Almost every day brothers in the community or those writing from outside the monastery ask about an adequate spiritual response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have read various and sundry approaches to the question and one of the best I have found comes from Abbot General Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, in his letter to his monks and nuns around the world of the “Order of Cistercians of the Common Observance,” as they are called. This Order is distinct from the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,” but I leave it to you to research the difference between the two Orders. Perhaps one day the two Orders will merge into one Order, since they have so much history as well as the present in common.
In any case, based in Rome, Abbot General Mauro-Giuseppe wrote to his Order on March 15, 2020, with some very helpful advice and insights. I would like to summarize some of Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe’s words and use his letter as a springboard for this reflection.
First, in the realm of being helpful to one another, Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe points out the importance of following the directives of civil and Church authorities, and doing so with obedience and respect. Even though we may not agree with all that we are being asked, that is no reason to reject it, though our culture tends to say, if I don’t like it, I ignore it. The point of the directives, of course, is to curtail the spread of the pandemic. That is something we all want to do, no doubt. How to accomplish it, though, may vary among individuals, communities, cities, nations.
If we are ready and willing to abide by current rulings to defend our self in the present crisis, we are trying to avoid the spread of COVID-19 to others as well. In other words, there is co-responsibility in the matter, as we are all part of the larger body, and as the poet John Donne wrote: “no man is an island.” We all bear a responsibility for the good of all, in good times and bad, and the present situation certainly calls for this as well.
Aside from the practical considerations just now for preventing the spread of the disease, as believers we naturally ask: what is God calling us to and what witness are we to give to the wider world at this time? We all hopefully desire to be helpful, but just how to do so varies with our state in life, age, health, etc. What assistance can we provide at this moment in history?
On some levels the world as we have known it has stopped. As I recently read some where, there are now three days in the week: yesterday, today and tomorrow. There is certainly truth in that thought. The changes in the public, religious and private sector are no longer what they were just a few months ago. There is nothing we can do about that!
Even though it is now the Easter season, Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe’s point written during this past Lent still holds true: the world situation currently “is like a great fast, a great universal abstinence.”
Being “stopped” at this time by the current crisis, and we all are to one extent or another, means the possibility of truly finding the “present.” Once a cancer patient said that her fatal diagnosis did not mean she was losing the future, but given the possibility of finding the present. In reality we only live in the present. The past is gone and the future is unknown. Now is the time to keep that in mind and do all we can to “make the most” of the here and now. Too often, Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe says, “we are tempted to remain attached to the past that is no more and throw ourselves toward a future that is not yet and perhaps never will be.”
In regard to living in the present, a well-known line from the Book of Psalms, which monks pray throughout the day and year, comes to mind. Psalm 46 includes these words: “Be still and know that I am God.” At this moment in time, striving to live in the present, our God is asking us to “keep ourselves still,” as Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe expresses it. We are called to be still before God and know the Divine Presence. It is a loving invitation to be with God, and not necessarily “do” anything at the moments of enjoying God’s presence. We can be filled with wonder and silence, as we might be in the presence of a stunning sunrise or sunset, which fills the sky with magnificent color. God’s presence fills the entire universe even more wonderfully than any sunrise or sunset!
Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe writes: “To stop before God means to recognize that God’s presence fills the instant and thus fully satisfies our heart, in whatever circumstance and condition we find ourselves.”
Applying all this to our present circumstances, we should, despite the restrictions imposed upon us, still live in freedom. Freedom, though, is not to be thought of as simply and always doing what I want. “Freedom is the grace to be able to choose that which gives fullness to our heart even when all is taken from us,” says Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe. God is still present whatever the reality of our life, desiring to be in our midst and our constant companion for the journey through life. With this in mind, there is no room for negativity or grumbling, very human tendencies, of course, but they must be overcome by the choices we make.
What about the situation of fear and even threat to our well-being that many are going through now? It is something that touches the very core of our instinctive desire for self-preservation and survival. Being still and present to God, though, does not mean avoiding reality or pretending things are different than they actually are. It also means never ignoring the necessary precautions in place at this time to prevent the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, it would be wrong to think that God has sent this present trial in order to punish us or prove power over us by undoing it if we ask hard enough. Rather, God enters into our trials, however mysterious they may be, such as at present, and “suffers them with us and for us, to the point of death on the Cross,” in the words of Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe.
This means a belief that our life, individually as well as collectively, has a much greater meaning than a solution to the present crisis. This does not mean that those who are capable shouldn’t strive to find a vaccine against the COVID-19, for example. Science and faith can certainly be in accord!
The bigger tragedy of the corona crisis is not so much the danger of death, as the possibility of living without direction and meaning, ignoring the possibility of living in the hope of a “greater fullness of life and toward a greater salvation than health” (Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe). At this time God is offering the possibility of a renewed relationship of love with our Creator, who is certainly capable of ending the pandemic, but even more is saying to us: “Take heart, do not be afraid” (Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 14, verse 17). Above all God desires that we be brought from a state of fear or anxiety to the ultimate goal of our existence: God who dwells with us and never abandons us, through every day and every moment of our existence.
Times of trial, such as at present, can embitter people or make them more sensitive to the fragility of human existence, and in the process more loving and patient. Bitterness or compassion are always options. The end result depends on how we live, whatever the external circumstances. We can and should keep choosing to live with love, since love is not so much a feeling as a choice freely made. We can become people of compassion and understanding, especially to those who are asking: why is this happening, why me, why my loved ones?
A vital response to the pandemic, apart from the necessary precautions to be taken and attention for those who are afflicted, is the offering of prayer, standing before God without fear, “with sighs too deep for words” (Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 26). Even in our seemingly hopeless state, we are never alone, and we live by faith in God. This is a gift not to be hoarded, but extended to others in order to offer encouragement, announcing by our lives that God desires the salvation of the whole human race, past, present and future. Our longing for good health should also be accompanied by a desire for salvation in Jesus Christ, “who did not come into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 17).
Whenever we pray, either alone or with others, we need to keep in mind, as best we can, that our prayer is to be lived with the realization that we are united to the entire Body of Christ, the Church, spread throughout the world. We are experiencing a time of deep humility as well as a call to courage, holding fast to our belief in the Risen Christ, our peace and our joy. As the old saying has it: better to light one candle than curse the darkness.
To be continued
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB