Lent this year has gotten off to a strange start. As the threat of COVID-19 spreads around the world and here in the US, many of the things we take for granted are off-limits.
Especially disconcerting is that even in our faith lives we are finding things off limits. Parishes are opting to cancel Mass and Stations of the Cross; opportunities to serve the poor are being postponed indefinitely; and the phrase “memento mori” is becoming an unsettlingly close reality. It is a challenging time to go about daily life, let alone to stick to the commitments we chose at the beginning of Lent.
But be not dismayed! Our spiritual lives do not really need to suffer. While we may be enduring quarantine, telework, and a severely impacted social life, there are still ways to observe this holy season. Indeed, it is imperative to continue our Lenten practices, and to see this unusual trial as an opportunity to elevate and adapt our practices for a greater spiritual good.
Why Continue Lent?
As I shared in an article last year, Lent is not a race, a competition, or about getting to the finish line. It is about acknowledging our dependence on God (which we notice when we give up things), and an opportunity for humility (which we can learn through serving others), all with the goal of growing closer in relationship to God.
The world needs practicing, faithful Catholics now more than ever. Let go of the idea that the only way to observe Lent properly is by achieving a goal you set at the beginning. Instead, understand that even in a reality where our movement and communication is limited, the opportunity to be personally transformed through the discipline of prayer, fasting, works, and almsgiving still exists. Most importantly, the world needs the prayer, fasting, works, and almsgiving of committed Catholics, especially when there is darkness in the world.
Start with Yourself
I was incredibly nonplussed when I realized last week that I would most likely not be going to Stations of the Cross for the remainder of Lent. “But I need that time!” I thought. I was even more unnerved to find that attending Mass is risky. In some places, like Seattle, and even here in my own Archdiocese of Washington, all Masses are cancelled for the sake of limiting transmission. This would be shocking any time, and particularly during a holy season. There is a sense of the faithful being denied something we have a right to, and a great need for.
Let’s instead look at this inconvenience as an opportunity. For one, it is wise for us to remember in gratitude what we do have, which for most includes a home in which to be secluded and, overall, health. Further, that feeling of isolation many are experiencing opens up a world of meditations: what did Christ feel like in His last days, abandoned and alone? What did His disciples feel and experience in the days following Jesus’s death, as they hid from the Romans? And what about those practicing their faith in secret every single day in countries where the Church is underground? How can I grow in compassion for those who spend their entire lives isolated, in prison or a nursing home? What we are experiencing is temporary; for others, quarantine is a way of life.
We also have the ability to offer up our disappointment to the Lord. “Lord, this is not how I planned things would be,” is a simple, honest prayer.
Work with what You’ve got
It is also important to recall God’s will in all things. No doubt most of us would not have chosen this crisis to impact the world, but God, for some reason, has allowed it to happen. What can I learn about solidarity, care for others, patience, and letting go of my plans in this time? What about the reminder of the eternal connectedness of humankind, one in the body of Christ, suffering together around the world? There is something God is pointing out to us, and we can ask Him what that is in prayer.
If you’re stuck at home, there are still practical ways to observe Lent. For example, if you’re like me, you probably have a stack of spiritual reading you have not made time for, and now is the perfect time. Let’s face it, eventually Netflix will get old and you may hear the siren call of an edifying book.
Netflix isn’t the worst option, though, if you’re stuck at home. Search out content on the lives of the saints or watch a documentary about an impoverished part of the world, and pray for those you see. There are also many versions of the life of Jesus and the passion to watch.
Make, and pray, your own stations of the cross throughout your house or in the backyard with your family.
Remain connected to family and friends by Facetime, Google Hangouts, Skype, or other virtual options. You may consider having a simple Friday dinner “together” – with each participant enjoying dinner in his or her own home, connected via camera. Be mindful not to let isolation remove all possibility of fellowship, even if your in-person plans cannot materialize.
Adapt what You Planned
You may have already been praying in a certain way this Lent. Add to your prayers a special petition for the sick and those who take care of them (like this special prayer for Padre Pio’s intercession for protection and healing against coronavirus). Ask for the protection of the Blessed Mother, as recommended by Pope Francis.
As for alms giving, most causes now have online giving. So you can’t serve dinner at the homeless shelter this week? Consider contributing financially instead, including to your parish, if you are missing Sunday collection. Most parishes are listed on Faith Direct, where you can financially support your church online.
In general, as long as coronavirus doesn’t claim the internet, there are an abundance of ways to stay connected to the faith and your practices. Be sure to attend virtual/televised Mass and make an act of spiritual communion. Listen to spiritual podcasts like Bishop Robert Barron’s homilies. Keep your scheduled Lenten book study, but meet virtually instead.
More than anything keep hope alive in your heart. Recall that this is just a season and that it, too, shall pass.
We would be wise to be humble before God in this reality, and reject a sense of defeat. Rather, accept the strange new truth that some of the plans you made will simply never happen, and let them go. The business and economic repercussions of this global crisis remain to be seen, and there is a good chance they will be significant. However, as Christians our hope is not in the material world, but in the Lord. And as a colleague told me recently, “I’m not worried, God’s got plenty of money.”
Lent is, after all, a time of preparation. Look forward to Easter and remember the Resurrection, which will take on heightened meaning after this penitential season. And remember that God is still with us. As Jesus tells us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” and “Behold, I make all things new.”