Martin Hislop offers some spiritual advice to his parishioners
Everybody has a Pearl Harbour: For many people it may have been the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. For younger people it’s September 11, 2001. For today’s younger people it’s the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in their lives everything is at risk: health, family, economic security, and even their own lives. And Christians have an added trauma: the loss of the sacraments.
I see two huge spiritual dangers in this present situation.
First, there’s the failure—or outright refusal—to recognise this frightening time as a mysterious occasion of grace. Conversions rarely happen in comfortable suburban homes on Sunday afternoons. More often than not they take shape after a cancer diagnosis, a terrorist attack, a derailed career, and so on. God, through the historical books of the Old Testament, constantly teaches us that the “worst times” are actually the best times. We see this especially in the accounts of the rising and falling of the Temples. The “best times” were actually the periods of dislocation, exile, and occupation by foreign powers. During those times, God’s people felt much closer to God because they loved Him as their benefactor and friend.
The second grave danger is the understandable desire to return too quickly to the status quo ante. God blessed Israel with long stretches of exile, which acted like extended spiritual retreats. Also, we must always remember that Israel never liberated or restored herself. Rather God did these things, usually in very strange ways such as using Israel’s own apparent enemies as her saviour.
So how do we confront these spiritual dangers?
First, do not regard our present silent “liturgical sabbatical” as a necessarily evil.
Let’s think of Holy Saturday, which has no liturgy, except for the Divine Office. The Church created this brief space of silence, not even 24 hours, so people could ponder the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection undisturbed by liturgical activity. May one dare speculate that perhaps God has drawn much of the Church into an extended Holy Saturday quarantine?
Second, please let us not squash the liturgical silence of our long Holy Saturday with artificial and noisy replacements.
A few years ago Cardinal Sarah coined the phrase “dictatorship of noise.” How true! This dictatorship has now expanded within the Church through hundreds of livestream Masses. I know people who constantly hunt for new celebrants and exotic liturgies on the Internet. How does one ever pray?
In these strange times I have re-discovered the Psalms. But they must be prayed slowly, freely, and quietly in deep dialogue with the Lord.
For years I’ve been praying the Psalms within the Divine Office. Priests have a canonical obligation to get that work done, but now the Psalms sound and feel very different. They express the anguish, terror, lamentation, thanks, and praise of Christ the Priest. By virtue of priestly ordination, His words are my words, and my words are His words. I am repeatedly struck by the eerie coincidence of the daily Psalms with the events around me. Without this “Holy Saturday” engendered by the pandemic, my rediscovery of the Psalms would never have happened. I’d never have had the leisure set within the tensions of the moment.
Since the ending of public Masses and the lockdown I increased my undertaking of the Stations of the Cross , usually at night and with almost no lights on. In order to appreciate them, I had to do something drastic: I stopped using a book.
Instead, I started walking around the church, (yes, I went into church!) visualised each scene, and then asked the Lord to tell me how He felt — and, in turn, how I should feel about all the events in the Church and in the world. I also suddenly saw how all 14 Stations are intrinsically connected: they all show Christ freely relinquishing every speck of power for the sake of the others, including His enemies.
We can learn much by looking at the mixed response of the apostles and others as they learned of Christ’s Resurrection. They swing back and forth between joy and fear, between belief and doubt. St. Matthew’s account of the Ascension has a strange memory: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 27:17). Even after 40 days and multiple appearances of the Lord, “some doubted.”
I have been watching the marvellous new series “The Chosen” which powerfully brings home the human frailty, weakness, doubt of the apostles but how they grew through Christ’s power.
But you may ask: How can we “exhibit joy?” The Risen Christ does something crucial: He always recognises that the enemies of joy still dwell within the apostles, namely fear, doubt, and remorse. And so he soothes their pain, always saying “Fear not,” and always treating them with great delicacy.
When we first meet frightened and angry people we shouldn’t start singing Easter songs and pretending that everything is just fine. Rather, we need to listen to them. In fact, perhaps the most effective exhibition of joy is the emotional calm that allows us to absorb the trauma of others.
We must note the constant intertwining of post-Easter joy with horrible disasters.
Joy that denies the inevitability of future suffering is an anesthesia and opposed to Christian faith. When the coronavirus finally recedes, we can be sure that some other disaster will rise up, either at the personal level or globally. Who knows?
If we endure the current situation, embracing it as a time of deep conversion, we will become spiritually stronger, more joyful, and able to witness true Christian joy.
Fr Martin Hislop is the Vicar of St Luke’s Kingston-upon-Thames