Every Lent, the Christian faithful make resolutions to help them grow closer to the Lord. Sometimes God’s permissive will takes us beyond these self-imposed penances. This movement of divine providence has come to mind several times in dealing with the restrictions caused by the coronavirus.
Truth be told, the various ascetical commitments we make, either of a negative version – I won’t drink caffeine – or of a positive nature – I’ll work on my prayer life – are all things we’ve given to ourselves. While they can be uncomfortable and require some death to self, we are still relatively in control.
In the broad spiritual treasury of the Church, the spiritual masters constantly affirm and encourage all acts of mortification. Although, being true experts of the spiritual life, they are quick to point out that the sacrifices that we choose are subordinate to the ones that are given to us or that are placed upon us. In such instances, we are not in control, and we do not have the power to quit, cheat, or suspend such sacrifices.
For example, we can make the resolution to be more humble, such as: I’ll talk less in conversations, or I’ll defer to the expertise of others, etc. And, while this ascetical resolution is good, it is not as spiritually advantageous as when someone else puts us in a situation where humility is demanded, such as when they interrupt us in the middle of a thought, speak condescendingly, or dismiss good ideas without explanation, etc. The second, unchosen penance is far more spiritually rich and helpful to us.
Among the spiritual masters, Saint Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church and an advocate for lay spirituality, wrote in his masterpiece, Introduction to the Devout Life:
“If you ask me what are the most profitable humiliations, I reply that undoubtedly those will do us most good and serve God best which are accidental or attendant upon our position in life, because these we do not seek for ourselves, but receive them as God sends them, and his choice is always better than ours.”
During this Lent, we should not lose sight of this spiritual wisdom, nor should we neglect applying it to the various measures enacted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Each of us had our own plans for Lent. Whatever they might have been, however planned or not, the pandemic has changed everything. Far beyond our control, God’s permissive will has allowed the pestilence of the coronavirus to cover the earth. Unexpected measures have been placed upon us: quarantines, curfews, social distancing, cancellation of work, entertainment, and time with family. The sacraments have been publicly suspended and can only be viewed via livestreaming or in parking lots. It seems the world has been turned upside down.
But we have a choice.
The various measures and restrictions that have been put into place by civic and church authorities can serve as a new plan for Lent. While certainly nothing we would ever wish upon ourselves, or our neighbors, this is where we are. This is our world, at least for now.
We can be angry, shake our fists, annoy our neighbors, and burden our loved ones with complaining and negativity, or we can allow God’s grace to take us above such things. We can choose a higher path. We can accept these measures as our new Lenten penances, adjust patiently to them, allow their annoyance to become opportunities for selfless service to our loved ones, and seek to grow internally in the lessons of humility and self-abandonment. In addition, the restrictions can be a source of light-heartedness and humor.
Some years ago, as I was frustrated that a pastoral program wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, an old priest pulled me aside and said to me, “Young father, life is short. And in life, you can choose to be either angry or entertained. It’s better to be entertained.” He laughed. And it took me a few additional years of ministry to understand the wisdom and spiritual maturity of his counsel and the liberation and joy that comes with it.
In these weeks in which a surprising Lent has been given to us, accompanied by an array of unexpected ascetical practices, we can choose to be entertained. Rather than focusing on what was, or bemoaning what was supposed to be, we can choose to be here now. We can accept reality, and truly make this Lent and its blessings our own.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby
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