undertaking?

Many of us are struggling with the use of face coverings, but Andy Bryant suggests that the act of wearing them can have a spiritual significance.

From next Sunday church-goers will face one less choice. The decision about whether to mask or not to mask has been resolved.  From August 8 masks will be required for all worshippers.
I am not a fan of masks and fervently hope and pray they will not become a permanent feature of life in this country.  But for now, I accept they are deemed to be helpful.
We should not underestimate the enormity of what we are being asked to do.  Our faces are such an important part of who we are and how we relate.  They are one of the ways we identify each other.  With their lumps and bumps, wrinkles and scars, our faces are part of our story. 
The face is also a vital part of human communication.  To see the other’s face aids and sharpens our communication.  The shaping of the mouth, the wrinkling of the nose, the colour of the cheeks (and ears), the shaping of the eyes and the wrinkling of the forehead, all give out vital signals.  And to one extent or another we all rely on lip reading to aid communication.
Covering up the face creates distance; it makes communication harder and risks misunderstandings.  To cover one’s face hints of hiding.  It is another thing that separates us at a time when there are already so many things keeping us apart.  For now, they may be required but for them to become a permanent feature would be deeply damaging to human relationships, the building up of a sense community and the health of an open society.
So, in these strangest of strange times this is another strange thing we must do.  As we wear this new garment may it be for each of us not just a health precaution but also a spiritual undertaking.  May each wearing of a face covering become an act of penance, of remembering and of intercession.
The wearing of the mask is a very visible symbol of this pandemic which, at least in part, has come about because of our poor stewardship of God’s creation.  We have over-reached ourselves, over-exploited the planet, and in doing so have exposed ourselves to new viruses.  We have arrogantly assumed that we were in charge of the planet and there was no limit to what we could achieve. 
As we see the devastation the pandemic is having across the globe, we need a sense of penitence.  We need to recognise that we have failed in our stewardship of God’s creation, and that there is a need for the amendment of our lives.  Each time we put on our mask we should acknowledge how far we have strayed from God’s intention for creation.  Just as the Bible speaks of wearing sackcloth and ashes so in our time the face covering has undertones of penance.
Each time we wear a mask, and feel that it is slightly uncomfortable to breathe, we need to remember all those who have struggled for breath as a result of Covid-19.  We need to remember those who are currently fighting this virus, those who have been left with long-term scarring although recovered from Covid-19, and those who have lost loved ones to this virus. 
As our focus turns to the lifting of the lockdown, and the return to some semblance of normality, we need to remember all those whose lives (and indeed livelihoods) have been changed for ever by the pandemic, those for whom there can be no returning to the way things once were. 
Too many lives have been changed and each donning of a mask should be a moment of remembering, an ensuring we do not forget. Even as the people of God were urged not to forget their time in Egypt and in the Wilderness so too we must not grow forgetful.
And, if you start to feel a little hot under your mask, or when you take it off you see its marks still on your face, then make that a moment of intercession.  Throughout this pandemic and still across the NHS and Care sector staff spend the whole day in PPE – and full PPE is far more demanding to wear than just a mask. 
It is because of their commitment and dedication, even through the very worst of times, that many have survived Covid-19.  And it was their stamina and sheer grit that meant that those who lost their battle with the virus, even if separated from their loved ones, were still surrounded with love and care. They need our prayers to sustain, protect and uphold them in their challenging work. The mask is another form of wearing a prayer shawl; it is our ephod of intercession.
Each putting on, and taking off, of a face covering or mask can be a moment of spiritual encounter, an act of penance, of remembering and of intercession.  Our journey through this pandemic is not just a health crisis, it is also a spiritual journey.  We are being asked profound questions about who we are and who we will be for each other.  We can just put on a face mask for our own protection or we can also let it be a spiritual exercise that takes us beyond ourselves to an encounter with the other, and with God.
Although for now we must cover up, spiritually now is the moment when we must once again open up ourselves to others, and to God, in penitence, in remembrance, in intercession.
The photo is courtesy of SJ Objio on Unsplash.com

Andrew BryantCFThe Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.

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