How do Catholics engage Holy Week in a Covid-19 pandemic without the lifeblood of grace, the sacraments? Perhaps it’s not in more online everything. A spiritual master from 400 years ago taught us how to not let this pandemic spiritually kill us.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
Two weeks ago, I ran into an old friend and former guest at our Catholic Worker, in front of a grocery store. Waiting for it to open, I asked how he was doing. He spoke slowly: “I don’t know. I got my diabetes, you know — high risk, so I’m staying home all the time. The free community meals aren’t going this week, and I guess I can manage a bit for food, but…I don’t know. I miss everyone. All this being alone, waiting to get sick. It’s horrible. I think I’d rather die than live like this.” I invited him to our house, but we’re not 100% safe. I invited him to call us whenever he wanted. But in the end, struggling myself, I didn’t know what to say. This dancing, invisible, deadly illness has caught me flatfooted.
How do we live like this? How do we live in a period when most people do not have access to the lifeblood of grace, the sacraments instituted by Christ himself? Especially when, arguably, we rarely have been in greater need? September 11th was horrifying — and we went to Church. Pearl Harbor was attacked — and we went to Church. The Great Depression caused many to despair to the point of suicide — and we went to Church. When we have a current reality that has the shock and disorientation of all of these major events, and we cannot receive the Eucharist without endangering the wider public, what can we do?
Then I remembered another old friend: Fr. Jean Pierre De Caussade, S.J. (1675–1751).
De Caussade’s only spiritual work, usually titled Abandonment to Divine Providence, holds a key insight for us in this strange time. And that is that God’s will is to be found in this very moment: this present particularity holds not only God’s presence, but also God’s will, for our lives.
We have to be careful, because de Caussade does not argue that this pandemic was sent to us as the direct will of God. As we know, illness and death were not created by God, but entered the world through the fissure created by original sin. He allows that foretold consequence of the original sin to stand, and that is the tragedy and grief of this fallen existence. But this same existence has also been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The finality of death has been conquered by the cross, its wood shaping for us a new door to life with the Father. This pandemic, and all the physical, economic, mental, and spiritual suffering that surrounds us in it, is part of what God grieves yet allows in the present moment.
This is painful, potent teaching. But de Caussade brings in the good news: the present moment of pandemic life is where we encounter the full grace of God. In fact, it is the only place where we encounter the full grace of God. The present moment is the only time we can yield our will to God’s will.
…the present moment of pandemic life is where we encounter the full grace of God. In fact, it is the only place where we encounter the full grace of God. The present moment is the only time we can yield our will to God’s will.
Why is this so important? God is beyond all time and space, and certainly not bound to the present moment. Yet in a certain way, we are. We are creatures, loved into infinity. But we experience God in the now, the present, because we are bodied creatures that live in time. Even in that glimpse into eternity that is the Mass — we stand, sit, kneel, anchored in one time and place by God’s gracious will. We can only actively yield to God’s grace where we are.
We need to remember our opportunity to conform our will to God’s will in the present moment, because when the present is difficult, it is far too easy to indulge in escape. Fr. Stephen Rossetti (When the Lion Roars: A Primer for the Unsuspecting Mystic) notes that psychologically, most of us live in the past — taking pleasure in it, ruminating on it, licking its wounds like a cat — or we flip to living in the future, dreaming of an easier life, an accomplishment, embellished hopes. Both moves can be motivated by escapism and control. While it is fine to understand the past and hope for the future, we must spend most of our time living where we are, in the present. And if we do not attend to what God has allowed to be present in our lives — we miss the grace of God that comes with discerning his presence in darkness, and yielding to his will in hard places. Escaping the present is very tempting. I’ve spent too many hours wishing it was a month ago, and dreaming about a familiar future. But escaping the present can spiritually kill us.
…if we do not attend to what God has allowed to be present in our lives — we miss the grace of God that comes with discerning his presence in darkness, and yielding to his will in hard places.
How do we embrace the sacrament of this present moment, without the sacraments? De Caussade gives us hints, as does Holy Week itself.
We have to embrace the reality of the new daily. That may be frightening, but God is there to help us stand before it. If living in a reality that underlines we each can die this week — or inadvertently do something this week that results in another’s death — doesn’t lead us to turn to the Lord, I don’t know what will. Let’s stop pretending that putting everything online will make everything business as usual. For most of us, the current reality crushes the assumed security of our lives.
However, the present moment for most of us is not facing death through Covid-19. It is worry about being laid off, and no one hiring. It is anxiety about caring for children, and often teaching them, while you are somehow working full time. It is not being able to visit your elderly relatives. It is postponing your wedding. It is living in close quarters in high stress. It is live-streaming a friend’s funeral. It is not being able to leave a threatening situation. It’s about not going to college next year and working for your family instead. It’s about not being able to go outside, and porn is waiting for you two clicks away. It is about overwhelming loneliness in a world where no one calls, and words on a screen are cheap. God, help us all. But here is the good news, according to de Caussade: The Lord of Life is right here, in that, and offers you himself. He is greater than all these horrid realities. Our salvation story lies in responding to Christ in this global and personal crisis. If you allow yourself to be present to these realities — addressing what you can, and standing firmly before what you cannot — you yield to the will of God in the present moment, and the only One who can bring good out of this evil.
The greatest teacher, as always, is Jesus Christ. Hours before his death, at the last supper, Jesus looks at the twelve and says “You will all become deserters,” (Mark 14:27, NRSV) or as some translations have it, “run away.” Peter retorts that of course he would not desert him. And we know how that ends.
This week, we are directly in front of an arrest from our known reality, and a crucifixion. Let’s take the Lord and his servant, Fr. Jean Pierre, as spiritual guides and not run away from it. This is what I would will tell my friend who doesn’t know how to live like this: The Lord is pouring out the grace we need if we accept God has a plan for us right here, staying still and giving ourselves to the Lord in this present moment. Our isolation rooms will become spiritual altars of repose. If we surrender to the sacrament of the present moment, and open our hands and souls to receive, it may just become the Holy Week of our lives.