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.