Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (B)
January 4, 2021
A virtual Life in the Spirit experience
January 4, 2021

Re-entering our caves

By Fr Donald Chambers

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” (Joseph Campbell, US professor of literature)

Caves are naturally dark, scary, and rarely explored. For this reason, pirates often hid their treasures in caves, knowing of its inhospitable environment.

The metaphor of the cave appropriately captures the human response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the overwhelming fear that the pandemic generated, many failed to embrace it and employed unhealthy practices in an attempt to survive.

Persons living alone, such as myself, experienced the fear of isolation and loneliness. Families and communities feared the confined physical space within which they were forced to work, live, and study. In the wider society, there was the fear of losing the opportunities for public socialising and the right to free movement.

Unable to face these fears, some rebelled against the laws of restriction, others accused the authorities of being unfair and unreasonable, some engaged in a blame game and complained, while others resorted to unhealthy and addictive behaviour to numb the pain.

Author Brené Brown describes this behaviour as the ‘vulnerable armoury’, that is, the investment in heavy and thick self-protective behaviour. This type of behaviour means that we use our thoughts, emotions and behaviours as weapons and protective gear to avoid the fears.

In the end, however, these armours simply enhance the false self that convinces us that the world revolves around us (Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister).  Like small children deprived of the centre of attention, we rant, rave, and rage to compete for self-attention.

As with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–34) when Jesus asked the question, “what matters are you speaking about as you walk along?” we are being invited to enter this dark, scary, and infrequently explored reality to face our fears and experience our vulnerability.

Paradoxically, an encounter with our fears and vulnerability is not weakness but strength. St Paul reminds us, “It’s when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

When we enter the cave of the pandemic and face our fears, there is an invitation to gradually strip away the layers of the false self until we reach the core of the true self. “The true self has no secrets from itself and harbors no notions of being the center of the universe. . .” (Chittister).

When we off-load our emotions of fear and admit to our dependence on our armoury, we create opportunities to listen to the wisdom lessons of the ages that teaches about human limitations and ways to develop reliance on God, the Centre of the universe.

In the Lucan story, when the two disciples lay down their armour, they were able to recognise Jesus and experience the intimacy of His friendship. In the wisdom of Jim Stockdale: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end. . . with the discipline to confront brutal facts of your current reality. . .”

With Jesus’ accompaniment, the two disciples entered, navigated the twists and turns of the cave, and emerged transformed, because only the true self can recognise the Treasure in our midst.

Brené Brown also reminds us that the ultimate goal of entering the cave is not to go for our own treasure, but to serve others. Service is built on trusting relationships, and these relationships are formed from the true self.

Jesus had a profound impact on the two disciples as a result of the trusting relationship which He had initiated with them. This relationship unveiled His own vulnerability (suffering and death), and God’s intervention through the resurrection.

Jesus’ self-revelation paved the way for them to face their own vulnerabilities, turn to Christ for the source of strength, and to return to Jerusalem re-energised and renewed for mission.

In addition to the Scriptures, I believe that our Caribbean novelists have also given us a blueprint for navigating the caves of our painful history. In The Autobiography of my Mother, Jamaica Kincaid’s protagonist, Xuela, puts on her ‘vulnerable armoury’ and reveals the issues of love, fear, loneliness, isolation and loss in the same Caribbean setting of our postcolonial reality.

At the age of 70, the reflective Xuela examines the relationships that have given meaning to her existence, removes the ‘armour’ and achieves self-actualisation. Similarly, Earl Lovelace’s The Wine of Astonishment explores the fear and isolation experienced by the Spiritual Baptist community in Trinidad from the passing of the Prohibition Ordinance in 1917 to its lifting in 1951. Despite being denied religious freedom, the community enters their cave, confronts their fear, and ultimately found the courage to triumph.

As Caribbean people, the experience of fear of loss and vulnerability which we encounter in the pandemic is not new to us. What is new is our acquired wealth and social status that we have used to create an extravagant false self.

Like Xuela, we need to reflect on our past, embrace our fears, and discover our true Caribbean self.

Perhaps, the mission of the Caribbean Church is to accompany us in this reflection, this entrance into the cave, so that we can recover our true self in relation to God, who is constantly accompanying us on that painful journey towards Caribbean authenticity.


Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.