Last Sunday’s unstructured morning allowed my husband and me time for a leisurely breakfast. We talked about what we could do with the circumstances the Diocese of Dallas imposed on us, thankful we went to Reconciliation two days before and daily Mass the day after that. Even so, it was a little unsettling without the usual rush for him to teach RCIA and us to get to Mass.
Scrolling my inbox was a link to a site with a post on the Catholic World Report, Christian Hope and Covid-19, The author is Dr. Randall B. Smith, Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He recalls C. S. Lewis’s “profound little sermon” titled “Learning in War-Time,” preached at Oxford in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Autumn of 1939. The contrast between dealing with Covid-19 vs World War II are not as polar opposites as you might think. Dr. Smith writes:
Of course Lewis was addressing people who were anxiously wondering what was in store for them in the coming war, whereas we are anxiously wondering what is in store for us if the coronavirus pandemic worsens. Even the most fearful among us would probably be willing to admit that Lewis’s audience had more reason to be anxious than we currently do. They were looking at the very real possibility of nighttime terror bombing, the destruction of entire cities, the deaths of thousands, and possible defeat and enslavement at the hands of Hitler and his mechanized military forces.
And yet Lewis’s lessons still remain relevant and invaluable today as we face our own lesser, but still significant anxieties.
Might we not say about the pandemic, for example, what Lewis said about the war? “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Things like pandemics and wars make death real to us, whereas before most of us keep that thought only abstractly in some back room of our minds. “War makes death real to us,” wrote Lewis, “and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.
A wake-up call
C.S. Lewis’ approach to facing hardship shifted my concern from preparing as best I could for shortages and remaining vigilant in protecting my health to thanking God for the lessons he is teaching me to draw me closer to him this Lent of surprises.
Then Dr. Smith brought up the Plague, citing one in the third century when 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome. Those struck down suffered a horrible, painful death. Everyone who could, fled, including most doctors. The Christians were the ones who risked death and ministered to the dying. Why? To bring them hope.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, said explicitly that he regarded the situation as a test of sorts.
The question Christians must ask themselves today is: can we still imagine such a people as our standard and guide? Or are we going to continue to have our imaginations filled with the ghosts and ghouls and terrors fed to us daily by the media, who feed off our anxiety and panic like a vampire feeds off blood? Christian hope is bolstered by the blood of a different kind of death, a sacrificial death by which death was destroyed.
Mass on Facebook
Yearning to participate in Mass, I discovered a virtual Mass that would begin in a few moments in St. Paul’s parish in Westerville, Ohio. Mass live on Facebook! What would that be like?
The processional hymn (without a procession) was “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” With no hymnal, I had to focus on the words of the hymn and found the Holy Spirit prompting me for only the next word or two as I depended on Him for each phrase. How I wish I could focus like this with every action I take – as alive and present in each moment – and enjoy God’s presence with a newness of purpose.
The homilist assured us that we are prepared for this crisis. a time of spiritual encouragement for us as we cope with new situations moment by moment. This is our appointed time to give spiritual encouragement to those who need it, to console others with the consolation we receive from the Lord. The love of God is poured out within our hearts in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He stressed that it’s God’s priority that we pour out the love of God to others. In the day’s Gospel, John 4:5-43, the Woman at the Well gives us the courage to tell everyone in our “village” what God has done for all of us and each of us personally.
I stumbled a little through the Mass prayers but when the makeshift narrator led us in Spiritual Communion – that was the moment I missed the Lord the most. Not receiving his Body and Blood saddened me.
I thought of today’s underground church services where Christians in Communist countries must suppress their fears and courageously risk their lives to worship the Lord. Although our churches are shut down, we can freely participate on the virtual fringe. Unlike the oppressed, we are free to go out and evangelize after the virtual Mass.
The Communion Hymn, “One Bread, One Body” was sobering as we united ourselves spiritually not only with those Catholics we know and love, the parishioners “around us” at St. Paul’s and all those praying against the spread of the coronavirus, but also with the Communion of Saints who made their presence known at Mass.
Instead of spiritually cloistered, we felt a revitalized connection with Catholics everywhere. Jesus is Lord of all!
We are grateful for Dr. Smith’s wake-up call to the true meaning of Lent.
What new experiences is God using you to draw you closer to Him this Lent of surprises?
Copyright 2020 Nancy HC Ward