Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last night in his press conference announcing mandatory closure of non-essential business and a stay-at-home advisory said something that caught my attention. He was musing on the existential oppression being felt by so many people stuck in their homes day after day, unable to work or engage in their usual social or civic activities. He said that for many, their purpose has been stripped away. Without the need to get up every morning, get dressed, commute to work, work hard all day, take the kids to sports or other events, being part of religious organizations, meeting friends–they’ve lost a sense of purpose in their lives. They are rudderless.
It makes me wonder if that’s one of the goods that God will draw out of this evil. Perhaps we had collectively found our purpose in the wrong things. Not bad things. Certainly necessary things. But not the purpose of our being. If my purpose–or to put in a way more familiar to Catholics, my vocation— is in my job or my social life or my volunteer work or anything else, even though they be very good, then I may have missed the mark. My essential purpose, the very fundamental purpose that underlies everything is, as the old Baltimore Catechism told us, to know God, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. My vocation is how I do all that through my state in life, whether in marriage, priesthood, religious life, or the single life. Everything else flows from that.
But how often we get the priority wrong. How often does knowing and loving God take a back seat to my job, my activities, my busy-ness? How often does loving my family fall into second place to the demands of my job? There’s also a trap in thinking that loving my family is all the stuff we shuttle them around to, the things we do. It’s certainly a part of it, but it begins before that in connecting with them. With our kids, in loving them, forming them, forming their faith. With our spouse, in loving them, helping them in their journey toward heaven, in growing in relationship with Christ and being ever more open to the graces of the Holy Spirit.
We’ve had so much stripped away from us right now, so much of our routine, our security, our ability to go on with business as usual. We are forced to confront what our lives are about. Priests, too, are facing this same self-examination. What is your priesthood about? How much of all the busy-ness you experience an essential part of your vocation? The meetings, the budgets, the schedules? All necessary in its time and place, of course. But not the essential. I love to see how so many of our priests have embraced the essentials, finding ways to bring Christ and be Christ to their spiritual children through livestream Masses and Benediction from the back of pickup trucks and in airplanes, through drive-through confessions, through livestream rosaries and retreats and catecheses.
The Consolation of the Eucharist
To be sure, one of the costs of the current response to the crisis is our ability to celebrate Mass with our priests in person and to receive Christ in the Eucharist. It is a great loss and a great sorrow. Every time I watch a Mass on video and come to the communion part and am unable to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, I am brought nearly to tears in my longing for the Lord.
But being deprived of the Eucharist is not the same as being deprived of grace or of Christ Himself. Receiving Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is a great consolation even in the best of times and sorely desired now. But consolations and the experience of consolation are not God. The experience of receiving Christ is not Christ Himself. You can have a relationship with God without receiving the Eucharist as so many tens of thousands or millions of Catholics have experienced historically and even today where there are not enough priests. The Hidden Christians of Japan are just one example of a whole nation of Catholics who were deprived of the Eucharist for hundreds of years and yet maintained their faith and their relationship with God in all that time.
Which isn’t to say that the Eucharist isn’t important or necessary. The Eucharist is, of course, the source and summit of the Christian life. But just like food is important and necessary, we sometimes fast voluntarily or involuntarily and it doesn’t kill us. In fact, we often emerge with a better understanding of our bodies and ourselves, with more discipline and a greater appreciation. We cannot and should not make an idol of either our experience or our consolation. St. Theresa of Calcutta, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross are just a few among many saints who suffered through long dark nights of the soul as they grew in closeness to the Lord. Being stripped of those consolations is a necessary part of the pruning by the Eternal Gardener of our souls that helps us to grow. As St. Teresa wrote: “Do we love the God of all consolation or merely the consolations of God?”
With regard to the loss of reception of the Eucharist, I’ve read and heard a lot of criticism of bishops as being cowardly or unfaithful for stopping the public celebration of Masses. But that’s not our call to make. We have not been called to make that judgment. Unless your vocation is to that of governance, you don’t get to make that decision. We certainly don’t have the same facts in front of us that they have access to. As a father, I make decisions for my family that my children can call unfair or unjust or cowardly. Sometimes, I make it based on information that Melanie and I know that we don’t think it wise to share with the children for various prudential reasons. Like it or not, we are the children and they are our fathers. For that is their vocation. And I have mine.
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