We wait for the Lord to come, and yet one of the main places where we experience His coming to us – church – is currently interrupted, restricted or shut down. How to find him? Our Fr Bob Eccles has some good and surprising news!
To a person after their confession, in time of shutdown
Very dear J – , this may sound just as strange as what you describe in telling me your difficulties, but what seems to you like an uncomfortable lonely experience all of your own is actually more or less what everyone feels! What you are going through is almost the same for all of us. There is no help for it, we have to come clean: what we are up against is a kind of loss of God.
We hear the prophet Isaiah complaining about it on the first Sunday of Advent in the ‘year of Mark.’ “Why, Lord, leave us to stray from your ways? Return for the sake of your servants. O that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Isaiah with his people has this problem: he finds that God isn’t to be found any more, he has disappeared from human life. Perhaps they had taken his presence too much for granted, perhaps they are just looking in the wrong places, but he is not there any more. The worst thing that God could do would be to leave us to ourselves. But this is just what it feels like.
His heartfelt prayer is for God to return. “You, Lord, yourself are our Father. Our Redeemer is your ancient name. Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your inheritance.” Don’t we often meet people, close friends and family perhaps, who seem to have left God behind, gone deaf to the gospel? Their place in church is empty, the dears. But right now it is the church itself that is empty and the altar bare. I can’t go with the Blessed Sacrament to anyone vulnerable and I’d only come home to other vulnerable people if I did. Even worse in a way, I find myself getting used to the absence of my Christian friends, we all of us have had to get on with our lives, we can even get by without the phone calls and the skyping after a time. It’s only just coming home to me but I fall back on my own resources, and it doesn’t suit, it really doesn’t suit.
Old Isaiah says it for us then, yes we can lose the sense of God when we are confounded by events. Or perhaps we are just tired out and falling asleep. Or losing heart – so what if there is no church to go to? you can get used to almost anything. Some people wait and pray outside the locked doors, some raise a stink about the rules made by the government, or by the bishops! But the trouble with scapegoats is that they need to be fed and watered (generally with our hard feelings about actual people). Maybe we need to unpick our difficulty? take a bit longer over it?
Let’s be clear about one thing, Covid is not God’s plan, God’s punishment. On the other hand it is not entirely outside divine Providence, that is, his loving purposes. How we respond in faith and trust to these sorrowful times – alright, I agree with you, I meant this horrible nightmare – is also by his gift, his grace. Just saying this makes me remember a favourite book of mine when I was a novice, called “Abandonment to Divine Providence”, by a wise Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Do you know it? He has a wonderful phrase, the sacrament of the present moment. Not, the moment of consecration, if communion, the moment we have so longed for dear J, but a moment quite ordinary, banal really. He means, right here, where we are, on a perfectly ordinary day, we can lift up our eyes to the horizon of the love of God. Like the communicants we usually are, we can still be the Lord’s table companions, know him in the breaking of bread, the common bread that stands for life as usual.
Dearest J, I don’t know what we are going to do, things could even get worse. I do know from experience that when the Lord allows us to go without something, even something we think we absolutely can’t do without, he has a way of making it up to us, even of giving us more than enough (pressed down and running over and poured into our lap). In the present moment all that has happened now is that he has given you and me a chance to meet, a time of grace. Where two or three are gathered in my name, he says, there I am in the midst. Where two are gathered for the forgiveness of sins by the Spirit’s gift, there is all goodness and all grace. And he will continue this ingathering, in the Mass, in many meetings, in life together, in the communion of the faithful living and gone before us, deepening into eternal life. For God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, he will.
Very dear J – , go in peace. And pray for me.