By John Connolly
Where Do We Stand?
As our lives have become upended by the spread of COVID-19, forcing many of us to stay inside our homes in order to avoid physical contact with others, it’s hard to avoid thinking about how it puts at risk not only the people we love but also the rest of humanity. We do what we can to keep the awareness of this danger at bay by immersing ourselves in our day-to-day concerns, but its effects manifest in the underlying sense of helplessness that so many of us are feeling. A constant preoccupation with death, whether conscious or not, is a product of the virus’s all-encompassing invasion. We may all be in the same proverbial boat, exchanging regretful glances from a distance no smaller than the required six feet, but Emanuel Swedenborg offers us a set of spiritual tools that we can all use to help us through this experience: an acceptance of divine providence, a development of mindfulness, and a relationship with conscience.
Embrace the Divine Embrace
An existential threat engulfs our common reality, making it seemingly impossible for us to find any zone of refuge. But divine providence, whose completeness knows no bounds, promises to make whole what is broken and bend all toward good.
The Lord’s divine providence is universal by virtue of its attention to the smallest details [of the material world and to the smallest details of human prudence], specifically through his having created the universe in such a way that an infinite and eternal process of creation by him could occur in it. . . . The Lord’s divine providence works things out so that what is both evil and false promotes balance, evaluation, and purification, which means that it promotes the union of what is good and true in others. (Divine Providence §§202, 2)
If we put our trust in the divine design, knowing that even those infinitesimal details of reality are covered, we find that we can breathe and move about more freely without worry or self-doubt. We can act from a position of incomparable conviction, and do so in service to the greater cause. This divine security, both infinite and eternal, relieves us of our attachments to the past, gives us an entry toward grounding ourselves in the present, and provides us with newfound purpose toward a hopeful future.
God’s infinity is instilled into angels by the consideration that they can come into the Lord’s presence in a split second, without any intervening space or time, even if they should be at the ends of the universe. A true picture of God’s eternity is instilled by way of the idea that the passing of thousands of years seems like no time to them; it is almost as if they had lived for just a moment. And both concepts come by way of the idea that in their present they have both past and future. For this reason, they do not worry about events that are yet to come. They never think about death but only about life. (Secrets of Heaven §1382)
We may not be angels, but we can still make efforts to quiet the noise that separates us from the here and now. By doing so, we could more effectively do what the immediate situation requires, not only for ourselves but also for those standing beside us. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).
Ground Yourself in the Divine Presence
Accepting that humanity is always in the Lord’s loving grasp may not be easy to do, especially when things get as bad as they are right now. We have the capacity, though, to overcome this difficulty by mindfully locating ourselves within providence’s current—grounding ourselves in the divine present.
As we move through our daily activities, we generally have some amount of outward mindfulness, which we will understand for our purposes here as attention paid to external objects and events. Inward mindfulness, however, is not so readily available. Since this kind of mindfulness relies upon attention directed toward one’s state of being, rather than toward external conditions, its objects of attention are more elusive: our own sensations, thoughts, and feelings. While we might assume that these objects are part of our usual awareness, upon further reflection we should come to see that their presence is really quite fleeting and that we do not always have control over how they affect us. But knowing that these objects are interrelated and that our internal sensory awareness comes from divine goodness should indicate the inherent value in making this inward effort.
All sensory awareness is related to the sense of touch, and it has its origin in and arises from the power of perception. For sensory awareness is nothing else than the external aspect of the power of perception, and the power of perception is nothing else than the internal aspect of sensory awareness. . . . What is more, all sensory awareness and all power of perception . . . are related to one single general and universal sense, namely that of touch. The variants of this—which is what taste, smell, hearing, and sight are—being forms of external sensory awareness are nothing else than different kinds of touch which owe their existence to internal sensory awareness, which is the power of perception. . . . From this it is evident that “feeling” in the internal sense is the inmost and the all of perception. Furthermore all power of perception, which is the internal aspect of sensory awareness, arises out of good, but not out of truth except from good by way of truth. For the Lord’s Divine life flows into good and by way of that good into truth, and in this way gives rise to perception. (Arcana Coelestia §3528)
By paying less attention to external conditions and instead keeping that attention directed toward the source of the power of perception that lies deeper than our individual state of being, we can stay grounded within providence’s ever-present current and in turn become more receptive to a higher understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
We can . . . come into consciousness of [angelic wisdom] through the quiescence of our physical senses, and then through an inflow from above into the spiritual elements of our minds. (Divine Love and Wisdom §257)
The more often we practice inward mindfulness, the more we see how it can bring calm to our ordinarily restless mind and have a cleansing influence on our outward engagement with worldly affairs. Such results can lead to the type of selfless and responsible action that we so desperately need at this time.
In our current climate of self-isolation and social distancing, we are seeing these results come to life in our work on refraining from certain habitual behaviors, taking closer notice of how so many little things we do can have a direct effect on our neighbor. And since we are often worried about what might happen next during this coronavirus outbreak, just think how powerful it would be to let those persistent negative feelings serve as reminders to be more present to ourselves so that we might minimize the things we touch, wash our hands more frequently, respect others’ personal space, and so on. Our days would consist of one mindful moment after another!
Let What’s Right Guide Your Actions
Letting this all-consuming groundedness replace the fear and anxiety that now rules over many of our daily choices results in a sea change not only in our consciousness but also in our conscience. Inward mindfulness inevitably stirs the conscience, or “alertness to what is inside us” (Secrets of Heaven §219), in such a way that we awaken from our typically self-enclosed slumber and start to become more keenly empathetic of others.
Divinity cannot focus on anything but Divinity, and it cannot focus on that anywhere except in what it has created. This is evidenced by the fact that none of us can focus on others except on the basis of what is inwardly our own. If we love others, we look at them from our own love within us. If we are wise, we look at others from our own wisdom within us. It may seem as though others either love us or do not love us, that they are either wise or not, but we see this on the basis of the love and wisdom that is within ourselves. This means that we unite ourselves to them to the extent that they love us the way we love them, or to the extent that their wisdom is like ours. That is how we unite. (Divine Providence §53)
We look at ourselves and in turn at others with fresh eyes; and as a result, a richer sort of collective responsibility begins to take shape.
A community, whether small or large, is more of a neighbor than an individual is, the country is still more of a neighbor, the Lord’s kingdom still more, and the Lord is the neighbor above all. (New Jerusalem §103)
Contemplating our interdependence leads to a remorse not over the past but over how we treat the present, opening us up even more widely to the spiritual nature within us all.
No conscience exists that actually is conscience except one that grows out of charity. Charity—or rather the Lord working through charity—is what creates conscience. What else is conscience but refusing to wrong anyone in any way, that is, doing right by everyone in every way? . . . From this it stands to reason that the spiritual person’s conscience is a gift from the Lord, that it is like a new will, and therefore that the person who has been created anew is supplied with a new will and from this a new intellect. (Secrets of Heaven §§1076, 918)
During this global health crisis, our conscience demands that we hold ourselves accountable for ourselves. Watching over our own behaviors in order to see that we conduct them appropriately is really the best thing we can do for our neighbor.
Charity consists in doing—in being useful, in other words. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we do not feel any delight in charity unless we are being active or useful. As a consequence, the life of charity is a life of usefulness. This is the life found throughout heaven, because the Lord’s kingdom, since it is a realm of mutual love, is a realm of useful activity. (Secrets of Heaven §997)
Let us now operate from “a new will and from . . . a new intellect” so that together we can create “a realm of mutual love.”
John Connolly is the editor at the Swedenborg Foundation.