As I was driving to daily Mass yesterday, I saw a sign along the highway not far from my parish that said: “Distance Makes Us Stronger.” I immediately thought to myself that this is nothing short of a diabolical lie. There are many others like it these days. I see them everywhere. “Together Alone.” “We Are United Alone.” These are all lies our culture is telling us in response to the current pandemic.
We are not made to be alone. We are made for communion with one another. There are times when circumstances necessitate greater distance from one another, but this is not a good thing. Pretending that it is a good thing divides us when we are dealing with uncertain and difficult times.
While these statements are meant to encourage, they increase fear and division. They convince us that we can manage things on our own and we don’t need one another. The reality is, however, that the more we are isolated from one another, the more hostile we become towards one another. We also become more selfish as individuals.
In our Fallen sinful state, we need other people to rip the selfishness out of us, to show us our character flaws, to lead us outside of ourselves in order to serve others, and in order to bear the Crosses of this life. These slogans are everywhere right now because we want to dress up and avoid the Cross that is in front of us in this pandemic. If we engage in cognitive dissonance and pretend that everything is ok, then we don’t have to confront the reality that the Way of the Cross is the only path we are given in this life. We will, and must, suffer in this life.
We also know these slogans by their fruits. Everyone I have spoken to has observed greater aggression, animosity, fear and division in other people as this pandemic progresses. A trip to the grocery store reveals just how fragile we are on our own. The fear is palpable as everyone tries to avoid coming anywhere near someone they do not know. The masks create a sea of anonymous faces.
Masks may be necessary, and something to endure, but they also are not a good. They cover up the most obvious reflection of the image and likeness of God within us. They make conversations difficult. To acknowledge this truth is not to be an “anti-masker”, rather, it is to keep in mind that we cannot dress everything up as good in order to make ourselves feel better about suffering. They are a sacrifice and they create barriers in the communion we are made for with one another.
We have to be on guard for when the Enemy and our own ego prey upon us through fear and our desire for bodily safety. How do we know the workings of the Enemy even though we cannot see him? We know him by his titles. He is the liar, the seducer, the scatterer, and the accuser. If there is division, we can be sure the Enemy and his minions are operating. Pandemics are a prime opportunity for seeds of division and fear to be sown in those who do not know Christ or those whose faith is weaker.
We can be sure the Enemy is close by and/or our own ego is ruling us when we become overly aggressive or fearful when we are out running errands around other people. Our ego leads us to cling to a false sense of safety by acting out towards others in a hostile manner or being overcome by fear of the unseen which leads us to wall ourselves off from others. We must fight back against this tendency with everything we have and cling to Christ who is our strength and our surety.
As Christians, we need to be very careful about what the world tells us is good during this pandemic. We too can fall prey to a desire for security over a total dependence on God. There are many in the Church who mistakenly believe that bodily safety supersedes all. Unfortunately, some of the hierarchy has perpetuated this belief by their overemphasis on the body at the expense of the much higher spiritual goods we have been given by God. There has been much confusion for the faithful throughout this pandemic.
Part of growing in holiness and maturity as Christian disciples is coming to accept that there is nothing safe about this life. We live in a Fallen world. We live at the edge of a knife blade each day. We could die in a car accident on the way to work. An aneurism could take us in our sleep. Natural disasters abound. Countless people live in abject poverty and starve to death each day. Not to mention the violence that is a part of the Fallen human condition in every nation on earth. There is nothing safe about this life.
The only way we can come to embrace this reality is by surrendering everything to Christ. We must radically depend on Him in every moment of every day. Our death is already fixed. We do not know it, but the God of Heaven and Earth knows the hour. It is our job to cling to Him and to seek to follow Him no matter what happens around us.
Once we embrace the fact that we are not promised safety and security, then we are free to go where Christ calls us to go. We will no longer fear our neighbor in the grocery store checkout and we will go out of our way to enter into the fear they are carrying at the foot of this Cross and extend a friendly greeting to acknowledge that we see them through the mask. It is to understand that isolation is devastating for human beings. It leads to despair, hopelessness, addiction, and even suicide.
We must go out into the world in this pandemic and lead people to Christ. We must be there for others to let them know they are not alone in the face of this Cross. We must stand fast at the foot of the Cross as Our Lady and St. John did, along with St. Mary Magdalene and the other women. We must be compelled into service as St. Simon of Cyrene was even though we may not want to, are afraid, or don’t understand.
The only answer to fear is Christ crucified and risen from the dead. He has already conquered sin and death. Our hope is not in this life, it is in the next. He is the way forward. It is through Him that this storm will have no power over us. We must keep our gaze fixed on Him and accept that to go out on the water as St. Peter did is to move away from safety. It is to move into the uncertainty of the storm, but we are able to do so because we rest in the peace of Christ’s gaze. We only sink if we look away from Him. We only sink if we try to go it alone.
Countless saints have shown us down through the ages just how radical of a calling we’ve been given as disciples of Christ. They did not live in safety. They often lived facing great dangers and obstacles. Many were martyred or became sick while ministering to the poor and the afflicted. They are radiant lights in the world precisely because they refused to accept the fear, isolation, and division the Enemy wants us to embrace. They refused to live caved in on their own egos. They chose to walk away from safety, arms outstretched, towards Christ in total surrender of self.
This isn’t easy for any of us to accept or embrace, especially those of us who live in relative comfort and ease in the West. The Cross is folly, even to many Catholics, because we haven’t been challenged to take risks in our walk with Christ before now. The world needs us; not alone watching Netflix or mindlessly scrolling Facebook. No. People need us to reach out to them in our daily lives as we go about our day. The elderly and shut-ins of our parishes need to hear from us. Those with mental illness or addictions need the presence of others in their lives. People around us need to know that we will still come help them if they need us. We need time together living the communion we are called to as family, friends, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those who are high risk will have to prudently discern what this means, but the more we come to know about this virus, the more we know it is not the bubonic plague. It is dangerous for certain groups of people. We cannot allow it to isolate us and cut us off from one another. We need to stop claiming things as good that are not.
We must also examine our consciences to make sure that we are not allowing fear and our desire for bodily safety to override our Christian discipleship. Fear is something we all deal with, but it is also the single greatest tactic the Enemy uses against us since it blinds our reason. We very often mistake fear for prudence. It often takes serious prayer, self-examination, and guidance from a holy Confessor to truly see the difference.
We are not made to be alone. It’s time to discard these lies. The path to holiness cannot be trod in comfort and safety. Eventually we must get out of the boat, despite the storm raging around us, and our fear. To follow Christ we must fix our gaze on His and walk towards Him. It is then that we can be perfected in charity so that we are no longer overly concerned about ourselves, but we begin to see the suffering in our neighbor. It is then that we will embrace and surrender to the Cross of Christ in our own lives and in the lives of others. Only then will we find ourselves together in this agony; united in love.
image: Marco Iacobucci Epp / Shutterstock.com