We Can’t Go Back, and We Shouldn’t

By Eric Hollas

As most of us are too well aware, the pandemic that has gripped the world has spawned a lot of suffering and fear. But it’s also engendered a lot of humor, some of which is very dark. So whatever else the coronavirus may have done, it hasn’t choked off our creativity and wit.

There are lots of examples of that creativity floating around on the internet, but at the risk of offending a few people, I’d like to cite two examples. Both come from fictional diaries of men who have been addicted to televised sports for most of their adult lives. Both point to a problem peculiar to our times.

The first is an entry by a man who has just endured his first day without cable sports, and the heading is quite simple: “Night one of no sports.” What follows is this: “My wife and I just had an hour-long conversation. She’s really nice. Apparently she works in the medical field. Also, TVs are black when they are off.”

A second entry from another gentleman reads similarly. “Day 2 without sports. Found a lady sitting on my couch. Apparently she’s my wife. She seems nice.”

Not all outcomes of the coronavirus have yielded such pleasant discoveries. Still, common to most of us has been the chance to get to know one another just a little bit better. All around the world people are rediscovering the people with whom they live. Isolation has bred greater appreciation for one another, though sometimes it’s brought out the worst in one another. And we monks are certainly not exempt from these experiences.

People who don’t know us well often assume that we monks spend all our time together, in common prayer and in common work and recreation. Certainly there is a lot of that. But each day, after morning prayer and breakfast, many of us scatter to offices and classrooms and workshops and airports and the like. In fact, much of our day is spent with people who are not monks.

But for nearly five weeks we’ve had the chance to rediscover one another. And I have to say that it’s not been all that bad. From this experience we could very well build a deeper and stronger community. Already there is a growing appreciation for the service and sacrifices that our brothers are making for us all. It’s let us glimpse the face of Christ more clearly in one another.

For all of us, whether monk or not, or whether Christian, Muslim or Jew or not, these days of isolation are critical moments. And while it’s a cliché to say that things will never be the same, it’s still true. We can’t go back. We can never reclaim the lives we have left behind. Out of this we must grow, or we run the risk of becoming nostalgic fossils.

Woodrow Wilson once commented that if you want to make enemies, then try to change something. But change is inevitable, and trying not to change leads to change anyway. And from a Christian perspective, change is what we are all about. God calls each of us to grow — to grow in wisdom, to grow in the understanding of our vocation, and to grow in our love of God and neighbor. And so, as hard as it may be to change, change we must.

In the the Acts of the Apostles we have a description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. We read that each day they gathered to pray in the temple precincts, and then they gathered in their homes to break bread. This is perhaps the only time when Paul’s words about equality really rang true. These people were neither Jew nor gentile. They were some sort of hybrid, but out of their uncomfortable isolation came the realization of who they were called to be. Slowly they began to refer to themselves as Christian. It was a struggle, no doubt, but out of that struggle came the legacy and the name that we carry today.

I’d like to think that the story of Thomas in John 20 is also a story about change. Thomas doubted, but he also feared. He feared what it would mean for him if the stories about Jesus were true. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then life for Thomas would never be the same. He could never go back to the life he had known. And so I have the sense that Thomas didn’t want to believe even when he finally saw the wounds. The sight of the wounds would demand a life-changing response, and he had no assurance of what that might mean.

You and I are privileged to have those key moments when something shakes us out of our daydreams. They force us to answer whether we’re willing to change our plans from that day forward. Metaphorically, are we going to watch cable sports for the rest of our lives when this is over? Are we going to continue to ignore the people around us? Are we going to drift along in our throw-away culture? Or are we going to embrace the vocation to which God calls us?

I’d like to end with a short meditation on a line that I’ve read and largely dismissed hundreds of times. “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.” I’ve generally dismissed that because Jesus meant it for the apostles. Beyond that, the call is meant for bishops and religious superiors. Any lower than that makes me nervous, because Jesus might have meant it for me. In fact, however, he does mean it for me, and for you. In essence it says that God created us for a purpose, and every moment of our lives ought to count for something. That, I think, is what Thomas and the apostles were about to discover, and their lives would never the be same again.

God did not send this pandemic, any more than God sent the Black Death in 1348 or earthquakes or tsunamis. All the same, these are signs of the times – signs that waken us to the reality of who we are. We are nothing less than a priestly people, a holy people, people called by God to live with intensity and purpose. May God who has begun this good work in us help to bring it to completion in the new and heavenly Jerusalem.

Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, is a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, where he delivered this post as a homily on April 22, 2020. In Saint John’s University he serves as Deputy to the President for Advancement. 


  1. “Among all the other corrections that his divine Majesty sends, the chastisement of pestilence is usually attributed to his hand in a more special way. David, the sinner king, was given the choice by God of either plague, war, or famine as a chastisement. David chose the plague with these words: ‘It is better that I fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men.’ Therefore, the plague, along with war and famine, is attributed very especially to the hand of God.” — St. Charles Borromeo

    1. Or, there’s the Lord’s own words at the beginning of John 9. We can ask was it our sin or our parents’? Jesus would tell us neither; the opportunity is the glory of God. I don’t know if covid-19 is the hand, toe, or breakfast leftover of God. I do know that nobody knows. Not even the saintly Charles B, nor any other pundit of this or another age. The focus is, properly, on how to preach the Gospel to all creation (cf. Mark 16:15) as we have been mandated to do.

  2. I love the idea of rediscovering one another, finding to our surprise that the mystery of the-person-nearest-to-me is more engaging than the entertainment program or other focus we might place in the center of our leisure time.

    Also this: “God created us for a purpose, and every moment of our lives ought to count for something.” These wise words are very much worth meditating upon. No one should feel useless (as many do when our usual activities are curtailed). Even if we are not essential workers, even if we’ve lost our job… we haven’t lost our calling. Our lives do “count for something.” Thank you, Eric.

  3. I agree largely. For me, it has been a time to rediscover Byzantine Catholic roots and enter more deeply into that spirituality. But as Berdyaev said, bread for myself is a material question, and bread for my neighbour is a material question.

    I think that there are important political and economic implications surrounding this pandemic. I witnessed horrendous photos of homeless people being provided with cots in a Las Vegas parking lot with social distancing squares painted on the asphalt- all while hotels were empty. (You mean some of the 2 T could not have gone to provide rooms to those peoples at a rate in hotels).

    Also, unemployment is going to be a big factor especially for young people returning to school or starting school. Guaranteed income should be on the table as a means to support and supplement those people and all people. This was a policy proposal by Andrew Yang largely ignored but should be picked up soon.

    And the manufacture of goods overseas depriving the local economy of jobs is another consideration so there are implications for trade.

    We have been told for decades that the government just simply cannot afford to provide payments for infrastructure and social programs but literally in two weeks the federal government was able to pass a 2 Trillion dollar stimulus package.

    With a federal election looming, there are very important, concrete policy proposals that can be advanced including ending the Federal Reserve, nationalizing the banks, and announcing a year of jubilee as they did in biblical times.

    1. FWIW, a year of jubilee thing (the eradication of debt as opposed to discharge of debt in bankruptcy or a federal assumption of private debts or forgiveness of debts only owed to it…) would require a constitutional amendment. And states are outright forbidden under the federal constitution to impair contractual obligations.

      1. Following WWII, the Allies cancelled all debts owed by the German people to Nazi bankers. That allowed the country to rebuild to the European juggernaut it is now (basically the Washington DC of the EU). There are many extra-constitutional measures that could be taken in times of civil emergency. Who would have thought the federal government could pass a 2 T dollar stimulus and counting in two weeks – and they could also vote by proxy.

        An increasing number of economists are suggesting just this model of debt forgiveness. When Jesus announced “the year of the Lord’s favour” in Luke 4:19, he was proclaiming an economic and political program aimed at the ancient Jubilee year based on Babylonian practices that predated it. This was how they rejuvenated the land, returning the property to the people. Wasn’t popular then – and it sure isn’t now! But Jesus’ words were not simple happy talk, they were concrete proposals.

      2. Voting by proxy in Congress has a long history, not an constitutional matter per say. Ditto stimulus. And I had noted the federal government can forgive debts owed to it – but that’s far from a jubilee. Extraconstitutional is a sword that cuts many ways, especially ways we may be horrified by.

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