These days our hearts and minds likely focus on many practical questions, such as: will I contract the novel coronavirus? What about my family and friends, will they be spared? How long will this pandemic last? Will it decrease and then rise up again some months later? Is it really safe to start opening up businesses, churches, travel, etc.? All these kinds of questions are understandable and need to be taken into consideration. At the same time, and as I emphasized in Part One of this reflection, the deeper question that we should keep before us is this: do I recognize Christ in our midst, even in the present suffering and do I allow my life to be guided by God’s loving action?
God is One who always accompanies His people. Sacred Scripture is clear on this point, evident from the first books of the Bible. God never abandons His people, even when they stray far from Him and even choose “other gods,” what in fact are not gods, or better said “dead ends.” At this time I need to ask: what place does God hold in my life? Is God first or much farther down the list of my priorities? How attached am I to worldly pursuits, be they in the realm of wealth, pleasure or self-seeking? Have I placed false gods before me, going against the First Commandment which was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai: you shall not have strange (or false) gods before you?
One of the most important names of Jesus, coming from the Old Testament, is Emmanuel. The best translation of that Hebrew word is: God with us. As hard as we may try to stray from God, ignore God’s message, or even fight against the presence of the living God, we remain defeated, though to our ultimate benefit, for God is always with us. In other words, as the old saying goes, “you can run but you can’t hide” from God.
Francis Thompson (1859 – 1907), the English Catholic poet, who led an incredibly roller-coaster life, in his famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” takes up beautifully this precise point. God is with us, “like it or not,” we might say, and God will have the final word. That is not meant to scare us into “submission” to God’s ways, but is an open invitation from our loving God that we were made for God and our hearts remain restless and unfilled until they truly rest in God, to paraphrase a famous idea of the great Church Father, Saint Augustine of Hippo (lived from 354 to 430), from his Confessions.
In these times we may all feel, to one extent or another, and it’s completely understandable, troubled, perplexed, confused, angry and many other emotions. We want to see what the future holds, how this will all end, but in fact none of us actually knows the answer to that query. What we actually need to do, and it takes time and effort, is to focus on the nearness of God, the fact that we are not alone, even if in isolation, and to hear the voice of God saying gently but surely: “Stay on the path, follow the way I will show you.” And what is the way? The Evangelist Saint John clearly states that Jesus Christ is “The Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Nothing is more consoling than that fact!
Every day at the Office of Lauds, monks and many others who pray the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, recites or sings the “Benedictus,” canticle, that is the prayer of Zachariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist. In that prayer, from the Gospel of Saint Luke, chapter 1, verses 68 to 79, mention is made of having our feet guided, ultimately by God, “into the way of peace.” That does not mean simply an absence of war, however. Rather, peace is about fulfillment, unending happiness found in God’s presence for ever, what we usually call heaven. The Greek word for peace is eirene, or in Hebrew, shalom. These words connote a notion of wholeness, which in turn inspires tranquility, safety and harmony with God. Such a state is part of a living relationship with God, allowing God into one’s life, who is the source of our peace, in heaven and on earth. Saint Paul expresses it thus: “Christ himself is our peace” (Ephesian 2:14). Nothing and no one else can bestow such a wondrous gift.
The current situation we are all going through is a clear reminder that autonomy and independence, things we value highly in our culture, are fading in the face of reality as we have never known it before. Abbot General Mauro-Giuseppe, O.Cist., who has inspired me in these two reflections on the COVID-19 crisis has this to say: “Christ, once recognized in our midst, transforms every hostile space into a path taken with Him, with Him who is the meaning and fullness of life” (Easter 2020 Letter to “the Order of Cistercians of the Common Observance,” p. 2).
While those whom we hold near and dear, including family and loved ones, community members and friends, are all certainly “real” for us, “nothing is more real than the presence of God, even if for us it is a mysterious presence because we are immersed in it” (Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe). The Easter message we are still hearing proclaimed in this season in the Church Year is reminding us that “In Christ we live and move and have our being” (Acts of the Apostles 17:28). Upon this fact depends the salvation we long for our selves and what we desire as well for the whole human race.
By embracing Emmanuel, God with us, during this crisis, and at all times, is in fact to embrace hope. By doing so, we can be freed from fear and rest in God, the source of our hope. A phrase in Spanish comes to mind here: “Saber esperar.” Literally it means, “to know how to wait.” But equally correct is the translation, “to know how to hope.” Waiting and hoping are certainly intertwined in this current worldwide situation.
While many Catholics today are deprived of sacramental Communion at Mass, only able to “attend” Mass at home, but not in church, the invitation is nonetheless to spiritual communion with the Lord. As Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe points out: “We should not forget that spiritual communion with Jesus is not so much an alternative to sacramental Communion but its fruit.” That is, as we strive to be in union with the Lord by our receiving the Sacraments at privileged moments, but the effects of that reception should flow over into our daily lives and our relationship with the Lord.
The Sacraments of the church have been given to us for the possibility of living “in Christ,” as Saint Paul describes it. Some Sacraments we receive only once, such as Baptism and Confirmation, but their indelible effects remain with us throughout our life. Other Sacraments we can receive over and over, all through life, such as Penance and the Holy Eucharist (Communion). While many now are not able to get to Mass in person to receive Holy Communion or the Sacrament of Penance, we can still “remain in love,” remain in God’s love, since we have received these Sacraments in the past and hope to again before long.
I will conclude with words these words of Abbot General Mauro-Giuseppe:
“Nothing impresses upon us and manifests in us the real presence of the Risen One as much as permitting the needs of others to change the form of our person, of our life, of our time, of all that we are and have. Whoever gives life to his neighbor becomes a trace of Christ in the word, manifests His saving presence” (Easter 2020 Letter).
Let us pray for an end to pestilence, healing for the sick and heaven for the dead.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB