A month ago, I thought that the Coronavirus epidemic was a far-off thing. It was in China, Iran, or Italy. I live outside of Buffalo. Meanwhile, the campus where I teach a religion course was very seriously disrupted by a Ransomware attack. It was a bizarre and disorienting situation, and after the dust settled, I joked with the students that as long as the Coronavirus doesn’t come our way, we should be just fine this semester. They joked back, “You watch … it’s coming!”
A few weeks ago, I heard some rumblings on the news that there was a fair chance the virus would hit our shores. I picked up a few travel-sized hand sanitizer sprays as a precaution to protect my pregnant wife, and went about my business, working in parish catechesis and as a church organist. A few days later, I started noticing jokes on the internet about stocking up on toilet paper, so I thought I would stop at the Walmart a few blocks from my church to check out the situation and get some groceries.
As I looked around, the shoppers were somber and quiet with blank expressions on their faces. There was little to no talking, as people looked down or gestured to each other to make sense of everything. There was no hand sanitizer, there was no toilet paper, and items were starting to be rationed. I noticed a comparison to the stories about the Great Depression from my grandparents’ generation. It was like consumerism had just come to a crashing halt and Americans for a moment had come to a sense of their own mortality and the transitory nature of life and material things. It felt like everyone at Walmart was walking out from an Ash Wednesday service, except the ash was made not with burnt palms but with worried brows.
Worst of Days?
Essentially, two items were in rare supply at the moment—toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Just two items. Then a few days later, I read in the local news that shoppers were waiting outside the Wegmans supermarkets before they open to find only empty shelves. My wife and I were low on food, so I went to Wegmans with our shopping list to see what I could get. It’s a nice large supermarket which always has an amazing variety—almost a symbol of American plentitude.
That day, shoppers were polite and patient with each other, but most foods were rationed by the category—meat, milk, cereal, water, and of course the grand prize of toilet paper. You couldn’t choose that one favorite cereal at a sale price—you were just glad to get a family-sized nutritious cereal for whatever the going price might be. You couldn’t choose whatever cut of meat you fancied—you had to get whatever was available and most practical. Walking through the pasta aisle, the international foods on the other side caught my eye. I picked up an item that grabbed my curiosity but put it back a minute or so later. This was no time to buy anything unnecessary. Who knows how this developing situation could impact our budget?
I remembered the videos I had been showing the religious education children at church for Lent about what life for poor children is like in far-off places. The charitable program came complete with lesson plans aimed at achieving a sense of solidarity with the less fortunate around the world. There were even recipe ideas provided for simple meals like the ones children eat in those countries. Now we all had some small taste of what it feels like to wonder about our next meals. This is what many people go through every day, except under conditions that are much more severe than our worst of days.
When Will We Receive Jesus Again?
I remember the children at religious education being amazing at how joyful the poor children in the videos were despite their many hardships. In the silence of the shoppers at the supermarket, I started to think of a Scripture:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?”Matthew 6:25-26
Back home, Lenten fasting was coupled with the awareness that snacking on food meant running out of food sooner and having to face the uncertainty of the supermarket again. This brings to mind a Scripture we heard at the beginning of this Lenten season:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”Matthew 4:4
At least we still had Mass and the church.
Then the bishop lifted the Sunday obligation, and at first, that seemed extreme to a lot of people. I played all my weekend Masses on the organ. Honestly, it didn’t seem like the congregation was as small as it might have been, given the circumstances. Then Sunday evening, the announcement came from the diocese that all public Masses were canceled “until further notice.” My wife broke into tears. When would we get to receive Jesus again? How would we go on without him? I felt a lump in my throat that this might be my last Mass until who knows when.
The Spiritual Benefits
After pacing around the house for a bit, we decided to move our statue of Mary to a more prominent place in the living room as a centerpiece for family prayer. It would be a sign of the Blessed Mother’s protection. We settled down for some prayer, reading from the Scriptures. I found the passage in John’s Gospel where Mary Magdalen acutely feels the pain of Jesus’ presence before witnessing the resurrection.
“They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.”John 20:13
That’s just how we felt. And yet, it was exactly in the moment of feeling Christ’s absence that his presence showed through most strongly. Family prayer was strengthened. We were also offering petitions more for the many people we know who need prayer. Since we both work in church ministry, we made a video message for our parishioners from our living room, encouraging them in this time and promoting family prayer.
At the end, we closed by reading “A Prayer for a Pandemic” by Cameron Bellm and shared by the Ursaline Sisters of Louisville. It made us think outside of ourselves and about the needs of others:
May we who are merely inconvenienced
Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
Remember those most vulnerable …
This situation has made us think about the simple blessings that we have like a house and a family. It’s made us look out for the needs of vulnerable people and of senior citizens. The prayer continues:
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home
Remember those who have no home ...
While we technically are not among those in a “quarantine,” there are many who are. The word is derived from the seventeenth-century Italian word quarantina, which means forty days—a likely reference to Lent and fasting. In this situation, whether our own “quarantine” or “social distancing” is a Lenten observance is up to us. Just like poverty is not the prized jewel to everyone like it was to St. Francis, this time will only be spiritually beneficial to those who embrace it or are willing to learn from it.
Creative Religious Practices
Those of us at home have to set out a plan of what to do so we make good use of our time—prayer, reading, work, exercise, cooking, teaching, and so on. I’m sure we will continue to be creative with our new way of life. In our grandparents’ era during the Great Depression, people learned creative ways of stretching meals. Today we’re getting a sense of the need to make creative use of all the food in the house, feeling the pain of any waste. For those of us facing full or partial unemployment, it will be a lesson in trust, and also ingenuity in finding new ways of making a living.
At my parish, we’re finding new ways of reaching out to one another. Word about live-streamed Masses and words of spiritual encouragement went out to all the parishioners personally through a phone tree, in addition to the new means of digital communication. As one of those making calls—and as someone who often makes calls—it was surprising to see how many people were home and answering the phone.
For daily live streams of the Mass and the Rosary, and other spiritual guidance and resources during COVID-19, visit Ascension’s main page.
Many of the senior citizens stayed on to talk for a while. They were strictly social distancing and were happy to hear another human voice on the other side of the line. Many were already watching daily Mass on the live stream video or tuning in to EWTN. Many sounded fearful and in need of a reassuring voice reminding them that now is a time to stay close to our faith, more now than ever. One lady shared an interesting practice—saying a Hail Mary while washing one’s hands. It takes about the same amount of time as is recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for handwashing, and also brings the Blessed Lady into the moment for our protection and that of others.
Being Open to God’s Grace
Nursing home residents are under much stricter orders. Many are unable to even leave their rooms, let alone accept visitors. So our religious education children and youth group teens have been designing computer-made cards to be sent for printing out at the local nursing homes. That way they can be distributed without risk from germs that the nursing home administrators will not allow. At home, my wife is working on making medical masks for healthcare workers as part of a local project.
Those of us who are at home for social distancing are not all isolated from our families. My wife and I have been playing board games, working from home side by side, and enjoying mealtime together. We’ve also been in touch with loved ones far away. We’ve always talked about wishing to have more time out of our busy schedules to focus on the important things in life. Well, like it or not, here it is.
The Coronavirus situation is something that has come upon us. We can do our part to help or otherwise hurt the cause, but we cannot alter the fact that it is here along with all the social and economic implications it has brought. We can either be passive and controlled by our environment or open ourselves to grow spiritually through hardship. The free time at home can bring us to our knees in prayer. The lack of funds and supplies can teach us reliance on God and shake us from self-sufficiency. Social distancing can bring us into solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable rather than closed in during a fight for survival. These all can lead us—if we’re open to God’s grace—into a deeper Lent, practicing what the Church has given us for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so we can truly experience Christ’s resurrection in our hearts.
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Michael J. Ruszala is the author of several religious books, including Lives of the Saints: Volume I and Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God. He has a master of arts degree in theology & Christian ministry from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Michael is a pastoral associate for faith formation & evangelization at St. Leo the Great Parish in Amherst, New York, music director & organist at St. Teresa Parish in Buffalo, and adjunct lecturer in religious studies at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He lives outside Buffalo with his wife Kate and is expecting a son Joseph in the spring of 2020. For more information about Michael and his books, visit michaeljruszala.com.