A Message from the Right Reverend Hugh Gilbert OSB,
Bishop of Aberdeen, on the Coronavirus
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I just wanted to share some reflections on what we are all living at present.
I imagine many of you watched the event at St Peter’s, Rome, last night. What a moment! Wonderful to be connected to the millions connected throughout the world. Wonderful to feel the power of prayer and the presence of Jesus and Mary. If you didn’t see it, it is still available on the Vatican website. It lasts an hour.
So here we all are, probably tiring of the word “unprecedented”. And here it is. A pandemic. Global. Unforeseen. Sometimes lethal. With consequences at every level of our lives, some of them liable to last indefinitely. With the worst yet to come. Here in the north, we have been more affected so far by the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus than by the virus itself. But that is changing. It will come home to us. And we are likely to lose some near and dear to us. Nor do we know the duration.
It exposes, doesn’t it, our fragility and mortality? It is puts a strong black line through our self-satisfaction, and the delusion we are invincible.
Sometimes I have just felt stunned.
For us as believers and Christians and Catholics, the closure of our sacred spaces is another blow, along with the restrictions on the administration of the sacraments. And, heaven help us, all this around Easter.
So it’s worth hearing again the Gospel the Holy Father had proclaimed last night. It has been used several times already in this context. Here it is again, Mark 4:35-41:
‘On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’
Thus the Gospel.
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us” (Pope Francis).
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Here’s a thought. We are enquiring animals. We constantly ask the question, why? Why is this happening? What’s it all about? The conspiracy theories are already on parade. Perhaps the medical explanations are the clearest, but beyond them we are moving in uncertain territory. And if we are religiously-minded, we are tempted to ask, Is this a punishment from God? Is it a sign of the last times? Is it all a chapter out of the Apocalypse? Or just, why does God allow this to happen? Dare I say, don’t go there. Don’t waste mental energy. Any event in life worth its salt can only be understood once it has had its full say. Events need time, like plants, like trees, before they deliver their fruit. They need to have their effects in us before we can uncover their meaning. In the New Testament, the disciples on the way from Jerusalem to Emmaus only recognised their travelling companion as he vanished from their sight. St John Henry Newman spoke of “Christ manifested in remembrance”. God’s purposes are in any case, by definition, unfathomable. Here are some helpful lines of Pope Francis: “faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the darkness and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything” (Lumen Fidei, 57). So, perhaps here is a new Lenten fasting: to fast from too many “whys” and from facile explanations. It’s enough to know that “for those who love God, all things work for their good”.
Better than the why is what. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Life is for action and Christianity is something you do. How can we live through this well? What we want is wisdom, human and divine.
What might it look like?
What about, first, this “stay at home” thing? When, years ago, I had some brief, distant but unforgettable dealings with pigs, I remember watching them burst out of their sties after a period of confinement. It was an explosion. It was beserk. You didn’t want to be in their path. A farmer’s son tells me cattle are the same after release from their in-wintering. Maybe we will be like this when we are unlocked. Seriously, though, there are challenges here, as with life in a submarine. But there are opportunities too. How do we keep sane? Someone wisely said, try and get one good practical job done each day; give yourself the satisfaction of a small daily accomplishment. There’ll be a call, too, to a new level of domestic patience for families. The television ratings have soared, but I hope we won’t just anaethsetise ourselves or our children before our screens. That would waste an opportunity. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said a French philosopher, Blaise Pascal. There is something to learn from lockdown. The room, the home, the household: they are sacred places. “A room of one’s own” was the famous feminist novel of Virginia Woolf; it’s a place of creativity. “When you pray, says Jesus, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6). Our Lord’s words hark back to a passage in Isaiah: “Go, my people, go to your private room, shut yourselves in. Hide yourselves a little while until the retribution has passed” (Is 26:20). I can think of two great biblical lock-downs, both with suggestive connections to Passover and Easter. “Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go and choose a lamb or kid for your families, and kill the Passover victim. Then take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin and with the blood from the basin touch the lintel and both door-posts; then let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then when the Lord goes through Egypt to strike it, and sees the blood on the lintel and on both door-posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the Destroyer to enter your homes and strike’” (Ex 12:21-23). That does resonate, doesn’t it? So Israel kept its first Passover and waited for its Exodus. The Jewish Passover begins this year on the evening of Wednesday 8 April; our Christian Passover, the Paschal Vigil, falls on the night of the 11th and 12th of April. And on Easter Day, we hear of another closed space: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (Jn 20:19). And it is there they receive their mission. Lock-down isn’t impenetrable to grace.
And what about the Sacraments? The priests continue to offer Mass. And we are all included in that great prayer which mediates to us Christ’s eternal prayer for us before the Father. If we can access this through live-streaming, all to the good. We can read the Liturgy of the Word. We can use Magnificat. We can make Spiritual Communion. We can always stay connected by faith. “I have prayed for you, Simon”, Jesus says at the Last Supper, “that your faith will not fail” (Lk 22:32). We are all “inside” that prayer.
Like the Incarnation, like the Passion, the Sacraments are “for us and for our salvation”. They are, each in their own way, ceremonies, rites, liturgies, but the gift each of them symbolizes and communicates goes beyond those. It’s their very purpose to go beyond. The grace of the sacraments outlives the actual reception of them, just as the effect of food outlives the act of eating. Someone said of Baptism, “God gives us our baptism every day”. St John Paul II called Confirmation “a personal Pentecost for the whole of life.” It’s the same point. Even with the Sacraments we can receive repeatedly, like Confession and Communion, the same holds. Every time we turn to God to say “sorry”, or say the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses”, we access the grace of forgiveness that runs like a river from the Cross through all time. This is not to disparage the Sacraments or say that we needn’t return to them when they become accessible again – we’re not nourished if we don’t eat and out of our fasting will come a greater hunger, I hope. But this is also an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of the Sacraments. Think of the Eucharist. What is it for? The grace of the Eucharist is loving one another as the Lord has loved us. That’s the new commandment he gave at the Last Supper. The grace of the Eucharist is a share in God’s charity, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of Christ, and the unity of Christ’s mystical Body. It is to become what we receive, the Body of Christ. The Eucharist makes the Church. It is about living as brothers and sisters in Christ, through him, with him and in him, living what the Church really is – a communion as the theologians say. His Body is to permeate ours, his Blood our blood, his Soul our interiority, and his Divinity to fill our little loving with something of his unlimited love. As we know – it’s a theme in itself –we are being called to show a new level of care for each other at the moment. This is living the grace of the Eucharist. It’s weaving the cords that hold the Body together. Thanks to the phone, internet all the rest, what means we have now! ”Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12). That’s living the Eucharist. Checking up on each other, encouraging one another; a phone call here, a message there, keeping in touch with your parish. This IS the Eucharist. I think we’re being called to appreciate this more – to get real, actually. And aren’t there, so many voices in wider society too, inspired by the solidarity this dreadful virus is eliciting, hoping that there will be a healthier and more human, more caring, more supporting way of living together – not just the pursuit of private goals? Wouldn’t it be great if the lifting of pollution became permanent? Wouldn’t it be great if the great generosity so many are showing, often just in the little things, became a New Normal?
Back to the Eucharist. I know a gentleman who has such devotion to the Blessed Sacrament that he takes his daily exercise outside a church, praying to the Eucharistic Lord within. Beautiful. But we can think too of what our Lord said at the Last Supper: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him.” Christ is present in the Host to be present in our hearts. St Peter says, “In your hearts reverence Christ as Lord”, says St Peter (1 Pet 3:15). It strikes me so often: what resources our faith gives us, and how the Christian and the Church can find grace and a way of living out our humanity and Christianity wherever we are. There are always new veins of new riches to be discovered in Christ.
There is, for example, a long tradition of interpreting the “inner room” Christ speaks of as the human heart, our interiority. Hence the practice of the Prayer of the Heart which is a turning within, closing the door on distractions, to meet the Christ who really makes his home within us. There is an ancient monastic writing which speaks of the three “churches”. The first “church” is the beginning, the physical building where the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments are administered. This is at the service of the second “church”, the church of the heart, where we encounter Christ. So we pass our life moving between these two churches until we come to the “church” of heaven. Perhaps we could add, at the second level, the “church” of the home. There are things to explore here.
This is all, of course, a Lenten call to conversion. It is “remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” It really is worth considering the prospect of dying. That isn’t morbid. It’s not alarmist. It’s sensible. It can actually bring a great sense of freedom. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” – one day those two, “now” and “death” will coincide. It really is worth putting ourselves right with God now, and even considering the practicalities. If I was a lawyer, I’d say write your will! If I was a priest – which I am – I’d say, prepare your next Confession. And where possible look for the Reconciliations that will give us peace in the end.
Pope Francis for one last time: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!”, “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
Please take good care of yourselves. Keep the advice. Pray for one another and for all the clergy and for me. Be of good heart. Comfort your neighbours. Make them smile. Believe the Gospel, and listen to St Paul: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor .height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39-40).