Rejoice always (or) Adjusting to the order to stay at home
Full disclosure: Staying at home is easy for me. My office is at home. I don’t have in-person meetings. I’m a relative loner, and don’t socialize a great deal outside my own family. I don’t depend on a club, or a gym, or even a bar for my relaxation. I will confess that my desire for a good supply of liquor has risen, but only very slightly and mostly in the form of joking with my wife. Anyway, such indulgence is foreign to Lent.
If I were younger and still had children at home who would normally be at school, the adjustment would be very different. In some ways, that can be good for families, but it will naturally have its own stresses when there is so little variation of activities and companions. Most people will get cabin fever a great deal faster than I will. Moreover, in cases in which parents must still go out to work while children cannot go to school, this obviously creates other problems.
Apart from the question of “what to do with the kids” (which is more legitimate in Catholic circles than in most), you would think that the experience of living under a stay-at-home order, although possibly a bit boring, would be a good deal more relaxing. There are, of course, a great many households with children, so those of us who are unburdened by heavy home responsibilities ought not to complain. But even my own pathetically easy experience suggests to me that things are not more relaxing.
A few reasons are obvious. Some people have to learn all at once how to accomplish their normal work from home. I am very familiar with that syndrome, as my wife is Director of Academic Affairs, Chair of the English Department, and teacher of senior English at Seton School in Manassas, Virginia. Switching over to instruction and testing online has a steep learning curve. Additional Zoom meetings, preparation of not only written materials but video and/or audio materials, and learning the ins and outs of online distribution, collection and grading of assignments take a great deal of time, and are not at all uniformly more efficient even after the curve flattens. In many schools, teachers have to teach more than one course, preparing multiple sets of materials for distribution which represent what they would ordinarily simply walk into a classroom and do “live”, almost off the top of their heads.
In the Mirus household, this learning curve sometimes involves “technology Jeff”. I enjoy helping to figure these things out, and I already knew how to do video-conferencing and create and share video and/or audio materials. But my own workload has not changed, so such things are above and beyond. In any case, the dynamic will be different in each household, just as it will be different when one spouse can no longer work at all while the other must struggle to work in new ways or, in any case, when two or more people in the same household must learn to interact differently and share limited space and resources. Such things will be stressful enough simply because they are different.
Yesterday was an unusually beautiful day in the neighborhood, so Barbara and I made a point of taking time for a long walk—even while the Governor of Virginia, unknown to us at the time, was issuing his stay-at-home order. I remember that before we went out I was already beginning to feel as if I were in a sort of suspended animation—even when my routine was relatively unaffected. In some ways I suppose Lent has that impact on all of us (it should), but I was definitely a little disoriented, and somewhat lacking in energy. The old groove was not as clear; getting into it was not as easy.
And what about the new groove?
The most nagging problem, I think, is that the future does not seem quite so clear. For many, even if they are not contemplating sickness or death, it is not clear that they will be earning their living the same way in 2021 as they did in February of 2020. For most of us most of the time, that assumption is a staple of a relatively relaxed life, a life largely free of serious occupational worry, and in consequence free of serious financial distress. Until now, I have been discussing the strains and stresses of the sudden shift to working from home. But the strains and stresses of not working anywhere are far greater. Most people may not be contemplating an earlier transition to life on high; but they are certainly contemplating the possibility of high-stress changes to their normal patterns here below.
It is amazing how important habit and routine are to the art of being human. We habitually rely on predictability in our lives. We often tend to be happier when we are conscious of relying on Providence only in certain specific matters, rather than for just about everything at once. Even if we have gradually grown more adept at practicing the presence of God, we still tend—at least in healthy and wealthy societies—to take the bulk of our daily routines and goals and provisions for granted. More often than not, the multiplication of uncertainties in our habitual awareness is the great enemy of human peace.
I say in our habitual awareness because, of course, we know deep down that we can never be really certain of anything in our lives except for God’s unfailing love. Worse still, even those of us who are certain of God’s love often enjoy that certainty primarily on an abstract or theoretical level. We have not made that conviction habitually our own, and we must often deliberately recall it to ourselves when under the slightest stress. (Speaking only for myself, of course.)
The reality is that we know nothing at all about our future in this life, but we do know everything we need to know about our future in the next life. To every Christian who has ever lived, this is the great paradox: Most of the time we are certain about those things which our reason will tell us, if we take the trouble to consult it, we do not really know at all. Similarly, we are usually uncertain about those things which our faith will tell us, if we take the trouble to consult it, we really do know beyond doubt. Correspondingly, when what we already know we do not know proves itself to be unknown, we experience stress, for we habitually treasure uncertainties as sureties in our hearts. And when we must fall back on what we already know we really do know, we become uncertain and bewildered—for the very same reason.
Habitual trust in God
The solution to all of this is learning habitually to practice the presence of God. We must all grow in the ability to be aware that God is with us always, to consult Him in each course of action as we seek to act rightly and wisely, to rely on His grace in every present moment, and withal to learn to be more secure in trusting His presence and providence than in all the apparent human certainties within which we do live and move but do not have our being (cf. Acts 17:28). This is the work of a lifetime. But at every stage it becomes a fresh source of incomparable peace.
It is just this that has ever made Christians joyful whether they find themselves burdened with worldly responsibility which demands their charity, or challenged in their faith, or even on the verge of death with nothing remaining but the fulfillment of their hope. For our part, we may be suffering acutely from COVID-19; or we may be angry and fearful because the response to it has robbed us of our livelihood; or we may be called to assist those who have been hit far harder than we; or again we may simply be inconvenienced and ill at ease because of the changes and restrictions it has imposed upon us.
But if we excel at practicing the presence of God—of keeping habitually in our minds and hearts the closeness of our Father, our Savior, and the Spirit they have sent to us—then we will “shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil 2:16). We will not be as the bruised reed or the smoldering wick, for we will be shining always, a support and a safeguard for those with weaker faith—even if we communicate only by phone or email or prayer. And this great stability and serenity will be ours for doing nothing more than what Our Lord has asked:
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thes 5:16-18]
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
Apr. 02, 2020 4:33 PM ET USA
Thank you for your words of wisdom, as usual. The necessity of replacing actual Communion with Spiritual Communions brought it home to me: in Him we really do live and move and have our being. Really. He is with us. It is we who must choose to be with Him.