Finding beauty—and God’s grace—in self-isolation

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A white stallion grazes just outside our cabin on a clear winter morning in 2017. Photo: Matthew Townsend

Almost three years ago now, my partner and I left our home in Rochester, New York, and set off on a somewhat bizarre tour of the western hemisphere. I started alone in Cuba, as a journalist on a short educational cruise; about a month after, we boarded a flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. Our travels continued for almost a year and included a relatively odd mix of destinations: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Sisseton, South Dakota; and Quebec City. Moving between hemispheres, we spent nearly a year in endless winter before arriving in Halifax, our final destination, in April 2018.

Perhaps the most exciting part of our journey was its beginning: Kate and I spent more than two months in Uruguay. We had travelled together before, to Europe, but had never spent so much time together in a foreign land. We had income, so we weren’t backpackers—I was news editor of The Living Church at the time, so I leveraged our travels to write about the church’s life in far-flung places (at least, by Anglican standards). Much of our time, though, was spent exploring, praying and considering God’s call for us both.

We spent our first month in Montevideo, where I got to know Bishop Michele Pollesel, former general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, shortly before his retirement. We connected with a few Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the incredibly secular city—a place that seemed a few steps ahead of Canada in terms of declining church attendance, though faithful people still gathered for worship—before heading for a weekend trip to Argentina. There, we met briefly with Archbishop Gregory Venables and worshipped with evangelical Anglicans in Martínez, a suburb of Buenos Aires. A few days after, we returned to Uruguay and began what would be the quietest, most isolated month of our lives thus far.

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Not far from the Brazil-Uruguay border, the ocean village of Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, is known as one of Uruguay’s quieter tourist destinations. Further down the coast towards Montevideo is Punta del Este, an opulent enclave that has been compared to Monte Carlo— condos, casinos, swanky restaurants and high fashion. Punta del Diablo (Devil’s Point) is really a large collection of quirky cabins and long stretches of beach.

In the South American summer, the village bustles with tourists from all over. In the winter—and we were there deep in winter—it’s really just the fishermen, the grocers and the chef who operates the one non-seasonal café. Hours are limited, activities virtually non-existent. So is English.

The little cabaña. Photo: Facebook/Cabañas Jardines del Diablo

Kate and I stayed in a small cabin we found on Airbnb—one of three properties owned by Geronimo from Barcelona. We saw Gero every few days, exchanging a word here and there. We discussed market prices with the local greengrocer (one of two), once becoming excited by an exchange in which we didn’t know the Spanish word for “bay leaves” and negotiated language barriers to finally realize it was simply “laurel.” The grocer said his friend had a laurel tree and asked if we would like him to cut off a fresh branch. (Yes, please.) One morning, the fishermen were able to sail, and we discussed the finer points of ceviche and woodfired grilling as they gutted our dinner. We took a single weekend trip to Punta del Este to take the International English Language Testing System exam, required for immigration to Canada. Two others took the exam with us, and three proctors were present. We chatted a bit.

For the most part, it was a lonely time. When I wasn’t writing and Kate wasn’t reading, we spent our time cooking, walking, biking, lighting fires and sometimes praying. Almost all of our time was spent together. We became so sick of one another, after a fashion, that we experimented with various Benedictine rules and structures, including silent days in which we communicated only nonverbally, and very little at all. (I talk too much, so this was definitely of great benefit to Kate and a great struggle for me.) There weren’t really church options nearby. Yes, we did see a few people, now and then—though most of them at a distance of two metres, at least. We were in what felt like a deep kind of self-isolation, quite socially distant. By the end of it, we were ready to be around people again.

A seaside shrine near Punta del Diabo. Photo: Matthew Townsend

Yet we also look back on that isolated month as one of the best and most beautiful in our lives. The beauty was, at times, utterly overwhelming. At one point, as I worked very intently on something, Kate called my attention to the front window of our cabaña. With irritation in my voice, I asked why. “Because there’s a white stallion roaming in our front yard.”

Or the walk we took in which we realized the cold beach might stretch into infinity, as we looked upon a sea that stopped at Antarctica. Or the bike ride through a forest where we encountered a herd of cattle, complete with intimidating bull, meandering freely in our path. Or the hike along the rocks in which we found a shrine to the Virgin Mary—or was it Yemọja, or both?

It was a lonely time, but it was a special time. We learned much from it.

I don’t know what this period of isolation holds for Kate and me, holds for us all. But I do know that God’s grace knows no limits, and that we can be visited by beauty, hope and joy even in isolated, frightening circumstances. One silver lining for me: in the last two weeks, I’ve seen the sunrise every day.

If you’re in self-isolation now, what will you see when you look up? What beauty might be passing by? What might God be showing you?

I’d love to hear from you.

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In the coming days and weeks, the Anglican Journal will be ramping up our coverage to help each of us learn more about how the church is responding to COVID-19—and to offer reflections and ideas for understanding the pandemic through a Christian lens. More is to come.

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Matthew Townsend
Matthew Townsend has worked in editorial, journalistic, and web development roles with a variety of organizations, including the The Living Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, NY, and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He is a member of Episcopal Communicators and has consulted with a variety of ecumenical organizations, including Atlantic School of Theology, the Presbyterian Endowment Network, and the Associated Church Press.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for trying to express a great spiritual truth in these words : ‘we can be visited by beauty, hope and joy even in isolated, frightening circumstances’ The most isolated, frightening circumstance that I recall in my life was the ‘night times of war days’ spent in the Anglican Mission House of the Church of Christ The Compassionate in Nugelanda , Sri Lanka in early 1990’s. Nugelanda is a tiny village situated in the Tamil – Sinhala border area in the eastern province of Srilanka. Tamil militants (LTTE) ruled one side of the border(Tamil colonies) and the State forces ruled the other (Sinhala colonies). Our little church was located right in the border and we were often caught up amidst the fights of the two sides. Daytime belonged mostly to the civilians but the nights were terrific when the armed gangs from both sides comes out and roam around in search of the enemy of the other side to kill and destroy. We had to keep vigilant at nights taking turns to sleep and rest until the night is over. Fear dispels when the day dawns. I remember how we experienced beauty, hope and joy with the rising sun when a New Day dawns to Nugelanda…….

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