Five Principles for Thriving during COVID 19… and Life

by John Kish, The Catholic University of America

When I first realized that coronavirus was going to lead to schools across America shutting down, I didn’t know what to do. The prospect of being stuck at home with my parents for weeks, even months, without end felt like a bad fever dream. Online classes meant that I would be spending all of my time in my bedroom, watching my teachers try to figure out how to unmute themselves. Social distancing meant that parties, sports, and hanging out with friends was replaced with watching YouTube videos until I bored myself to sleep! I, like many if not all of my fellow students, was losing it.

Fortunately, however, we’re not alone or without a helping hand. Many faithful Catholics have faced severe trials and tribulations during the last two millennia of the Church’s existence, and with those battles come treasure troves of experience. Saints and sinners alike have found the strength to survive bloody conflict, famine, and plague, while coming out of it all the stronger. In times like this, it does a lot of good to search through the war chest of our holy heroes. For this particular situation, I’m going to share the secrets of St. Josemaria Escriva, a 20th century priest who survived the Spanish Civil War. To do so, he had to hide in a cramped building for months, with no way of leaving. Sound familiar? St. Josemaria struggled, yes, but he actually managed to rise above his circumstances, thriving in the midst of adversity. Here’s his story.

As brutal civil war broke out across Spain in 1936, St. Josemaria found himself in an extremely bad situation. He was a devout Catholic priest, in a time when socialist and communist soldiers were executing nuns, hanging priests, and burning churches, with no check on their bloodlust. To wear a cassock in public was to sentence yourself to death. If that wasn’t enough, he was trapped in Madrid, the heart of the Republican (i.e., Marxist) territory. At one point, a man who looked like Escriva was lynched outside the family home, simply because the soldiers mistook him for the actual priest.

In such deadly circumstances, St. Josemaria and his fellow companions traveled in secret across the city, moving from hideout to hideout. After living for a time in his mother’s home, other times in the apartments of friends, and even in a mental asylum pretending to be a patient, Escriva and his friends were accepted into the Honduran Consulate, where they would stay until plans could be made to flee the country.

The consulate was cramped, with up to 30 people living inside a single hallway. In civil war, with low rations and the threat of destruction always looming over their heads, fear and hunger were the two constants of everyday life. At the same time, other national embassies had been invaded by soldiers across Madrid, so their safe haven was always at threat of being discovered. But rather than crack from the pressure, St. Josemaria took the situation into his own hands. Speaking to his friends, he used an important analogy; “The plants lay hidden under the snow. And the farmer, the owner of the land, remarked with satisfaction: ‘Now they are growing on the inside.’ Tell me, are you too growing on the inside?”[1] This sentiment perfectly showed St. Josemaria’s approach to the crisis; he embraced it as an opportunity to grow closer to God. By dedicating himself and his companions to internal growth, the group was able to thrive.

One of those young men later even recalled the events with happiness! “Sometimes we thought, ‘If only this could last forever!’ Had we ever known anything better than the light and warmth of that little room? As absurd as it was in those circumstances, that was our reaction, and from our way of seeing things it made perfect sense. It brought us peace and happiness day after day”.[2]

How on earth could someone respond to such terrible conditions with joy? It’s hard enough for us to cope with the present circumstances, but to be genuinely happy while starving and fearing for your life? If you’re anything like me, you’re probably skeptical. “Well, he’s a saint, so of course he could do it. I’m not like him.” But I was wrong! St. Josemaria had great discipline, but more importantly, he approached this crisis with a plan that served him well. You don’t have to be a hardcore spiritual warrior to succeed like he did. In fact, he firmly believed that EVERYONE could attain holiness in their daily lives, regardless of their circumstances.

St. Josemaria’s experienced wisdom hasn’t been left as a mystery of the past. There were 5 principles that oriented his life during that crisis, and we can still use them today in this time of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. By dedicating ourselves with the same attitude of acceptance and growth, we can make it through quarantine and come out the other side better than we were before.

Principle 1: Living Order

1

In the first few days of living in this cramped consulate, with nothing to do, you wouldn’t have blamed St. Josemaria for going crazy with boredom. But he didn’t. The first thing he did, jumping into action, was to draw up a schedule for himself and for the students with him. He planned a time to get up, a time to go to sleep, and filled his day with activities of prayer, study, and times for meals. Why did he do this? No one would have minded if he slept in a few hours, and it was hard enough to get sleep with communist soldiers constantly outside your door. But St. Josemaria understood a crucial thing about human nature; without something to occupy us, we become absorbed in ourselves, unable to face the challenges of the day or keep our head. By making a schedule for himself and his other friends, St. Josemaria managed to stay focused on living well while not succumbing to the terrors around him.

We can apply this in our own lives, too. Chances are that you’ve felt more sluggish, unwilling to do work or get things done since you’ve been home. But with no commute, and less responsibilities from extracurriculars, how come it feels like there’s LESS time to actually pursue what we want? The answer is unintuitive, but actually makes sense. Our laziness and lack of self-control (the eternal human failings) can keep us from doing anything, especially without deadlines that motivate us to work. Without the “enabling restraints” of strict class times and a routine, we can easily fall into a difficult rut. But taking advantage of the principle of order is the first step toward reclaiming our freedom to live well. By creating a schedule, you’re better able to make time for what REALLY matters, rather than how you feel in the moment. It’s a process of liberation, freeing ourselves from the procrastination/panic work cycle. At the same time, it keeps our minds focused on what’s in front of us rather than what’s beyond our control. Rather than worry about things we can’t affect (politics, the virus, the economy), we can develop real agency by working with the things that God has planned for us today.

Tips for applying order in your own life:

  • Create a set time to get up, and a time to go to bed: Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to sleep (8 hours is usually best) and STICK TO IT! This will stabilize your mental and physical state, and is the necessary foundation for living well.
  • Create a schedule for work and play: Using Google Calendar or another scheduling tool, write down the obligations you have for the day.
    • Start with your wakeup and sleep times (which you have already chosen) and then move to your activities for the day.
    • What times are your classes? Meals? What are the routine things that won’t normally change? This will be the framework of your schedule, which you can set to repeat automatically for each day/week.
    • After filling out the framework of your schedule, write down a list of your homework tasks for the week and cut it up into 1 hour chunks. Then arrange your week to get it done! Don’t forget to give yourself breaks; putting four hours of homework in a row for the first half of the week is less likely to give you a completely free Friday than it is to burn you out.
    • For actually following through on your week-to-be, I’ve found a program called OptimalWork to be super effective. It’ll help you get into the state of “flow” that really makes your work shine and get done faster. You can access it online here.

That’s it! You’ve now got the blueprint for a week of the best productivity you’ll experience in your school career. The best way to approach your time is to schedule it well, so you can create a consistent pattern of working and living. Keep in mind that creating order in your life, like most things, is a skill. It’s ok to misjudge, to mess up and not follow through on what you planned. This is normal! The important thing is to keep picking yourself back up: Ask yourself, what did I do last time that I can improve upon? With that mindset, you’ll quickly find the benefits that ordering, planning, and scheduling your life can have. You’ll gain more hours in the day, and you’ll lose a lot of the stress and anxiety that comes from quarantine boredom.

Principle 2: Living the Sacraments

New Liturgical Movement: Reclaiming St. Josemaría Escrivá for the ...

In a time when openly partaking in the Mass was a death sentence, St. Josemaria and his companions struggled their utmost to fortify their spirits and keep the big picture in mind. They celebrated the Mass on an altar of a wooden box, hid the Eucharist in their clothes when traveling and practiced frequent confession. This wasn’t just the discipline of men who pursued sainthood; it was a clear and understandable way to cope with their struggles. In times of trial and suffering, celebrating the sacraments gave them strength, and reminded them of what they truly strove to live for. Otherwise, the situation would have been unbearable. But, by living the sacramental life, St. Josemaria and his friends received the graces to not only carry on, but to thrive.

This is a powerful example of saintly wisdom, and it’s something we can take advantage of as well. It’s easy in times of peace and comfort to brush off the Mass as “sitting and doing nothing for an hour”, to forget why it’s so important. But now of all times, when being able to attend a Mass in person is impossible for millions around the globe, it becomes clear how necessary it really is to carry on. Receiving the sacraments frequently may not be something you’re used to, but it helps us to remember what we’re here for. Without that taste of heaven, how can we bear the trials on earth without misery and suffering? We are pilgrims on this earth, and it’s in our nature to get homesick. Mass is the sweetest comfort food for the soul.

When going to Mass in person is impossible, how can you and I practice a sacramental life? It’s easier than you think, and the Church has many practices for receiving Christ’s presence even when we’re not able to access a priest.

Tips for living a sacramental life:

  • Make a habit of performing acts of perfect contrition. This is a “provisional act” for the sacrament of reconciliation, and it helps clean our souls of sin even when we can’t directly go to confession. Heads up! An act of perfect contrition does NOT mean you don’t have to go to confession. Rather, it’s more of an “emergency confession”, and the healing grace it provides relies on your heartfelt commitment to receive reconciliation as soon as possible. Just remember to go to a priest as soon as you are able.
  • Make acts of spiritual communion while watching Mass on TV: If your family, like mine, has been undeterred by churches being closed across the country, you’ve probably watched a few TV Masses. By performing an act of spiritual communion, you CAN receive Christ spiritually even though you’re not partaking in the Eucharist physically.
  • For an excellent guide on performing both of these acts, and for deep explanations on the theological significance of their graces, check out the website Rorate Caeli’s article here.

By practicing a sacramental life, we can find real peace and grow in the spiritual strength we need to truly live well. If you work to implement these habits, you’ll exit this time of isolation with a more grounded and stable approach to life. It’s easy to be swept around by the forces of circumstance, but making time for the sacraments is truly the sturdiest foundation for building the “house” of our life.

Principle 3: Living in the Presence of God

A Life of Prayer | A Homily by St. Josemaria Escriva

This principle is closely tied to the work of St. Josemaria as a whole, who firmly believed that ordinary Catholics like you and I can be “contemplatives in the world”. What does this mean? The habit of living in the presence of God is simple to know, but can be difficult to master. It’s understanding that God is always with us, even when we’re not in a church. By devoting our daily life and activities to Him, we are constantly reminded of His presence. This motivates and refreshes us to live our best, and helps bring peace to our anxious minds.  And why not? When we understand that God is always with us and has a plan for our eternal happiness, we can clearly see that “all things work unto the good” (Romans 8:28).

Being at home with my family for this long has been a weird change compared to college life, as much as it’s been for everyone. I’m reminded of my family’s many bad habits, and they can definitely get on anyone’s nerves. However, I also learn from the good ones. I started to get up in the morning to run with my Dad, and he taught me a small trick to keep the presence of God in his exercise. Every 100 steps, he’ll repeat a small aspiration: “Holy Mary our hope, seat of wisdom, pray for us”. It’s a charming practice, and really shows the opportunities to include this mindset of living in the presence of God. The greatest thing about living in the presence of God is that there’s no limit to what form it can take. It can be big or small, but it should be something that can be casually brought into your life.

Tips for living in the presence of God

  • Take a moment to thank God before and after activities. Catholics say a prayer before meals, but we can say one afterwards as well! Thanking God when we begin and end our work, play, and rest teaches us gratitude (which is essential for a happy life) and reminds us of the endless gifts He bestows to us.
  • Use frustration, anxiety, and negative feelings as a chance to grow closer to Christ. There’s no lack of sorrow going around, but the best way to deal with these emotions isn’t just to give up, or to grit and bear it. Tell God in prayer how you feel, and offer it up to him. It will make bearing these hardships easier, and it will draw us closer to Him.

Living in the presence of God may seem difficult and hard to remember. When we’re so used to only seeing God in a church, how can we bring Him into the rest of our life? Nevertheless, the important thing is to start small and stay consistent. Make one dedication, one that’s so easy and simple that it can’t be forgotten. Then just do it, again and again, until it’s stuck and you don’t even need to think about it! Focus one step at a time, and you’ll succeed.

Principle 4: Living Friendship

Amistad (Voz del diccionario de San Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer ...

During the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men across the country took up arms for one cause or the other. For St. Josemaria, many young men that he personally knew had joined the war, fighting in different regions and on different sides. He would often write to his former students and colleagues, asking about their situation and letting them know his. In a war-torn era before instant communication, it wasn’t even possible to know if they were still alive! Regardless, this kind of practice shows the importance of friendship for living a good life. Even when he had enough problems of his own to worry about, St. Josemaria made time to ask about the lives of people who were hundreds of miles away. He would send jokes he had heard, stories of his time spent in the consulate, and give blessings to the people he corresponded with. By doing this, he made a life-long impact on the people he encountered, shaping their lives with such small gesture of kindness.

In our own time, it’s a lot easier to check up on our friends. We can see from snapchat stories, Instagram posts, and texts of all kinds whether people are happy and healthy. Even without person-to-person contact, living friendship might come off as something you’re already doing quite well.

However, this isn’t quite what I mean by “living friendship”. It’s also not exactly what St. Josemaria embodied in his letter-sending, even if it seems that our phones are just a quicker way of doing the same thing. What St. Josemaria really meant by “living friendship” was taking the initiative to deepen our relationships with others, and to widen our circle of friends. It means taking the time to focus on one person and only that person, just for a little bit. That kind of focus is becoming rarer, even if the ability to superficially communicate is becoming more common. It’s a practice that will help us grow as both friends and as people.

Tips for living Friendship

  • Take time to talk with someone, without doing anything else at the same time. It’s harder than you think, but bad habits can be defeated with time. More importantly, it’s a critical way to really grow closer to others. They’ll appreciate your ability to listen to them, and you’ll appreciate the conversation much more. It’s like having a meal at a nice restaurant; if you spend the entire meal focused on your phone, your problems, or what you’re going to do after this, you can’t actually ENJOY either the time with a friend or the food!
  • Plan an activity with your family to all do together, and make it a habit. You’re stuck with your folks for a while, you might as well adapt to it. Plan a game, a walk together, or movie night! It’ll help break the boredom, and remind you of the truly important things in life. This is an unprecedented opportunity, when everyone is in one place for an extended period of time. Do you want to return to your busy life without having used that chance to enjoy being with your family?
  • Reach out to people you don’t normally talk to, and make an effort: It’s easy to stick with a small group of people for most of the time, and we can forget the people we’ve only talked to once or twice. Take this chance to say hello, and see how the conversation goes; chances are that they’re not going to be too busy. You might find a new best friend, and have good memories to remember back on!

It’s easy to say that friendship is important to us, but like all things in life it requires effort. What makes the difference is that those efforts, when you really get to know someone and build a relationship with them, pays back in spades. Take this time to make the investment, and you’ll find that the fruits stick with you even after quarantine.

Principle 5: Living Study

7 Mind Blowing Life Hacks from St. Josemaria that we All Need ...

During their time at the Honduran consulate, many of the young men who would grow up to join St. Josemaria in founding Opus Dei had a lot of time on their hands, without anything to do. But they took advantage of the opportunity; one young man found the consulate’s language textbooks, and by the time he left the compound he was proficient in Japanese! Many other of the young men found similar pursuits, from studying the maps of the consulate to practicing various physical exercises. In order to grow as people and pass the time in productive ways, they developed many different skills that would benefit them for the rest of their lives.

When St. Josemaria discusses the importance of study, there’s usually one thing that comes to mind: homework. And how can anyone find joy in homework? It’s boring, takes away free time, and just doesn’t seem to have much of a point, right? Wrong. Dead wrong, actually. What St. Josemaria understood with a principle of study is that you can come to LOVE your work. Not just homework, but any work! The reality of human life is that we’ll be working for the vast majority of our time on earth, and it’s not actually a bad thing. What matters is our attitude more than anything else. By shifting our mindset towards work, we can find one of the greatest sources of fulfillment and holiness around.

How can we love our work? By being proactive and having a motive of love. That sounds cheesy, but let me break it down: When we’re reactive with our work, and only view it as the “thing that needs to be done with the least time and effort”, we’re building ourselves up for misery. Instead, be proactive. Why is it that you really want to do this work? If you’re honest, there are two answers: either because the knowledge is important, or because you need to get the bare minimum to pass your class. If your answer is the latter, why are you really taking the class? This kind of questioning can go back pretty far, and it should. Why are you really in college? What’s the point?

If you can’t find an answer, you may be in the wrong environment. But if you can, then you have the basis to truly love your study and your work! It’s a chance to grow, both as a person and as a future servant of your clients, your bosses, and your family. This motive of love and service, which is the best reason that we can have to act in our lives, can be tapped into to motivate us toward greatness. When you realize that your work can be done for the love of your family, who supported you to be able to enter college, and your future, the perspective switches from reactive to proactive. Now you’ve got a good reason, the BEST reason, to give each homework assignment the best shot you can!

This process of changing your perspective is not a simple one, and it often takes a lot of time to truly adopt a mindset of love and service. But it’s always reachable, no matter what work you’re doing. It’s possible to love and serve God in every career, ever task, every difficulty. That’s the greatest teaching of St. Josemaria, and it’s deeply connected to the Church’s mission as a whole. We are all universally called to true holiness, and the best way to reach it is to offer up our work as an effort of love and sacrifice. It’ll also make you the best you can be, turning challenging and boring tasks into motivating, fulfilling achievements.

If you’re reading this so far and you see yourself with that original mindset, that’s OK! College is the perfect time to change your outlook, and discover the true nature of work. Although I could write another whole essay on this subject alone, the point is that we need to be proactive with our studies, and with our pursuit of knowledge in general. Here are some tips to help with that during the quarantine:

  • Look at each one of your classes, and determine why it is that you ACTUALLY want to take it: the material, not because of grades but because you actually want to learn! Once you have those reasons, write them down on a notecard and keep them someplace easy to reach. Anytime a class bores or frustrates you, pull them out!
  • Pick up a new hobby: Find something you’d enjoy, and make it into a habit! This newfound source of free time means that there’s a great opportunity to grow in your skills! I’ve seen friends of mine pick up painting, journaling, reading, and all sorts of things. Even this article is a hobby project!
  • This is a negative tip, but try to avoid too many passive activities: I’ve spent a lot of my life playing video games, and I’ve found that for the most part it really isn’t satisfying in the real way that good work can be. Sure, they’re fun and great in moderation, but spending too much time on electronic entertainment can leave you empty. This is true of the internet and social media in general; I don’t think I need to cite any scientific studies for my fellow students to know what I mean when I say that being on your phone too much makes you feel like crap. I’m NOT saying you can’t play Call of Duty or watch Netflix, but I am saying that if it’s all you do, you’re wasting a lot more than just your time.

Taking advantage of the principle of study will make a profound difference in your life, just like it did for mine. Once you feel how amazing it is to not just be worn down by work, but finding fulfillment in it, you’ll never want to go back.

Conclusion

Although we’re still technically in school, it’s fair to say that we have a lot more time on our hands than we did before. But when work is sluggish, and we feel constantly tired, it can be difficult to find the time and motivation to follow such an example. However, there’s a solution to this struggle: the principles highlighted above, if followed, can rejuvenate and boost your energy levels to take full advantage of this newfound time!  Habits of order help us to create the foundation on which our day is built, so building a schedule will ensure that you’re able to proactively take on the day. Spiritual habits like receiving the sacraments and living in the presence of God motivate us and reminds us of the purpose of our work (to love and serve others, as Christ loved and served us). Pursuing a life of friendship, which may seem odd and a bit awkward to actively need to make time for, helps us grow as people and make relationships that help us and others flourish. And to top it off, a life of study is the key way to truly grow and flourish as human beings. By pursuing growth and challenging ourselves, we experience the rewards of hard work and the joys of developing new skills, cultivating new hobbies, and enjoying new, lifechanging ways to view the world.

All of the things I’ve written here have helped me personally approach the quarantine with joy and adapt well. However, these aren’t just for being stuck at home; they’re life-long principles that will help you live a fuller, holier, flourishing life. The important thing about right now is that this is a great opportunity. Being in one area, with lots more time, resources, and freedom in your hands means that you can create new habits that can and will stick with you for the rest of your life. When coronavirus has ended, and things return to normal, how will your life have changed? Will this have just been a few weeks, wasted? Seize this moment. Take the opportunity to build the foundations of the rest of your life. Regardless what happens, you’ll have the tools to make the most of your situation.

In the end, I may have been misleading. I said this was just about surviving quarantine, but it really isn’t. It’s about learning to live well. Everyone wants to know the answer to this question, but it doesn’t have a single, quick fix. It takes time and consistent effort to even make the smallest of changes. But in the struggle of learning this crazy, chaotic dance called life, follow the example of St. Josemaria. Whisper a prayer with each step, and you’ll become both a saint and a good dancer.

[1] John F. Coverdale, Uncommon Faith: The Early Years of Opus Dei, 1928-1943 (2002).

[2] Russell Shaw, The Wartime Birth of a Spiritual Classic (Catholic Answers.com)

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