Our faith teaches us that God is always at work, always bringing good out of every situation, always turning everything into what benefits us, always making everything that happens into something “meant to be.” At the same time, it is always difficult, and usually impossible, to know just what God is up to! It is extremely difficult in the present moment and less difficult, though just as problematic, to look at a situation in the past to discern what God is doing.
During the pandemic with so many deaths and so much suffering, during these months of lockdown and quarantine, during the daily contemplation when we realize how much we took for granted, we are all trying to figure out what God is doing, why is this happening. There is no end to the possibilities. The spectrum is wide. On the one hand, people who believe in an angry and vengeful God see this pandemic as God’s way of expressing anger with humanity, of telling us to shape up, of calling us to task. If this is how God is, then count me among the nonbelievers for I could never believe in this kind of God.
On the other hand, people who believe in a loving and faithful God, a God who pours out his mercy on us, see this pandemic as an opportunity to press the reset button and re-center our lives on what matters most. This time of pause beckons us to ask difficult questions about what really is important in life.
Without diminishing the overwhelming sadness of so many lives and livelihoods lost, Father Michael Casagram, OCSO, a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky says in America magazine that the pandemic offers a “moment for human breakthrough.” Rather than continuing to pursue power and wealth, we could come to understand that they “create an illusion of meaning and purpose while undermining our spiritual destiny.” We think that power and wealth give us a measure of control, but instead, he says, “they close the door to grace.”
Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast writes so simply, “When you can’t go far, you go deep.” It’s hard to go far in lockdown! Forced isolation, also known as quarantine, is making us look at our lives and ask questions that we otherwise do not ask. It is inviting us into conversations that we might not have had before.
We find a similar wisdom in the Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross. We are reminded not just to talk with each other about the daily pragmatic concerns of life, but that we must find ways to talk about our life in God, “lest we should talk least about what means most to us.” This is a challenge not just for us Holy Cross religious, but for all people. An unexpected grace of this pandemic can be for all of us to talk about what matters most.
From several conversations that I have had with our students via Zoom, I am convinced that when they return to campus in August, many will have different questions about life and career, their future and their faith. This time of forced isolation has opened up a space inside of them that may not have been opened before. How could it not open up this space? Most of our students have been on the fast track, traveling at breakneck speed to achieve, perform, excel. This is the society that they have grown up in. Society has nourished them in this culture.
Now, they have been forced to stop and breathe and think and evaluate and ask different questions about what is important in life. For too long we have conflated career planning and vocational discernment. And they are very different things. I believe that our students will ask more questions about vocational discernment and less about career. They might be more interested in listening to their hearts than in pursuing the latest internship. Career and discernment are not polar opposites. But they start at very different points. Discernment starts with listening to one’s heart. Career begins with résumé building.
Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part. In many ways how we live with the virus has deepened the rifts in our country. It is one more dimension of how we are so divided. The current protests around the country remind us each day of these worsening divisions. And sadly we are encouraged to become more and more divided.
I confess that I spent the first month of this pandemic angry, frustrated, complaining, not able to put my trust in God, not seeing any purpose in this disruption of my life and ministry. One day I got tired of responding to the question, “How are you?” by saying, “Miserable!” I realized that this is how things are now. I am fond of saying that God is present at every moment of our existence, independent of the content of the moment. But if I really believe that, then I have to believe that God is truly present in this moment.
So I stopped responding, “Miserable!” While I wasn’t ready to say “I’m totally fine,” I knew that how I responded could add to the sorrow and despair that many were feeling. Or it could add to the joy and hope that the world needs. Moving from saying “miserable” to smiling and offering hope was the work of God in me.
All during the Easter season, we listen to the Acts of the Apostles. I am struck by how Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in every imaginable situation: in chains in prison, on land, on sea, when he was feeling well, when he was feeling sick. In Romans 8:28 Paul writes, “All things work for good for those who love God.” There are just as many opportunities to love God and to preach the gospel during this pandemic as there are at any other moment. Realizing this was a great grace from God.
So these days of uncertainties and unknowns have been an opportunity for me to really believe what I preach — that God is in everything, that God is always working in us, that God is always bringing good out of bad, and that the mercy of God will gather us together again. I am coming to believe this in a way that I could not have believed it before. And for this I am very grateful.
I will not try to defend God’s way of doing things. He does not need my defense. Most times I do not understand him. God does not ask me to understand, but to trust. Even at a time like this, God asks us to trust providence, to trust that God is up to something good as is always the case. After all, God is not a servant. God is a father, a providential father who cares for us.
Most of us want to serve God, but as an advisor! God does not need our advice! I often joke that the bottom line of most of our prayers is this: “O God, do for me now what I would do for you if you were me and if I were you.” But it does not work that way!
This time of “pause” is a rich and singular invitation from God to look at our lives, to see what matters most, and to trust more fully in God’s providence and in God’s care for us.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Father Joe Corpora works in the Alliance for Catholic Education and Campus Ministry, and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. He has written two books of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God and Being Mercy: The Path to Being Fully Alive, both published by Corby Books.