Fr Larry Kaufmann: What Lockup Taught Me for Lockdown
Back in 1986, Fr Larry Kaufmann CSsR was detained by the apartheid security police. That experience of lockup found echoes 34 years later in the Covid-19 lockdown.
Sometimes these days of lock-down remind me of lockup, in 1986 to be precise, when with
20 000 other anti-apartheid thinkers and activists I was, like Paul and Silas “thrown into prison” (Acts 16).
The emotional and psychological responses of lockup and the lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic are strikingly similar.
Indefinite detention left one with a sense of wallowing in limbo, not knowing the date of release.
One of the warders even said— perhaps in a moment of indiscretion, or perhaps primed by the security branch to feed into our cloud of unknowing—”It’s harder for you guys. At least the criminals know the date for their release.”
The current pandemic puts us all into a kind of indefinite detention, not knowing when this will all end.
Then there is the sense of grief—grief at the loss of so many things.
During hard lockdown and for many beyond that, there was no human contact with loved ones, no freedom of movement, no Eucharist, no outdoors, no comfort food.
There is a real feeling of grief these days, not only for the thousands killed, but for all our losses.
I still find myself drawing comparisons, inviting my detention experience of 1986 to inform present realities—not least the self-isolation we over-60s are encouraged to continue, whatever the lock-down level.
Empathy in detention
There were 27 of us in detention in the ‘80s. Each one had his down-days, leading others immediately to carry, support and encourage him.
Grief and self-pity gave way to empathy. Long live empathy for these days too!
“Late that night Paul and Silas were praying…”
Praying was difficult, until one learned to pray in context. Not business-as-usual prayer, but one more grounded in reality, leading to prayer of abandonment to God, prayer of surrender to the Spirit praying within, and prayer of intercession for one’s fellow inmates and wider.
Most of all, praying the Psalms, like these verses:
I thank you for your faithfulness and love…
On the day I called, you answered…
You stretch out your hand… You increase the strength of my soul.
One day, for me personally, prayer actually demanded something more honest.
The group was made up of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, a Jew and agnostics.
One afternoon, just before locking of cells, they asked me, as a Catholic priest. to lead a prayer service next day. Unthinkingly I agreed, priestly identity and all that jazz.
I had a long time to prepare, from 4pm when the last of the day’s keys clanged in the metal cell door to when they were opened again the next morning at 8.
After ablutions and the daily tin bowl of mealiemeal porridge—eaten seated on the corridor floor—we gathered in the one general space available to us. It was not really a courtyard, just an area at the end of the corridor for hanging out washing. Over to you, Larry!
I did a Scripture reading (I forget which, this was 34 years ago). And then I was supposed to give a good old encouraging and enlightening talk followed by a prayer.
But I told the group that I was lost for words, that I found if difficult to pray, that I felt a terrible sense of the absence of God, that all sorts of doubts of faith were imposing themselves on me.
I said I would be a hypocrite if I just let rip with some superficial thoughts and a one-size-fits-all prayer. Instead, I asked, would they join me in a moment of silence.
There was an awkward pause, and then one of my companions, AS Chetty, a Hindu, said: “I never thought I would hear a Catholic
priest have the honesty and humility to admit his doubts. This is the best prayer he could have prayed. I feel the same. He’s right, let’s just keep silence, and let our honest silence be the best prayer we can make to God.”
The fruits of mindfulness
Providentially not long before I was detained, I had done a nine-day’s silence at the Buddhist retreat near Ixopo.
A central teaching of this tradition is mindfulness, which has a lot of currency these days. At the heart of it, for me at least, is that we give everything we say, think and do its due dignity.
Mostly we do things reflexively and unthinkingly. We spend much of our lives on autopilot.
Consider, for example, how you wash dishes. Tell me you don’t rush through the cutlery. “Well, it’s so small and there’s so much of it. No ways am I going to wash one spoon, one fork, one knife at a time—least of all lovingly and mindfully!” Similar attitudes creep into preparing food and a hundred and one other things we do.
The discipline and the spirit of mindfulness breaks that mould.
Back to my prison cell, where we spent 14 hours a day locked up. But even when the doors were opened, there were duties to be performed, mainly cleaning it.
The floor space was 3x3m, made of beige linoleum tiles, each about 30x30cm. I remember there were 95 complete tiles, the five missing ones taken by our en suite seatless stainless-steel toilet.
When it was my turn to do the floor, I would mindfully put a little Handy Andy into the basin, mindfully pour water in, and— yes, you guessed it—mindfully wash one tile at a time, giving it the attention and the dignity that was its due.
No, I’m not dof. Mindfulness is a discipline, a concerted effort at being present in where you are, and what you are doing there and then.
And so that floor became holy ground, the sort of ground where Moses removed his shoes respectfully.
If this time of coronavirus can teach us anything, it would be to slow down, to cultivate more focused conscious awareness, to be more mindful.
There’s no end to the reminder of the need to wash hands for 20 seconds. Mindfulness would demand that we go further: that we focus on each part of the hand as we do it, giving it the dignity that is its due: thumb and each finger, palm, wrist and the back of the hand.
If you’re a Catholic used to this sort of thing, and even if you’re not, why not bless yourself afterwards, using hands to make the sign of the cross, thereby extending mindfulness of hands to your whole body?
God knows our vulnerable bodies need blessings and protection in this dangerous time!
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