Two months ago, COVID-19 was thousands of miles away, a problem that seemed distant from our own lives. One month ago, maybe we heard murmurings, but we could have never imagined it reaching us to that extent. Two weeks ago, everything began to change, and every day since, COVID has taken more and more from us. Today, we’re stuck at home (many of us sheltering in place). No social gatherings. No school or work. No meals with friends. No Mass. So…now what?
Did you know that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian “quarantina,” meaning “forty days”? It’s no coincidence for us as Catholics that this trying time comes during our season of Lent. We gave God our hearts on Ash Wednesday, asking Him to purify us of our worldly desires. We gave up cookies, or maybe social media, gossip, or TV. Did we intend to give up everything else COVID has thrown on there? …probably not. But it’s here. And it’s out of our control. So what do we do about it?
How NOT to Spend Your Quarantine
In Italy, porn sites responded to the crisis by offering free subscriptions (because that’s definitely not an insensitive display of solidarity as thousands literally die…). Maybe here in the States, we’re turning to that, too, or to excessive news consumption, or scrolling through social media out of boredom, or drowning our fears in video games, sleeping the day away, alcohol, drugs, or a thousand other negative outlets. Pick your poison.
I get it. We’re scared. We’re bored. We’re lonely. St. John Paul II used to say, “Don’t waste your suffering.” In a similar spirit, I plead with you, friends…please, don’t waste your quarantine. It’s so easy to fall into bad habits when our schedules are taken away; just think back to every school break you spent sleeping in ‘til 2 PM (or was that just me?). Now add a global pandemic and daily stress-inducing updates. It’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s easier to do anything but think about the reality of what’s happening. It’s easier to numb this away. But here’s a painful truth: that won’t make it go away. And that won’t bring us joy. The stories that move us are not those of men and women hiding away, seeking escapes from their reality. The stories that move us are those that reveal the beauty of the human condition, even amid suffering: the Spanish man playing his piano on his balcony, the Italian citizens applauding for their healthcare workers, the American TV shows donating their medical supplies to hospitals, the priest hosting drive-through Confessions, and more. This is what moves us during tragedy, not escape.
C.S. Lewis has some timely words in an essay from 1948, “On Living in an Atomic Age.” He speaks of the threat of atomic bombs dropping from the skies, but I’ve taken the liberty of replacing the words to fit our situation:
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by [COVID-19], let that [virus] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts [with ≥6 feet between us]—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about [viruses]. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
Don’t let COVID dominate you. If the worst-case scenario is true, and it’s the end of the world as we know it, do you want to go out numbing the pain? Do you want to go out scared, refreshing your Twitter feed a thousand times a day? Or do you want to embrace life with freedom and joy, facing the difficulty without fear or cowardice?
I thought so.
Take Care of Order…
…and order will take care of you. Have you seen the tweets about the elementary school children needing a home-school schedule? Color-coded, with recess and snack time penciled in. Yeah, believe it or not, we’re not too old for those.
Order will change your life. Make a schedule. Map out every hour if you need to. Eat your meals at the dinner table, and not on the couch. This structure will be a game-changer. Make sure you at least plan the following each day: Set a limit to your screen time. Pencil in free time to walk around outside or exercise. Set a bed-time and a wake-up time. And make time to call a friend. The world seems like a scary place, but some things will not change. The clock still ticks. The birds are still singing. Flowers are still blooming. Remind yourself of these things.
Make sure that prayer is a bookend to your day: let God be the first thought when you rise and the last thought as you fall asleep. Fill your day with prayer; try setting aside a corner of your home to be a prayer altar with a crucifix, saint image, or holy water font. Kneel here so that your entire body can enter a posture of prayer. Especially without Mass, we may feel lost. And though the Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith,” it is not the whole mountain. Read about the lives of the saints, pray the rosary, sing hymns, or meditate on Scripture. Liturgy of the Hours would be a great devotion to learn now, as its structure is built around the time of day and would fit well into our newly open schedules. Plus, it’s a concrete way to stay spiritually united with Catholics across the world who pray the same words together, no matter their physical distance.
Structuring your day will provide a logistical solution to your boredom and help you set aside time for prayer and reflection. Importantly, it will also help the anxiety that this situation inevitably brings. There is so much we cannot control. But our daily schedule? Maybe we can regain some control there. We can’t snap our fingers and fix this mess. But we can bake some cookies. We can jog that mile. We can wake up on that first alarm and make our beds. We can video chat with our loved ones. Take joy in the little victories. Take joy in these moments of embracing what makes us human.
Just as Lent is an opportunity to set goals and challenge ourselves, this cross can be used to form good habits and to strengthen virtue within us all. Start the day with hope; COVID will have a hard time stealing that from you.
This is more than a vacation.
This is a chance to be saints.
Yep, you heard me. This is a big deal. Even more than an opportunity for healthy habits and self-improvement, this is when your story of sainthood is being written. Is this good? No. Is God happy to see this death and fear? No way. Is He still present and working…? Absolutely.
There’s a reason St. John Paul II tells us not to waste suffering; after all, one of the main focuses of Lent is to learn to unite our suffering to Christ’s cross and thus partake in His redemption of the world. Think of the saints who encountered great hardships; those moments were the crux of their journeys to heaven, the opportunity when the virtue they had spent a lifetime building came into play for God’s glory. This is the moment when St. Joan of Arc accepted her death and, as she was burned at the stake, uttered her last words: “Hold the cross high so I may see it through the flames!”
This is the moment of Nazi occupation when John Paul II heard bombs falling as he served Mass in Wawel Cathedral and fled with his father to safety. He lived under oppression, sneaking in time to study and pray. He didn’t waste his oppression. He grew through it and used the lessons he learned every day for the rest of his life.
On Sunday, Morning Prayer presented us with a reading from Nehemiah 8:9-10: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” We have to find strength in Him today. We have to stay joyful. There are so many reasons to weep, my friends. But still, God’s grace is sufficient. Still, He is with us. Rejoicing in Him must be our strength. For without that, we have nothing left.
Keep calm and carry on.
So rejoice, keep calm, and carry on. God is working. Just as JP2 snuck in moments to read and study, even after his university was shut down by the Nazis and war waged on around him, stay focused in the small things. Keep working or studying. Be the student or worker you want to be (or even better); don’t let this pandemic take that from you. Faithfulness to our daily duties is worth more than we may think.
Stay focused on the big things, too. If there is ever a time for witness, for prayer, and for reliance solely on the Lord, it is now. This is your crux. This is our part in history. This is where saints are made. When everyone else loses hope, reflect God’s hope. When every outcome seems dismal, spread light. Be faithful, and stay strong. Remember, we await the day when God greets us, saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Live for this day.
In this time of Lent, when we remember our Jesus who carried onward despite the weight of the cross, take heart. Do not be afraid. He invites us to carry this cross beside Him, deeper intimacy and a greater gift than we could have ever asked for this Lent. Carry it well, dear brothers and sisters, and don’t waste your quarantine.