Who’s in charge here? Most of the time we think we are. We forget how vulnerable we are to the many forces of destruction that surround us. We forget that while we have the power to destroy ourselves (and our world), we cannot save ourselves. Often it is only when we face a health crisis (or an international health crisis) that we are reminded that we are simply a creature. We breathe because God’s love breathes within us. We do not control our destiny. A Catholic psychologist once pointed out that aging is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. The process lets us know little by little that we are not immortal. If we still felt as well at seventy as we did at twenty and looked the same at seventy as we did at twenty and still had all the faculties and abilities at seventy as we had at twenty, would we ever take seriously the inescapable fact that one day our life would come to an end?
The spread of the coronavirus has surely reminded us of our vulnerability. Even though the number of deaths from the epidemic is relatively small, our lives have already been impacted—from the Ministers of the Eucharist who have been laid off because we are no longer offering Communion from the Cup to the people whose stocks and financial future have been in freefall. We wonder what additional precautions we should take, what supplies we should stockpile, what large gatherings we should avoid. At some point, they (whomever they turn out to be) will figure out how to stop the epidemic and how to keep the rest of us from contacting the virus. But, then, when it is all over, will we just go back to the way things were? Will we laugh at how upset and worried we got about the virus, or will we groan with regret at how careless we were carrying on as normal as if nothing would ever happen to us?
If there is any spiritual providence in all this, it must be that the epidemic has taken root during the season of Lent. This is the time of year when we are supposed to be most acutely aware that we are dust and into dust, we shall return. This is the time of year when we are supposed to refocus our lives, with our eye on the end of our days on earth. This is the time of year when we are supposed to be sacrificing more, and praying more, and spending more time helping others. Is there not a reason to take our Lenten discipline more seriously this year, hoping that the changes we have initiated this Lent will remain with us after Lent ends? Will, we finally realize that Lent is not something Catholics go through every year, but a long string of opportunities to wake up to reality?
As people of faith this vague feeling of vulnerability that most of us are experiencing right now can either rev up our anxiety (and our blood pressure), or it can serve as an opportunity to open a window to God. As St. Paul put it so succinctly, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” When we can finally admit that we are not in charge, we allow Jesus to come in and live in us. We finally get around to focusing on the Kingdom of God and not our little kingdoms. We finally get around to spending more time with loved ones and telling them things that we always wanted to tell them. We finally get around to living the life that Lent has always been trying to hook us into living.
In one of his columns from a few years back, Fr. Ron Rolheiser describes going on a week-long retreat, where the retreat director began with these words: “I want to make this a very simple retreat for you. I want to teach you how to pray so that in your prayer, sometimes, perhaps not this week, perhaps not even this year, but sometime, you will open yourself so that in your deepest self you will hear God say to you, ‘I love you!’ Because before you hear this inside you, nothing will be enough for you. You’ll be searching for this and for that, running here and running there, trying every kind of thing, but nothing will ever be quite right. After you hear this from God, you will have substance; you will have found the thing you’ve been looking for so long. Only after you have heard these words will you finally be free of your anxiety.”