On the Sunday of March 15th, 2020, I had no idea that I would be attending Mass for the last time for over 3 months. It is only now that I reflect with an acquired flavor of humor that does not neglect the seriousness of the issue, on the readings of that windy morning in March. It was of Moses traversing the wilderness with his following of the entire Hebrew tribe of Israel at his dusty heels. Although the world they lived in under Pharaoh was incredibly harsh, it was a rather comfortable one in comparison to the uncertainty of the desert which they initially embraced with rigor of faith and full of enthusiasm. Such faith and enthusiasm soon waned when confronted with the hardships of the unforgiving natural climate to which they had been introduced to. Complaining and moaning of thirst and hunger they lamented to Moses, “Is the Lord Among us or not?”
Our story is very much like that of the Hebrews. The western world has lived in relative comfort and ease. When compared to the squalor of other third world countries whose problems far surpassed that of a virus, the west could not hold a candle to such hardship it would seem. Still, here I was living in a world where, although not totally deprived of hardship, now found itself being led through a desert where the thirst to return to normal life became prevalent among the community.
The untouchable self-sufficient Ireland, whose comfort led to the exclusion of God as a result of taking life easy, now found itself at the epicenter of a global pandemic that did not discriminate against anyone’s race, age or gender. The panic that ensued was overwhelming for some including myself. I had resolved to digest as little of mainstream news as possible in order to shield myself from the onslaught of unnecessary panic, often brought about by the absorption of repetitive information.
My village of Blackrock fell silent. The shops were for the first time in my life, closed for business until – uncertain – further notice. For the first time in my life I heard what the world may have sounded like 300 years ago in the absence of planes, cars and automobiles. In my back yard where I had pitched a birdbox some 7 years ago lay dormant every year until recently. To my surprise a grouping of blue tits had nestled inside, and finally made a home for themselves.
The air carried a purity I had not experienced since my days spent walking the snowy mountains of Scotland. While humans suffered the loss of loved ones, their businesses and livelihood. While the shops ran dry of bread and flour amidst the panic buying of food for fear of running out, nature was getting its well-deserved rest from an out of control mob who had disrespected her for years. Debate raged on as to whether the virus was real or a hoax.
Spiritual discussions arose in my house as to whether the virus had its origins in God as punishment. Another argument proposed it was demonic and self-inflicted. The gravity of our sins left the gate of the fortress open for Satan to enter and molest its guilty and innocent inhabitants was the final consensus concluding such discussions. Much like the Hebrews in the reading mentioned at the beginning, people posited the question “Is God among us or not?”
In the spring of the pandemic, among my family members of little to no faith at all including friends on social media, a renewed fervor began to blossom for God. Perhaps it was the awareness of the fragility of life, and the meaningless excessive lust for the fading material that brought no eternal reward that procured it. Whatever it was that reshaped their newfound faith, it was undoubtedly the grace of God that projected itself onto those of little faith, turning their hearts and minds away from the counterfeit pleasures of the world to the eternal light.
For myself it did not quite work out that way. From my own perspective the grace of God can operate in ways we cannot perceive. As a man of faith, myself, I am well accustomed to the Church and her teaching so I’ve no excuse to lose faith some would say. Many assume that I had an easy ride when it came to the Pandemic. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I had taken the sacrament of confession that I attended weekly for granted. I take weekly confessions not because I’m scrupulous or even holy but because I’m such a sinner I need it. Piled on top of this was the heavy noticeable absence of weekly Mass and the community I became accustomed to meeting with terminated for the foreseeable future.
Like a child who prefers to watch the movie over reading the book this new televised mass didn’t sit well with me at all. In my desire to please God and country I fell in line for some time tuning into the local Mass broadcast on webcam. However, after some weeks my prayer life slipped as did my enthusiasm, not just for Christ and his church, but life itself was beginning to assume an ugly portrait in need of a face lift. I could not feel the presence of God. To add to the frustration was my ability to diagnose the problem, yet unable to procure the method by which would bring about healing, that being prayer. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven is taken by force, and by force people get in. Yet here I was even incapable of forcing myself into prayer and breaking into the palace where the Grace of God resides.
Like the Hebrews in the last reading of the final public Mass said in Ireland pre-covid19, I began to complain about the desert God had led me through. I tossed and turned in the desert heat of the wild absence of God’s presence and cried out for at least one drop of Grace from above to quench this aridity of soul, but I got no answer. Much like my atheist neighbor’s and irreligious family members, I cried “Is God with me or not? Does he even exist at all?”
It suddenly dawned upon me that the hardship I went through against my will was itself a grace. While the doors of Irelands Churches closed, a new one opened in my home, the pulpit from which the Holy Spirit silently preached how complacent I had become in my faith. Like a spoiled child suddenly every spiritual toy had been taken from me in a bid to have me walk on my own two feet. If there is one thing I can walk away from this pandemic with it would be the understanding that in order to reach the promised land, a little hardship and arduous stroll through the desert is never an option, rather it becomes a necessity.
(First published in Dunleer Parish Magazine, September 2020)