Helen Freeh on COVID-19 and us: Genesis has a beautiful line in which Joseph says to his brothers, “you meant it for evil but God has turned it to good.”
In the face of an assault, natural disaster, or act of war, humans have an overwhelming desire to do something. Here in Nebraska, we suffered historic floods last year and our citizens united to work hard in sandbagging, cleaning, donating food and water. There was something for us to do in response to the catastrophe. Tornadoes recently struck Nashville, Tennessee, and killed twenty-five people and devastated parts of their downtown. Thousands of people came out to assist in the rescue and clean up of Nashville. So many, in fact, that the FEMA authorities had to turn people away.
We are hardwired to do something in response to suffering, loss, attacks, and threats to our community.
Yet now in the greatest disruption to global life since World War II, the very thing we are called to do is – nothing. We cannot mobilize to confront the global assault of the Wuhan Coronavirus. We cannot sign up at the local recruiting office. We cannot donate our steel and rubber products to the war effort. We cannot even march in protest to or solidarity with government policy.
Our mobilization is the mobilization of isolation.
To do something now is to stay home, not go to work, school, parties, sporting events, concerts, or – most sadly for many of us – Mass. Our civic and even moral duty is to do nothing. Here in the middle of Lent, three weeks before the great Triduum and Easter celebration of the Church, we have been called by our government to enter a cloistered, monastic life within our individual homes. The spiritual significance of this cannot be overlooked.
In his book, God or Nothing, Cardinal Sarah warns against the “heresy of activism” in which we have forgotten that the heart of our life lies only in God. The activity of contemporary life creates blindness or deafness to the reality of our reliance upon God. We are wayfarers in this world and most of our life is outside of our control.
The coronavirus situation reveals a reality that always has been. This virus, like other natural disasters, is beyond our control. But, we are able to control our reactions to the situation. Our false sense of control has been stripped from us and we are laid bare. This stripping of power reveals beautiful life hidden beneath our outward trappings. Our response must be docility, trust, abandonment to Divine Providence, and most of all charity. As Colossians 3:14 and 1 Peter 4:8 declare, charity binds all the other virtues and rules as queen over them.
Our situation is full of ironies with deep symbolic spiritual significance. To do something against this contagion, we must do nothing. To strengthen our global alliance, each nation must close its borders to others. We have never been so globally connected in spirit by physically disconnecting ourselves from each other. Out of love for our neighbors, we must not visit them. To keep our communities strong, we must break them. Our very society is now made out of isolated households. And spiritually, we are drawn closer to God and his body by being kept away from his sacramental presence. Our greatest offerings at this time are our sacrifices.
The cloistered life has challenges and benefits. A benefit is we can all be discalced! Yet we’ve been thrust into our cells unwillingly and without proper preparation. Even within our cells, however, we are still able to “do” something. How we mobilize, the ways we can “do” something now are to help our own family and friends be holy monks. This includes through the encouragement of others, known and unknown, through social media channels. Build up the body of Christ now, don’t continue to rip it apart. Our first thoughts towards others should stem from charity and be seen first through charity.
One of the truths this virus emphasizes is the isolation of our older population. There are practical solutions that we can implement in response. One I am urging my own parish to begin: Healthy, young parishioners and families should be matched with older or vulnerable ones. The healthy would contact their adoptees daily to see if they need anything, even if what they need is simply the daily contact with another.
Isolation is difficult enough for a family; consider how more difficult it is for those already alone. Our parishes can help with this now by beginning “adopt-a-parishioner” programs to reach out to those most likely to be at risk, and thus most afraid right now. Such charity would itself save lives.
We are all required to experience severe fasting. Recall, we don’t fast from sinful things but good in order to draw closer to God, the source of all our life. We must fast from the good of communal life. Fasts do not last forever, though. Consider how much we will rejoice as a global community when we can end this fast?
We take our communion with our fellow human beings for granted and we take our spiritual Communion at the Mass for granted. How much this daily communion meant has been shown to us through this evil of separation. Genesis has a beautiful line in which Joseph says to his brothers, “you meant it for evil but God has turned it to good.” The coronavirus and its effects are an evil and our own response can further and worsen its effects, or we can cooperate in God’s turning evil to good.
Social isolation is everyone’s cross to take up now. But if we embrace our cross, it will lead to a fullness of life we never could have known.
We have been given a great gift within this historic experience of communal suffering – the gift of time to pray, reflect, and – if we can live it as such – leisure. Let us embrace what we cannot escape and accept that our “doing nothing” is the very something all of us must do.
Dr. Helen Freeh received her B.A. and M. A. from the University of Dallas and her Ph.D. from Baylor University. She has taught at Hillsdale College, where she met her husband, John. She is now in temporary early retirement, raising and homeschooling their children in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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