2020 has been a long, hard year for most of us. It is a running joke on social media that, at this point, nothing would be unexpected. Murder hornets? Of course. New flare-up of bubonic plague? Sure. We have all joked about the sheer overwhelm of this year, but the truth is — we want relief. All of us want relief. We want a return to the “normalcy” that we once knew.
I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about what is missing from that normal life that I once had. My level of interaction with other people (other than a small circle of family and friends) has decreased, and that is sincerely difficult. But other than that, what am I missing? I miss browsing art supplies stores. I miss writing in coffee shops. I miss playdates and taking my daughters to playgrounds.
But I also believe that here, during the pandemic, you and I are being invited to something more.
St. Peter — the Patron Saint of Awkward Moments
I love St. Peter so much, and I especially love him for so often saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment. The story of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is no different. In a moment that should lead to reverential silence and wonder and awe, practical Peter proposes building tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
Building tents. For the prophets and the Son of God. Tents.
Oh, Peter. Jesus knows Peter well enough at that point that he does not even dignify that idea with a response.
And yet, there is something embarrassingly familiar about Peter’s response. I find myself alternating between an invitation to encountering Christ in the silence of lockdown, while also frantically looking for toilet paper online. When faced with the possibility of my own mortality, I would sometimes turn to prayer and other times turn to online shopping for canned fruit.
Peter is not alone. In our human frailty, we struggle to cope with the reality of the infinite. When faced with something greater than ourselves, we are tempted to revert to the familiar. Pray for an end to the pandemic? Check. That is, after I have read the latest on coronavirus transmission and ordered some more masks.
But what are we being called to? And how does this challenge we are faced with mirror the experience of Peter?
Embracing a Lack of Control
Pandemics and other life and death experiences have something in common with mystical experiences like Peter’s moment on Mount Tabor. When faced with something greater than ourselves, we try to control what we can. I could not control how many people were going to die of covid-19, but I could control securing enough yeast to last my family through this pandemic and the next. I could not take away the suffering of so many in isolation, but I could make sourdough starter like it was my job.
In other words, I could try to build some tents.
Thankfully, I have a good spiritual director and a supportive husband, and both encouraged me to occasionally cease my endless scrolling of news updates and be silent. As someone with anxiety, this was particularly challenging, but when I was able to snatch moments of quiet here and there, I was surprised by what I noticed. Most of my time was still taken up with pandemic stockpiling and news feeds and childcare, but there also were moments of silence when I encountered Christ. The absence of Mass increased my thirst for him. I was most aware of little things and how important they had become. Our parish rings the church bells at consecration, and I noticed their ringing more while watching live streamed Masses. I found myself able to slow down and observe and contemplate little aspects of my home, my “domestic monastery.” These little moments would have been missed in the usual busyness of my life. I remember texting my spiritual director one day of lockdown, after feeling incredible peace while weeding my driveway and watching my daughters play. I was reminded of the peace of those mundane tasks in an ordinary monastery. One of the reasons why the monastic can find God in the ordinary tasks of daily life is because he or she is relinquishing control, embracing silence, and leaving space for the Holy Spirit to be heard.
Our area of the country is currently experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, although we are not yet under another stay-at-home order. I sincerely hope that it does not come to that. Despite the graces that came during the lockdown this spring, I still find myself afraid of being in another situation in which it is apparent just how much I am not in control.
But the truth is simple. No matter how much we try to be in control of our lives, we will never find true happiness in that control. True peace, true happiness, can only be found in relinquishing our control and placing ourselves under the gaze of the transfigured Christ. He is not asking us to build tents. He is just asking us to be present, and to gaze back at him.