Holy Week in a Time of Plague

Monday of Holy Week the reading at Mid-day Prayer at our Benedictine monastery happened to be from Lamentations 1.  “How lonely sits the city,” the young monk read, “that was full of people . . . The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the appointed feasts.”

A monastery that runs a college and a seminary can seem like a small town.  Day in and day out a few thousand people of different generations and vocations make their various rounds, whether to class or to the library, to the bookstore or to the post office, to the gym or even to church.  All tidy and self-contained, with a cemetery and grist mill, gardens and swaying trees; it’s a monastic Mayberry.

Then suddenly, amidst fear of deadly contagion, students are sent home, hourly employees are laid off, and professors are told to self-isolate and figure out how to teach on-line.  Then another shock hits the system when the local bishop closes all churches and chapels in the diocese.  The once bustling monastic city does sit lonely, and none come to the appointed feasts.

It was eerie timing for that reading from Lamentations, and since the cycle of readings was set long ago, it is easy for a person of faith to see a providential dimension to that particular reading occurring at that particular time.  While the campus takes on the air of a ghost town, with multi-colored posters merrily announcing to vacant corridors events that now will never happen, the liturgies still go on, even as masters of ceremonies puzzle over how exactly to proceed.

This situation had its universal summing up a few days earlier, when one evening Pope Francis delivered a special Urbi et Orbi address.  It was a sad scene, the Bishop of Rome making an important speech from his famous balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, but by decree of the civil authorities, people were ordered to stay home.  It was dusk when the Pope spoke, and his words went forth as cold rain fell on deserted cobblestones.

Meanwhile, humans do what humans do, asking why bad things are happening to them.  Time and again, the answer to a natural calamity is supernatural:  God, like a cosmic Queen Victoria, is not amused.  Divine wrath befalls us because of our sins; but take heart, God does not give us more than we can bear, and He chastens us because He loves us.  Just turn back to the old-time religion, and all will be right with the world.  Cold comfort for someone humiliated at having to apply for unemployment or facing the loss of a business or of a loved one.

Whether the Spanish Flu a century ago or a Chinese virus today, it might not be on the same level as that green mist seeping all around ancient Egypt in the movie The Ten Commandments.  Has God visited a pestilence upon His people to scourge them for their sins and drive them to repent and turn again to Him?

If so, there is no shortage of people eager to offer lists of sins for which we are being afflicted.  For example, is God sending us a cataclysmic thunderbolt message about using clerical celibacy as camouflage for clerical sodomy, or about the widespread sin of divorce and remarriage?  Or does stuff just happen, and there are no reasons or patterns to life, just random particles bumping into one another?

One way of looking at these questions is to think biblically about the roles of sin, faith, and doubt.  Regarding a man born blind, Saint John’s Gospel tells us that people asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?,” and Jesus answered C, None of the above.  Rather, Jesus said, the man’s blindness was a way to show how God works.  Jesus then healed the man by using basic elements near at hand.

At the very end of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, when the eleven disciples go up a mountain in Galilee and see the risen Lord, we learn, “And when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  If some of the original disciples had doubts, we can as well.

Just as Jesus did not bask in their adoration, He did not argue with their doubt, and if nothing else, here we see that John Henry Newman was wrong when he declared that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” since the correlation is instead one to one:  one difficulty, seeing the risen Christ, can lead to precisely one doubt.

Whether they were inspired to worship or inclined to doubt, Christ told them, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” and so, as with the question about sin causing blindness, He cut through passing human reactions and emotions and told them to buck up and go make disciples everywhere, baptizing them and teaching them what Jesus had taught.  How we go about it, Jesus leaves the details to us, even in a time of exotic plague, when churches are closed and no one will be at an Easter Vigil to be baptized.

While it might be entertaining to figure out why we are in this mess in a messed up world, smug finger pointing takes time away from turning again and again from ourselves and towards God.  It also distracts us from living our two great commandments.  Love of God and love of neighbor are what Jesus calls us to do, and when we need to improvise, God sees to it that we have a way.  As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.”

To translate the Greek word dynamis, “power,” the Vulgate has virtus, and as our shoes and prayers echo across empty churches during Holy Week, it is worth remembering that whether worshiping or doubting, what God has given us sinners to work with is virtue, love, and our own solid wits.  Even without a crisis, we do well to use those gifts as best we can where we are right now, or people will see our religion as just like an old man at twilight, mumbling alone into the rain.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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