A woman observes from her window as men line up at a food distribution in the Kwa Mai Mai area of the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
A woman observes from her window as men line up at a food distribution in the Kwa Mai Mai area of the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

It reads like the plot of a science-fiction novel that isn’t trying too hard. After a year in space, three astronauts return to a world changed dramatically by a killer virus that didn’t exist when they blasted off.

Except this really did happen, when Oleg Skripochka, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan landed in Kazakhstan on April 17. Though not quite the full year that fiction would demand, Skripochka and Meir had spent 205 days in space and Morgan 272.

It must be a strange feeling, the realisation that so much can change, so dramatically, in just a few months.

Meir, in interviews with NBC, Vanity Fair and others, said: "It’s just so different, because you’re not used to being isolated on Earth … That’s not the way our society is built. So, to me, this is a lot more difficult to deal with, particularly after being gone for so long."

She also described the moment of returning to Earth. "The strange part was, the hatch opens and there are these rescue teams there, all wearing masks — and suddenly we’re part of this brave new world of Covid-19. If you think about it, all 7.5-billion people on the planet have been affected by this in some way. And for that time being up there, we were the only three humans not affected by it."

You’ll read a lot of commentary about what life after the pandemic might be like. Some will try to work out where the economy will end up, and in what state. Others will speak of sociocultural changes, such as a shift from our apparently innate urge to cluster at large gatherings like music concerts or sports events.

Some governments will emerge with a firmer mandate from their citizens, while others suffer because of the way they mismanaged their response, or because of the perception of mismanagement. Civil society itself will either be enlivened or enervated.

We already know that a lot of what we took for granted will disappear. Hundreds of restaurants and small businesses seem to be doomed. Many of the people who create the cultural artefacts that make life worth living, those sources of meaning that we call songs, books, movies and art, will not survive the disruption.

So while there are many visionaries, analysts and hucksters considering what the structural elements of our post-pandemic life will look like, I’d like to ponder a more philosophical response, sparked by the tale of the returning cosmonauts. How will our understanding of time, of the notion of a before and after, affect the way we live in the world that’s coming?

Generally, the ebb and flow of a society’s life is relatively seamless. Sure, our personal immersion in that flow is marked by individual milestones that can sometimes be shared by communities, groups or other social structures. Sometimes we get a greater societal buy-in (success at a Rugby World Cup, for example), at other times less (success at a Rugby World Cup — and, yes, in our odd, fractured little country, that’s the same example).

One of the earliest forms of Christian monasticism was the life led by anchorites and anchoresses. An introduction to a modern edition of the Ancrene Wisse, an anchorite book of instruction written some time between 1225 and 1240, describes it. "Medieval anchorites, as strange as it may seem to us, sought to withdraw so radically from the world that they had themselves sealed into cells for life. Anchorites withdrew from the world not only to avoid physical temptation, but to engage in the kind of spiritual warfare practised by desert saints like St Anthony (the founder of Western monasticism), who around 285 AD wandered into the Egyptian desert searching for God through complete solitude and who attempted to tame the wickedness of the body with physical suffering and discipline."

When they were sealed into their little cells, anchorites were given a religious rite of consecration akin to funeral rites, because they were basically considered dead. You probably felt that same sick thrill of finality when you realised your Mr D app wasn’t working during lockdown.

And they really were very tiny cells. One is described in "This Place is Pryson", an excellent essay by Mary Wellesley in the London Review of Books. "The cell was the size of a large cupboard. There wasn’t enough room to lie down … What light there was came through the ‘squint’ — the small window that looked onto the sanctuary. It was a cruciform shape and through it I could see a single candle standing on the altar … In front of the squint was an oak shelf with a dark circle on its edge where the wood had been rubbed smooth. Above it was a notice that read: ‘Please put nothing on the ancient sill. This was the prayer-desk of the anchorites for several centuries.’ I knelt in front of it. If the floor had been at the same height in the medieval period, the desk would have been too high for an anchorite to rest their elbows on. Had the indentation been made by pairs of hands gripping the edge of the ledge? I wondered at those pairs of hands. This cell had been a coffin to its inhabitants — once inside, they were never to come out. They may have been buried beneath my feet, in this tiny anchorhold in the church of St Nicholas."

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the life of a mediaeval anchorite might have to do with life after the pandemic.

Like those astronauts, we’ve been subjected to an abrupt disjuncture that’s given many people the opportunity to take stock of their lives from a position akin to being outside, looking in. (This probably doesn’t apply to those who are more concerned about whether they’ll eat tomorrow, of course. But let’s acknowledge that I’m writing this for a different demographic.)

For the anchorites, and hermits in general, we are told that "the lure of desert spirituality lay in its promise of recapturing paradise and restoring fallen human bodies to their Edenic state. The bodies of Adam and Eve … had acted like a finely tuned engine, capable of ‘idling’ indefinitely. It was only the twisted will of fallen men that had crammed the body with unnecessary [appetites]. In reducing the intake to which he had become accustomed, the ascetic slowly remade his body … Its drastic physical changes, after years of ascetic discipline, registered … the long return of the human person, body and soul together, to an original, natural and uncorrupted state."

I’m not deluded enough to think the coronavirus is a cleansing plague sent by some malevolent god, though that would be fun. But the hiatus between life before the virus and life after it will inevitably mean that many of us are going to see the world afresh, especially our way of being in the world.

We don’t have many accounts by anchorites who came back into the world — they tended to die in their cells, apparently. But we do have one: Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. (Julian was a woman, but is named after the church of St Julian, in which she was enclosed.)

Wellesley describes it: "Given the privation of the anchoritic life, it is strikingly hopeful, almost radically so. Its most famous line — ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ — encapsulates her generous vision of God’s love."

In a letter to the anchorite Eve of Wilton, the 11th-century monk Goscelin of St Bertin exclaims: "‘My cell is so narrow,’ you may say, but oh, how wide is the sky!"

When Vanity Fair asked astronaut Meir what plans she’d made for when she finally got back home, she said: "It’s funny, though. I did have a plan before, but now that’s gone. Instead of thinking about what I’m going to do and how to reintegrate back into life on Earth, I find myself thinking, when do I get to go back to space?"

It’s this sort of dissonance that might characterise our experience after this pandemic, when we realise that the way we thought about our lives, and what we regarded as normality, has changed drastically and fundamentally. And that we don’t necessarily want to go back to the world as it was before.

  • Roper is deputy CEO of Code for Africa and a columnist for the FM