Stranded in lockdown in a poor district in Santiago, Chile, Liberation theologian Mario Aguilar began to reflect on faith, liberation and how an interreligious theology of the poor might offer a viral response in a time of pandemic. After Pestilence was the result. Here is an extract:
Lord, I am fed up.
Is this what you wanted for us?
Are you walking with us today?
Because we are not walking.
We are stuck inside without permits.
How I long to see you in the streets.
Now four months on my own.
I have taken this time as the desert.
A preparation for what is to come.
As a retreat for the public message
That will follow: You are alive.
You are present in the poor and those who suffer.
Our reliance on prosperity has crushed.
The values of the Gospel of service are here.
Liberation and the social justice of God are here.
I recognise that every day during the pandemic I suffered from fear: fear of being infected, fear of noise, fear of not having a home on return to Scotland, fear of a car salesman who wanted to come and see me, fear of losing my job, and fear of mental health illness.
However, during that fear God was present and I became accustomed to the reality of solitude and loneliness. They were all moments of growth and moments in the presence of God, but with the rational sense that everybody along the corridor was a threat to my health - while I enjoyed a short visit to the local shop I realised how the young were coming closer to me and I ran back to the apartment. We became strangers in our solitude and longed for the companionship that we really did not want to have. We longed for solitude but became aliens to the mere possibility of an individual encounter with God. It was a strange time because there were no witnesses of our journey and when those witnesses arrived, we realised the beauty of being alone. How I longed for such tranquillity in solitude but my senses became sharpened by silence so that I heard every small noise as a threatening and awakening bullet that could hit me in silence. Nobody would know if a sudden lack of oxygen or a stroke or a heart attack were to take place, and so many times I reconciled myself with the possibility of death.
Eternal life was a metaphor previously of something remote but during the pandemic I sensed the sharp claws of the plausibility of death, judgement, heaven and hell. Figures of eternity arrived on the screens and on my thoughts and I discovered who were the new theologians of liberation and of the prophetic voice of Christ. One of them was Felipe Berrios, a Jesuit priest, who lives in the north in one of the many make-shift houses made of rubbish beside a rubbish heap. He was one of the architects of a successful campaign of housing for the poor, and after pressures from the rich he decided to live with the poor in eastern Congo. When he returned, he settled in the north of Chile, and he truly lives like the poor speaking of Christ with his own actions of solidarity with those who are considered rubbish by society. My diary reflects his appearance within the pandemic:
Felipe Berríos in TVN. Sober and warm reflection on the pandemic in La Chimba of Antofagasta. No giving of boxes because maybe somebody needs a sanitary towel rather than beans. Small notepads with a certain amount of money to be spent in a local shop. What is the point of accumulating goods if we are going to die? Critical towards the politicians who are taking decisions and blocking the aid to the people despite the fact that their salaries are millions of pesos, thousands and thousands of US dollars.
My reaction: this has been a learning experience of letting it go – we enter the pandemic with fear of no control and dependency on others. Berríos reminded us that the poor are used to that experience of not having control of their lives. We have lost it.
Today there are very few beds left for intensive care. We are in the hands of God and the action/active God does not help our learning experience because we are waiting without knowing what the next step will be. This is an experience of wisdom. This is an interfaith experience because it is the experience that allow us to grow, not by ourselves. The Way of the Bodhisattva chapter 9 talks about what we can do to acquire wisdom.
Practicing Wisdom 97, ´So, through training the mind, qualities such as compassion, love, and the wisdom realizing emptiness can be developed´.
I was writing my work on the XIV Dalai Lama and I spent weeks reading and commenting on The Way of the Bodhisattva. I realised that within the pandemic our faith was kindled by who we were previously but at the same time we as Christians had the same experience as Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. There were shared experiences in which we returned to our childhood. On the 16th July, the day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, I wondered why there was a bank holiday in Chile within a climate of secularism. Then I realised that even the most violent attackers of the Church were asking the blessings of Our Lady and following the homage to Our Lady in the north where every year thousands of dancers pay homage to Our Lady. Not this year when a Mass online was the pinnacle of the popular celebrations.
On the 31st March together with others I made a promise that had remained confidential until now. On that day I wrote to Eve Parker, one of my former students, and one of the outstanding liberation theologians of a generation informing her that if there was any doubt about my possible death the following should become clear and public:
I came to Chile on 13 March and found myself quickly within closing borders and with my flight back to Amsterdam cancelled as Argentina closed its borders. I started a period of self-isolation that then coincided with a national state of emergency with night curfew and the military on the streets and a quarantine during the rest of the time without any walks or going out. I have not seen my mother or family as I have been on my own at the building of my Foundation together with three happy budgies. Thus, only God knows when there will be the end of this nightmare and actually planes to return to Europe. Apart from the teaching and supervision, the work I do for the Courts has increased because of the lack of experts and I keep a close eye on Vatican affairs. Thus, days are short and busy. Further, I have been involved in a campaign to help Somaliland through the Edna Adan Hospital in Hargeisa, place that does not have any ventilators and no trained personnel for the pandemic.
You are the only one who will know about this: with the lack of ventilators in Chile and my asthmatic condition I will probably need to go into hospital if I get the virus. If so, I have told my doctor that if there is a shortage of ventilators the one allocated to me should be given to a mother with children. If this doesn´t happen God will guide us through. I have priority and privileges because of my education and past family, the poor don´t have it. I would like for one mother to have that ventilator. May God be with all of us! Inshallah!