There can be no “good” time for something like the coronavirus to come upon us, but at least in Lent, a penitential season, we have a spiritual perspective which might help us to face it with some sense of meaning and purpose.
At the beginning of Lent we all got our ashes, a reminder of our mortality: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Another text in the bible puts it this way, “until we return to the soil from which we came.” The word Adam itself means both man and soil in ancient Hebrew. The book of Genesis tells us that whilst God created all things by his Word, He created man by fashioning him with his own divine hands from the soil. That’s an image very much worth holding on to: man is in God’s hands, both in creation and in re-creation, when God will reshape us again at the Resurrection from the dead.
But more importantly, at this moment, it means we continue to be in the hands of God, irrespective of any virus or germ and irrespective of what happens to us by way of suffering or even death. The coronavirus brings more sharply into focus our mortality. Whether we die from that virus or from something else many years hence, death is the most certain occurrence for all of us after being conceived in the womb.
As you know, I was on retreat in recent days at the Benedictine Abbey of Prinknash in south-west England. In the Rule he wrote for his monks, Benedict advised them thus: “Keep death before your eyes daily.” This is not a morbid preoccupation with death, but an admonishment to remember how to live our lives properly and fruitfully. It’s an invitation to keep the right perspective on life.
In one of the psalms, we read: “Like the moth, you devour all we treasure.” This is another penetrating image. Our civilization is a magnificent thing. It demonstrates the prowess of our human ingenuity and inventiveness. Here am I with an ipad in my hand for saying Mass without germ-ridden missals! But our prowess and the things we prize so highly can become a trap for us. By association, we can easily attribute to ourselves all of the power and attractiveness of what we have produced. This can lead to forgetfulness. It is God alone who is all-powerful. All we have, we have from him. If we forget that, it will be our ruin. And so, the Lord, like the moth, bite by bite, thread by thread, little by little, “devours all we treasure.” Why? Because we are His treasure!
If we place the treasure of our hearts on the things of this life, we will see sickness and disease as a terrifying threat to our sense of life and happiness. But if our hearts are set on the things of God, we can face even the coronavirus with courage. St. Francis referred to death as “sister death”, a sister who brought him to his Father. This does not at all mean that we don’t do all we can to avoid catching the virus, or all in our power to find a vaccine and even a cure. Indeed, we must! But not in anxious terror, not in paralysing anguish, not with stultifying fear: no, with trust in the Lord and God of our existence.
And if death comes to us or to someone we love, ours it is to accept this as a time, a brief time, of separation from them. Death is not any more the catastrophic obliteration of our life as it was before Christ died and rose again for us. Death is now in his hands, not the devil’s! To Christ, no-one is dead. Only to us in this mortal life are our loved ones apparently “no more.” But, as Wisdom tells us, “they are in peace. Their going looked like a disaster, but their promise is rich with immortality.” When our time comes to pass through the doorway of death, we will find them again and this time for evermore.
So, let’s allow the coronavirus to hit at our pride and presumption, as if somehow we would live for ever on this earth. Let it be a bite of the divine moth whose purpose is only to return our hearts to himself.
The situation we now face as a community invites us to a number of other things.
It invites us to humility. Humility means having your feet on the ground, being realistic. The word “humus” in Latin again means the ground. In the bible, it is the Lord himself who is compared to the ground, the ground on whom we stand. The word “faith” means to take your stand on God. He is the “terra firma” beneath our feet. Whether we are being attacked by forces of nature or forces of the evil one, we stand on him. And even if we fall, we fall back into him, into his heart, into his godhead.
We are therefore also invited to trust. It’s easy to trust when things go our way, but any trust is tested and proved like gold in the face of trial. These beautiful words of Jesus tell us the goal of our trust: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If there were not, I would have told you. Now I go and prepare a place for you, and when I have gone and prepared a place for you, I shall return and take you to myself so that where I am you may be too.” If he comes and takes us to himself, that can happen in all and any of the ways human beings die. But death is Christ’s hand taking us to himself. Such is the great promise and reward of those who trust in him.
But we are also invited to gratitude! Gratitude for the life we have been given, for the eternal life we are promised. Gratitude for Christ’s victory over death, and therefore over the coronavirus or any other such thing. Let us be grateful for every moment we have been given, to love, to serve, to cherish, to make friends, to appreciate beauty and truth. Let us defy the intent of Satan to narrow our focus onto the virus itself, as if our life were now reduced to that, and drag us into a mire of anxious woe and anguished misery! No! If anything, the virus invites us to open wide the eyes of our mind and look upwards towards the loving God of our salvation, to broaden and deepen our perspective in that of God!
Our situation also invites us to wisdom. To look again at what’s most important in life. To sit down again and question and examine our priorities. We need to learn anew how to discern in our lives what is truly life-giving and what is mere thrill or impression. We are sold down the river financially and spiritually by a series of pseudo-priorities set by our consumerist society. More profoundly still, let me ask: is the assertion of our rights and freedoms to the nth degree the wisest path to choose in order to reach eternal happiness? Is it not rather a willing ear, a listening heart to the will and word of God? Can that really be locked into an hour at the weekend or reduced to a few minutes in the morning? Ought it not to be the fundamental drive of our life, what we live for, what makes us tick not just as Christians but as human beings?
And does wisdom not then invite us to conversion of heart, to a u-turn towards God, to a back-turning on all that only feeds our ego and its unbridled desires? During this period of Lent, which will be extended by a couple of months because of the virus, is not this the time to rediscover true and radical repentance? What habits of sin have you let enslave you? Why not admit them at last and disavow them for ever? Why not search for the freedom of obedience to God before slavery to self deceives you permanently into thinking it is itself your freedom? Chances are that we will all have more time at home, time to reflect, time to wrestle with our demons and face them down. Don’t binge on Netflix, but on the Lord and on all that brings us to him!
And this leads to the further invitation to prayer. In any time of trial, prayer keeps things real, pinned down, in perspective. Prayer nourishes hope and trust, it centres and orders the strands and chaos of our minds and hearts and ties them into God. Let God be a great magnet, drawing you irresistibly to himself and empowering you with a deep peace. Prayer opens us up to the outlook of God and blows away the dross of the soul. The truth flourishes in prayer. Love springs forth in torrents in prayer. Prayer is a virus that resurrects the soul.
Two final thoughts.
It may be in the coming weeks that public Mass will be prohibited. I am already looking into setting up the equipment necessary in the gallery to make it possible for you to see and tune into the Mass here in the parish online. You will hopefully feel, in those circumstances, the sore lack of Holy Communion. We are inclined to reduce the Eucharistic fast solely to that hour before receiving the sacrament. But there is another understanding to that fast.
In Africa, I recall how people in far flung parts of the country had to wait months before receiving the Eucharist. They certainly knew how to fast for the sacrament! They understood even physically the aching hunger for Holy Communion.
And here there is a test for us. We have become so used to having Communion whenever we wish, almost as if it were “at our beck and call.” If, after a few Sundays without the Eucharist, you don’t miss it: what is that saying? What has the sacrament become for you in that case? Does its absence make the heart grow fonder, the soul grow more attentive to God?
Finally, the crown. Yes, the crown. The coronavirus means the crown-virus or the crowning virus. Very well. There are two other crowns, though, that we have and that far surpass it in glory and strength. The first is the crown of thorns; the second, is the crown of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. Let us submit the coronavirus to the authority and power of the crown of thorns, that is, to the crown which seemed a sign of defeat but became the sign of victory. And as we do so, let us turn our hearts towards the Queen of Heaven, whose crown is the glory of our race and one which we hope one day to shine upon our own heads, when disease and death are gone and where the peace and joy of God himself will give eternal life to our whole being, our beautiful humanity, the gift of the Trinity’s love to us from the moment we were first conceived.
So, coronavirus, give us what you’ve got! For whatever it is, you’ve got nothing on us!