Dawson cited a University College London study which found that both depression and anxiety levels have fallen as the lockdown has eased.
“You probably would expect people’s reaction to fear to settle down. Part of it’s biologically driven because the adrenaline and cortisol which fires up the system just calms down after a while. So you would expect people to get used to the anxiety and for it to settle. But the absence of depression and the absence of anxiety doesn’t equal flourishing,” he said.
Dawson described his own experience during the crisis as one of “attrition.” He compared it to a four-and-a-half month tour of duty he undertook in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and a five-month stint in the Falkland Islands shortly after the war between Argentina and the U.K. in 1982.
Since he arrived at St. Beuno’s (pronounced “St. Bye-no’s”), he has regularly climbed Snowdonia, the highest mountain in England and Wales.
He said: “For the months of April and May, which were beautiful here, I’ve been able to see those mountains but not go there. So there’s that sense of attrition, of being cut off from things that refill the tanks.”
Missing the sacraments
Dawson said that Catholics faced a specific challenge during the lockdown: the absence of the sacraments. He suggested that for many people this was a “traumatic” experience.
“The thing that I think is so powerful about our sacramental system is that it makes our faith physical and flesh and blood,” he said.
“All of our sacraments are to do with flesh and blood, not just in terms of the Eucharist. It’s another flesh-and-blood person who anoints you. It’s a flesh-and-blood person who speaks the words of absolution. This is the way that our faith is made incarnate. For the faith to be made disincarnate like that I think for many will have been traumatic.”
Yet, he said, this period of deprivation could be an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“The thing about a crisis is that it forces us to rethink things. Any crisis has the potential to reveal deeper truths -- I mean that both spiritually and psychologically. So the challenge is to trust that God is in this with us and to hold on until whatever the graces are that God is going bring out of this are revealed. It’s a long Good Friday and Holy Saturday, though,” he explained.
The impact on children
Dawson said that the lockdown could have an especially detrimental impact on children. A report from the Childhood Trust last month concluded that the pandemic put children at risk of developing serious mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress, with acute challenges for those living in poverty.
“Most of a child’s world is taken up with school and family -- that’s usually 80-90% of most children’s world,” Dawson said.
“Now, when school is taken out of the equation and when you lose access to all of your friends, that’s extraordinarily difficult. I think we can expect this to have both emotional impact and cognitive impact. By that I mean an impact on both cognitive development and in terms of education, and social and emotional consequences. Six months is a long time for a child.”
He said that the crisis had exposed the chasm between the “comfortable” and the “uncomfortable,” and that Catholics should be inspired by Catholic social teaching to challenge the status quo.
Dawson suggested that the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola could also shed light on what people have experienced during the coronavirus crisis. In particular, he highlighted the saint’s teaching about “consolation” and “desolation.”
He said: “Consolation is, classically, marked by increases in faith, hope and love. Typically, there’s energy and joy and life that go with that. Desolation is the reverse: heart-sinking despair, closing in on ourselves, often focusing on ourselves, and decreases of faith, hope and love, feeling less trusting and confident.”
“Now, the thing about consolation is that it normally sounds like a nice feeling, and it often is. But it isn’t always. There’s what Ignatius calls ‘hard consolation,’ which is the consolation of being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing even though it might be really, really tough.”
“So someone could be at the bedside of a friend who’s dying painfully of cancer, but they’re aware that God’s with them, and they’re aware that they’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”
He gave the example of Mary standing at the foot of the cross.
“She didn’t know what the future was, didn’t know what God was up to, but she was with her Son, with God, trusting, faithful, and waiting for the future to reveal itself. Because as Christians we believe that that future will be good and hopeful. That’s the ground for our hope,” he said.
For those who had mainly experienced desolation during the crisis, he said it was important not to blame oneself for it, but rather to learn from it.
“The temptation in desolation is to give up all the other things, so to stop praying, stop your normal religious practices. But you keep faithful to those, trusting that it will pass.”
He also recommended returning to previous sources of consolation, such as friends, family, and nature.
He said he had found consolation in the nature surrounding St. Beuno’s, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lived and studied in 1874-7.
“I’m in an incredibly beautiful environment here at St. Beuno’s, and just simply going out and looking closely at some of the plants in the gardens: it grounds me. These are small instances of consolation which might not radically change my psychological or spiritual state, but it does remind me of the beauty and wonder of creation,” he said.