Easter & the Coronavirus
by Noel E. Bordador
A lleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
This is an ancient Christian greeting at Easter. There is a legend in the Eastern Christian Church that this greeting was first uttered by Mary Magdalene when she met with Emperor Tiberius Caesar of Rome, while at the same time handing him an egg (symbolizing the stone from Jesus’ tomb which was rolled away at his resurrection). She went to Rome to protest the execution of Jesus by Caesar’s Governor in Judea, Pilate. To proclaim that injustice and death did not prevail, she professed before the most powerful man in the world those words, “Christ is risen!”
I am writing this while the world is gripped in the pandemic of COVID-19. At this time 1.2 million people worldwide have been infected and more than seventy thousand have perished. Personally, I know of people who have been infected. I know of people who have died. It breaks our hearts. It appears that the world is in the dominion of death. In addition, the economy of many nations has declined sharply which, of course, brings economic hardship to millions.
In the Philippines where we are at, for example, there is increasing hunger and starvation among the poor since there is basically no social safety net. Because of enhanced community quarantine – a lockdown for almost two months, food resources have difficulty reaching many parts of the country. On top of that, our health care system is ill prepared to handle the growing health crisis. It is not surprising that there is growing social discontent. The social clamor is only met with a threat from the government, i.e., those who are found fomenting social unrest would be killed. So said the President on national TV.
Because of the lockdown, churches are closed. The Body of Christ has not been able to meet in worship for a month now, and won’t be able to observe Holy Week and Easter.
Therefore, it does not feel very “Easterish” this Easter. It feels like we’re in Good Friday or Holy Saturday, waiting for Easter to come.
But we are clinging to hope in the face of death, not an empty hope, but one founded on our faith that Christ has triumphed over evil that assails God’s creation, including death. Jesus “descendit ad inferos” (“descended into hell” and on the third day rose from the dead) as our ancient Creed tells us, and so there is no place in all of creation- not even in hell- where he has not gone to save us from suffering and clutches of death. It is faith in this that we greet one another this Easter, “Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.”
So how do we as an Easter people celebrate Easter on these very difficult days? Here are some of my paltry musings.
(1) Because of a lockdown in which mass assemblies are prohibited, we cannot go to church where we can worship regularly. We are deprived of the public celebration of the Word and Sacraments. Yet it must be said that though we are temporarily deprived of church and Holy Communion, we are NOT deprived of God. I remember what Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906), a Discalced Carmelite nun, once said when she was unable to go to church because of illness: “I am deprived of church and Holy Communion, but the good God does not need the Sacrament in order to come to me; I feel I have Him with me just as much it is there in the depths, in the heaven of my soul that I love to find Him as He never leaves me: God in me, me in Him, oh that is my life.” Elizabeth tells us that God is in and with us, never leaving us. He is nearer to us than we think, in fact so near because he is in us. Since we have more time for solitude (if we take it) during this time of quarantine, we can deepen our relationship with God by spending more time with him in prayer. For Elizabeth, prayer is “anticipated heaven” since God is in heaven within us, in the center of our soul.
(2) Secondly, the pandemic makes us feel very vulnerable and precarious. Why is it some people get it and remain asymptomatic, while many others do not? Because there is a lot we don’t know about the virus, we fear that we could be next. Though I take precautions by observing health protocols to evade infection, in reality, there is no 100% assurance that I would not catch it, get sick, or worse, die from it. This thought brings me face to face with my mortality. I try not to dwell on it too much because it might make me more anxious, but the thought is there. It is unavoidable.
Recently, I have been reading two Carmelite saints who have helped me reflect on my mortality. The first is Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) who died of tuberculosis at a fairly young age of twenty-four. The other is the one I mentioned before, Elizabeth of the Trinity, who died also quite young at the age of twenty-six from Addison disease. These two suffered tremendously because of the illness. They did not have it easy. Their physical illness brought them deep interior darkness. Their faith did not protect them from suffering and death, and so I also do not expect that my faith would somehow magically make me immune from illness and death. That’s not the Christian promise of Easter. The promise of Easter Sunday, however, is this: evil and death do not have the final verdict on life and our hope, but life everlasting.
It is to this hope that Therese and Elizabeth clung to. In hope amidst the specter of death, they surrendered themselves to the loving arms of God.
Even as she was spiritually struggling during the few months before she passed away, Therese wrote to a spiritual friend, a missionary priest, “I shall teach you, dear little Brother of my soul, how you must sail the stormy sea of the world with the abandonment and the love of a child who knows his Father loves him and would be unable to leave him in the hour of danger.” She tells us in the midst of the unknown and uncertainties of life, we have to learn to abandon ourselves like a little child unto the arms of our loving God who is and will be with us always as we pass from this earthly life into our heavenly one. Six months before her death, Elizabeth, wrote to a priest, “…my Master’s pleasure is mine. I surrender myself to Him to do as He wills with me…Pray that I may be completely surrendered to Him in suffering He sends me and that I might already live for love alone.” In life and death, abandonment, surrender to God’s merciful love is what is required of us. That is what faith is all about.
The twentieth century mystic, Carlo Carretto, wrote, “The night of the spirit is the mature ability of the human being to love God in the dark, to accept the design even without seeing it, to bear the distance without complaining, even when love thrusts us towards him until we writhe with longing.” What Therese and Elizabeth teach me is to surrender to the inexplicable dark night of the spirit wherein God’s “love thrusts us towards him until we writhe with longing.” In the hour of death- whether be that soon or later- I pray only to be surrendered to this divine love with loving trust, and without bitterness.
(3) In the meantime, we can drive ourselves batty by focusing too much on the crisis. We can become too immersed in our anxiety and fears. Of course, it is normal to be fearful and anxious. But excessive self-preoccupation in fear could eclipse our faith in God. Elizabeth, writing to a friend who was a prey to self-pity because of her struggles, counseled her to detach from her self: “…the secret of peace and happiness lies in forgetfulness and disregard of self.” Instead, she ought to reorient her focus on God: “Perhaps you think it is difficult to forget yourself…it is extremely simple…I will tell you my secret: think about God who dwells in you.” When negatives thoughts and feelings come, I train my anxious soul to anchor itself on Christ by praying these simple words, repeatedly, until I am calmed: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me (us).”
(4) Because we are embodied souls, we express care and love through physical means- handshake, touch, kiss, embrace, physical closeness, or sexuality. But because of the threat of COVID-19 infection, we could not do these things. Because of the lockdown I have not seen my parents and brothers and sisters and I miss them. I cannot go out and see my parishioners, and I miss them, too. I cannot see most of my friends, and I miss them, too. My partner could not travel back to see me, and how that breaks my heart! Even in our community, we have to maintain some physical distance. Sometimes, suspicious thoughts of a roommate enter my mind: “Is he carrying the virus that could kill me and the rest of us?”
How odd and paradoxical it is to be told that love is best expressed nowadays through physical distance! Strange this might be, we have to accept that physical distance from one another is a way we protect one another. Intentional separation from others is not tantamount to indifference, but, for now, the way of love and caring. We all yearn for that day when we shall be able to gather again and embrace and hug and kiss one another. Oh, what joy that day will bring, and we shall say the words of the Psalm (118:24) we sing on Easter: “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
(5) Our separation might be physical, but it does not prevent us from being united spiritually. In a letter to a priest, Therese professed her belief in the communion of saints- saints in heaven who assist the struggling souls on earth: “I believe the Blessed [that is, the saints] have great compassion on our miseries, they remember, being weak and mortal like us, they committed the same faults, sustained the same combats, and their fraternal tenderness becomes greater than it was when they were on earth, and for this reason, they never cease protecting us and praying for us.” We are all-the saints above and the saints here on earth- part of and bound together in the one mystical Body of Christ. This mystical Body of Christ transcends space and time. The saints in heaven who have gone before us intercede for us in love before the Throne of God. They are spiritually bound to us in love. Likewise, our separation from each other now should not prevent us from being spiritually bound to one another in love by interceding for one another in prayer. Let us devote a significant time during our quarantine to support one another through our prayers. This is one way we express our love to the communion of saints. Credo in communio sanctorum. We believe in the communion of saints in love.
(6) I like to be busy. I don’t like to feel helpless, especially in times of suffering and national crisis. I feel like I should be doing something to help- whether that be going out somewhere to volunteer, or participate in some protest against injustice. Inaction has not been my MO. But as a friend who is a doctor said, altruism nowadays is best practiced by inaction. What he meant is that going around doing things outside the house could unnecessarily expose myself to the virus, and also infect others close to me. So the best way to practice love actively nowadays is through inaction. I say actively since it still requires an act of the will to surrender to this love. We also have to remind ourselves that at the very time in which the enemies of Christ rendered him physically “inactive” on the Cross, it was through that three hours of “inaction” on the Cross that Christ was able to do the greatest thing of love- our redemption! He was most active even in his supreme inaction. We also have to trust that our period of inaction would bear fruits of love.
Nevertheless, there are ways for us to “do something” during this period of “inaction.” Yes, we can remain in contact with our loved ones and others who are fragile, vulnerable and living alone through phone, email or social media. I also mentioned praying for others, especially for our healthcare frontliners, as another way of loving our neighbor.
Being quarantined with my small community could be an exercise in patience and charity. I am sure that would be in any community, including family. Some of my roommates are wonderful; some do drive me crazy. I’m sure some of that is really my issue. Therese of Lisieux said she really did not set out to create enemies in her monastery, but she confessed that the difficult feelings that arose as part of community life could create enemies. How true! I don’t necessarily have enemies in my community, except feelings of impatience, resentment and anger (however justified) could feel like I have an enemy or two.
I know myself. If I am not careful, I could begin focusing on people’s foibles and could raise the negative emotional thermostat in the community. Active love begins with self-awareness: what negativity do I, could I contribute to the tension? From this self-awareness and reflection hopefully I could take careful steps. It could mean biting my tongue when I am about to say something not nice. I have to remind myself not to engage in backbiting gossip. Or perhaps, charity could simply mean temporarily avoiding someone who could push my button. It could also mean saying “Thank you” to that roommate I rather criticize.
Active love could also simply mean fulfilling my daily chores so as not to burden others- like cleaning when it’s my turn, shopping for food, cooking for the community, to cite a few examples. Little acts of love and kindness produce ripples of love.
In sum, community is a crucible where love develops, a school to learn love.
(7) We’re fortunate to have a comfortable house where we could take refuge. We are also very fortunate to have plenty of food. However, when we go out to do some necessary errands, we see streets emptied of people, saved the homeless people- adults and children- who have nowhere to go.
We have also become aware of the difficulties this lockdown brings to our church members who do not have work or adequate savings to buy the food for their families. We also know of another shelter for persons living with HIV/AIDS which does not have an adequate food supply.
While we can’t simply retreat to the comfort of our home, and do nothing, we also know that we can’t provide for the needs on many, never mind all.
However, not being able to provide for all should not be an excuse not to do something, however small. Voluntary poverty is a virtue to be practiced in the Catholic Worker. It’s not a romantic ideal. It hurts to part with money or possessions since we are all filled with self-love. But love that is real is sacrificial. It is not an option for Catholic Workers not to imitate and practice the sacrificial love of Christ. We must share what we have- not only to save others, but also to save ourselves from the infection of selfishness.
We can’t simply pray away hunger. Prayer is one part of the solution. But it leads to action. When contemplating the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary who left her life of contemplative prayer at home to visit her cousin, Elizabeth of the Trinity had this to say: “Never did the ineffable vision that [the Virgin Mary] contemplated within herself in anyway diminish her outward charity.” Furthermore, “…contemplation turns towards men, sympathizes with their needs, is inclined towards all their miseries; it must cry and be fruitful…”
So we decided to start “Dorothy’s Kitchen” in which we produce a few meals a few times a week for the homeless in our neighborhood. We don’t have a lot of homeless shelters here, nor do we have the social safety net we see in First World countries. Given our very limited resources, we barely make a dent, but it is something we feel we ought to do. Circumventing quarantine laws, a couple of us go out to deliver food while maintaining appropriate physical distancing protocols. Catholic Workers have a long history of practicing civil disobedience in the name of love. Are we nuts? Certifiable!
We also have shared with that HIV-related shelter some of the food that was gifted to us. Since it meant traveling to several checkpoints that could block us from reaching the shelter, we needed someone who could drive us there. Since healthcare professionals are exempted from quarantine travel restrictions, we drafted a friend who is a doctor to drive us there. God provides a way to share love. Since then he has been helping us deliver food to the homeless.
Though we’re not rich, we share a portion of our house’s money to buy rice for some church members located in the slums. Since we don’t have a lot of cash, it’s scary to part with some of what we have. But, we have to have faith that God will see us through. Again, it is a drop in the ocean, but it is something we do to share the love of Christ. Caritas Christi urget nos. The love of Christ compels us, urges us… (2 Cor. 5:14)
Dorothy Day spoke of the Catholic Worker’s “duty of delight.” We are an Easter people. We have a duty of Easter joy! This week we must greet the world in lockdown with this greeting:
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Love to all from this side of God’s world…
– Noel B.
Photo: Prepared meals of fried rice that was distributed to the homeless people around the area who lost access to food because of the Coronavirus quarantine.
©2020 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Episcopal priest in the Philippines. He runs Nazareth House, a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality for persons with HIV/AIDS in Manila.
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