With the rapidly developing news of the coronavirus outbreak and the many and changing ways our nation, our Church, and our university have responded to the threat it poses, it can be easy to forget that we are in a special season in the Church year. In the blink of an eye, my social media feed went from “Tips for Fasting during Lent” to “Tips to Surviving Quarantine.” My campus ministry planning went from “how can I help my students grow in their prayer life” to “when will I actually see my students again?”
The dorms are closed. Classes are all on line. Public Masses are cancelled. Like many others, I’ve been directed to work from home as much as possible. Students have been told not to return to campus from Spring Break. The CDC says to avoid gatherings of more than ten people and not to get within six feet of each other when we do. And don’t forget to wash your hands! Most of us are currently looking at a lot of time at home, either alone or with our families, depending on our living situation.
But it’s still Lent.
So how do we “do Lent” in this era of social isolation?
Into the Desert
When I thought about this question, I quickly realized that social isolation is actually perfectly suited for the season of Lent. Consider that our model for Lent is the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. That’s why Lent is (approximately) 40 days, and why we fast during Lent. But Jesus didn’t just fast for 40 days. He could have done that and stayed home. He went into the desert. Why? Because there he would be alone.
Our Lord’s 40 days in the desert were a type of social isolation. He was getting away from his regular routine. He was getting away from the people he normally saw. He was getting away from the places he normally went. He was isolating himself, because in this isolation he could be more intentionally present to God.
Of course we know that Jesus was not truly alone. He was tempted by Satan; he was also ministered to by angels. No matter how alone you may think you are, you will always have spiritual companions. Satan and his angels (the demons) will be there to tempt you. But God and his holy angels will be there to aid you. They are always there, but often the noise of the world drowns them out. Isolating ourselves for a time allows us to more easily discern their presence.
We should therefore expect to be tempted by Satan in this time of social isolation. It may come in the form of fear, worry and despair. It may come in the pursuit of illicit pleasures in an attempt to alleviate boredom. It may come in anger felt over how some people are reacting to the crisis. Recognize this demonic temptation for what it is and hold fast against it.
But we can also expect to be comforted and strengthened by God. That’s the good news. God speaks to us in the silence. His angels are always with us (remember, we each have our own guardian angel). This time of social isolation can be an occasion to enter more deeply into prayer and learn to listen to God’s still, small voice calling to us in the depths of our heart.
Social isolation is why people go on retreats — they seek solitude not merely for rest and renewal but so they can learn to hear again the voice of the Spirit. The social isolation we are now experiencing may not have been of our own choosing, but there is no reason we cannot make of it a Lenten retreat. We just have to enter into it with an open spirit to what God has to give us in this situation.
Here are some practical tips for how to do that.
Number one is to pray every day. You probably have more time on your hands now than you used to. What are you doing with it? Watching more Netflix? Playing more video games? How about reading more scripture? Praying the rosary? Praying the Liturgy of the Hours? Spending more time in silence? Think of all the times you have said, “I would pray more, but I don’t have the time.” God has now given you the time. Use it wisely.
My number two suggestion is to shut everything off. Shut off the news and social media, at least for a couple of hours each day. I know it’s tempting to keep your eye glued to the screen for updates as things continue to evolve (I’m right there with you). But you don’t need updates every five minutes. That will only fill you with anxiety. Check in with a trusted news source every day for updates. Use social media to stay connected with friends. These are good things; but they can consume you if you aren’t careful. Set a limit, then turn it off.
We suffer (yes, suffer) in our society today from a constant barrage of noise. We have forgotten how to be in silence, and this is a shame because it is in the silence that we can listen to our own thoughts. It is in the silence that we reflect; that we ponder; that we wonder. It in silence that we find peace. It is in silence that we find God. In this time of social isolation, there is a tendency to focus on what has been taken away from us. But we have been given an opportunity to rediscover silence. Let’s not waste it.
Much of the above has to do with prayer. But what of the other two pillars of Lent, fasting and almsgiving?
When it comes to fasting, I will say this. Apart from the forms of fasting mandated by the Church (abstinence from flesh meat on Fridays and eating one meal only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), the fasting we observe during Lent is self-imposed. It is therefore up to your own discretion whether to modify that fasting regimen. Fasting is meant to be a self-imposed practice of penance and self-denial. It is one small way that we can take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus. But sometimes we have crosses thrust upon us that we did not choose for ourselves. This may be such a time for many of us.
I know many people who have made adjustments to their Lenten penances in light of the current situation. Many people who had given up social media for Lent are using it again because it’s the only way they have of connecting to family and friends. Some who have been practicing an austere form of fasting may want to eat a more robust diet in order to keep their immune system strong. And some are just so stressed out by their current situation that the thought of doing even more penance for Lent just seems unbearable. If you feel like you need to adjust your Lenten penance based on what’s going on in your life right now, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s OK to do so.
Most of us will not be able to receive the Eucharist in the coming weeks as the Church has cancelled most public Masses. For many, this is the most extreme fast of all. Even though the bishop has dispensed us from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, we still long to receive our Lord in the Eucharist. This is a good longing!
How often have we taken the Eucharist for granted? How many times have we failed to appreciate what a great gift it is? It is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. This time of abstinence from the Eucharist will only make our eventual return to the sacrament that much more sweet. Remember that God gave us the sacraments for our benefit but he is not limited to the sacraments. He gives his grace freely to us, as he wills, in whatever way he wills. Even though we may not be able to receive our Lord in the Eucharist, he will come to us in other ways; through prayer, through scripture, through love of one another. This can be an opportunity for us to grow in appreciation for the many and varied ways God seeks us out, even as we seek him.
Finally, almsgiving. Almsgiving is an act of charity to those in need, and truly this is the very reason for our self-isolation. For the most part, college students are not the ones at risk from this virus. Were any of you to get it, you’d be under the weather for a while and then recover. You could have stayed on campus. You could have continued going to classes, going to your jobs, and coming to campus ministry events. And you’d all have been fine.
But you could easily have caught the virus and spread it to others; who would have spread it to others; who would have spread it to others. This would greatly increase the risk that someone who is vulnerable would have contracted the virus; the elderly, the immune-deficient, the infirm. People would have suffered and died who need not have.
By staying home we are preventing that from happening. From curtailing our usual routines, we suffer a little to prevent others from suffering even more. Social isolation in this context is an act of mercy. It is an act of charity. It’s the best way we have to love our neighbor at the moment.
That being said, check in with your neighbors. Make sure they are OK. See if they need help getting supplies or groceries. But do so by phone or text, because honestly, the best thing you can do for your neighbors right now is stay home.
An Uncertain Easter
So can you “do Lent” in this time of social isolation? You bet. In fact it may be the most meaningful Lent any of us have ever had (it will certainly be memorable).
One final word: after Lent comes Easter. And right now we don’t know what Easter will look like. We don’t know if we will be able to gather in our churches to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection. We don’t know how or when our catechumens will be baptized. What will Easter be like this year? How will we express our joy? I don’t know. No one does. But here is yet another opportunity to trust in God and to find peace in the knowledge that he works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28) — even this.
Be at peace.