Every Lent begins with a reminder that we will die. “Remember, man, that thou are dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” St Jerome and many other saints are often depicted with a human skull, to show that they were conscious of their mortality. St Benedict told his monks, “Keep death daily before your eyes.”
Some people think this Catholic fascination with death is morbid and depressive. Quite the opposite. We are supposed to remember death, not so that we will forget to live, but so that we won’t. Your life is whatever you are doing right now, not some dream vacation in a vague future someday. Your life is your current habits, not your future reformed self, once you are old and retired and have time for holiness. Remembering that we might die reminds us to live.
The Catholic Church understands this, and invented Lent to help us remember that “unto dust we shall return.” Lent is almost over, all but the last, most sacred week. But this year, even if we failed to make a good Lent, we have another God-given reminder that “real life” is ephemeral.
A month ago, none of us would have imagined that everything could just close down—jobs, restaurants, schools, events. Plans changed overnight. Suddenly people aren’t going to work. Suddenly kids aren’t going to school. Suddenly people’s weddings are canceled, graduation is canceled…parties, social events, even Mass is canceled. COVID-19 has taken over everything, canceled everything, and definitely made for a more penitential Lent than most of us were probably planning on.
The timing is providential. Lent is there to remind us that the important things are not here, but in God. That we are not in control, but God is. And if Lent failed, then perhaps COVID-19 will succeed.
It’s hard enough for Catholics to be told that they can’t go to Mass on Sunday. The idea of spending Easter alone at home is heartbreaking; not just missing out on the beautiful Easter liturgy, but also not having the opportunity to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with friends and family.
For many of us, going to Mass on Sundays had been just a soulless fulfillment of a legal requirement. The Church says we have to go to Mass, so we go to Mass. But the real point is to keep holy the Lord’s day. We might have been going to Mass on Sundays, but were we really keeping them holy? Were we really understanding them as the day set aside for the service of God? And if not, what can we do to serve God on Sundays?
Sunday observance isn’t the only routine that could use reassessment from time to time.
The COVID-19 situation is forcing many people to spend longer periods of time alone with their spouses and families, which can be hard to deal with, even in the most loving and supportive of relationships. Lock any small group of people together in an enclosed space and dump some stressors on them, and their faults will become very evident very quickly.
As anyone knows who has tried it, taking care of very young children is hard enough even when you can get a babysitter for an occasional night out, or invite a friend over for a play date. If you add in social isolation and the fear of pandemic and its possible economic effects, you’re going to have some real challenges.
But on the other hand, this challenging time–and the fact that you now have no one to depend on but your spouse–is a reminder of how important it is to invest in your marriage. Marriage is a partnership where two people agree to take responsibility for helping each other find God. Once entered into, that relationship is your single most valuable possession, emotionally, spiritually, and even materially. So if quarantine conditions reveal weaknesses in your relationship, that is a great opportunity to invest in strengthening those areas. A kind word here, a loving touch there, a date night in, just listening–simple things that you might have been forgetting to do–can go a long way to building the foundation for a happier and stronger family. It might require a little creativity, but that’s kind of the point. We have to think outside the box now, because all the tidy little boxes we built for ourselves are gone now.
Whatever else it might be, this pandemic is a wake-up call for each of us, a reminder that what is really important is not our plans, our schedules, or our careers–a microscopic nuisance can change all of that overnight. What matters is our relationships with God, and with the people God has put in our lives.
Lent and COVID-19 are here to remind us to reassess our priorities. Life is now, and we only get one try. What are we going to do with it?