By Thomas Dompkowski, The Catholic University of America
Once upon a time, there was a nineteen-year-old who was confined to his home for over a year. He wanted to return to a place he loved, but his family wouldn’t let him go because they thought he would be safe with them. So, he passed the time praying, reading, tutoring his sisters, and reaching out to his friends whom he could not see in person.
He could have left his home, against his mother’s wishes, and gone back to where he knew his vocation was. He could have sulked around the house, complaining about how his lot was so unfair. He could have cursed God and stopped praying, too angry at Him for making him wait to start his life. But he stayed. He prayed. He hoped in Him.
And this hope did not disappoint. The situation ended and he finally could go to his true home. He became a priest, theologian, philosopher, and world-renowned teacher. Today, we know him as the Angelic Doctor.
It’s easy in these days of fear, panic, and isolation to be angry, with our family, our leaders, or our God. It’s easy to say, “Woe is me!” as you are stuck at home on your couch with nothing to do. It’s easy to just “go to class” and watch your favorite streaming service afterwards. It’s easy to just give up. But that’s not what St. Thomas Aquinas did. And that’s not what we should do either.
So how can we “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) in such darkness?
I love lists so here are some ways to survive our imposed exile right from how St. Thomas got through his:
As Catholics, we know the power of prayer. The prophets prayed, the saints prayed, and Jesus Himself prayed. “But,” you may say, “my diocese has cancelled all public masses and my church isn’t even open. Where can I pray? What will I do without the Eucharist?”
Go to Our Lady. Go to her rosary. St. Dominic famously said, “One day, through the Rosary and the Scapular, Our Lady will save the world.” So if you haven’t prayed the rosary regularly before, you’ve got no excuse now. Find a time of the day to pray it together with your family or with friends.
The Knights of Columbus chapter at my university prays a rosary every Monday at 10:05 pm before our 10:30 pm mass. There is a group of us which is Skyping every Monday at 10:05 pm Eastern Standard Time to pray the rosary together virtually because we couldn’t be together spiritually. Try something like that.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord. If you cannot receive Him physically, make a spiritual communion. Catholic sites all over the Internet have prayers by different saints for spiritual communion. St. Louis de Montfort has the beautiful image of Our Lady giving us the Child Jesus to hold in our arms in communion. Find your favorite prayer for spiritual communion and pray it during your favorite livestreamed mass. Or if you protect yourself as you go out, go ask a priest to come to his private mass. It will most likely just be you and the priest, so it’s a small enough gathering to comply with governmental regulations. If you can go to mass and receive Jesus physically, offer it up for all those who cannot do either of those things.
Our Lord hears our prayers from this valley of tears. In the parable of the persistent widow, He describes an immoral judge who will give a just decision for a widow after she pesters him day and night. Our Lord concludes, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?” (Luke 18:7). Elsewhere, Christ tells us not to be afraid when our bodies are threatened or when we feel like God doesn’t notice our cries for deliverance. “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28-31). When you pray, He hears you. When you cry, He is there beside you. Take care of your soul as much as you take care of washing your hands.
You’ll have your online classes, to be sure. You will be texting your friends and sending them memes to help get through this. You may even be a gamer and will spend some time with your friends online. But you should give your eyes some rest from all the screens. And taking up reading is a great way to do this.
If you’re anything like me, you have a stack of Catholic books in your room just accumulating dust. Without your extracurricular activities, you have ample free time to read those books! So pick a book and finish it. Don’t read a few pages and move on to another book. Use this time to cultivate a spirit of self-disciple and perseverance. St. Paul tells the Galatians, “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
After all this is over, you can look back at the stack of books in your room that have been read cover to cover, with notations and underlining everywhere. And you can pat yourself on the back and thank God that you persevered in this small task, so that, when you are asked to persevere in the future, you will be ready. “His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy’” (Matthew 25:21).
3) Take up new hobbies
Besides reading, there are plenty of other hobbies you can take up as well. Many of my friends paint, or sow, or clean. There probably is something you have been wanting to do for a while, but always find yourself saying, “I don’t have time for that.” Well, now you have time! So use it wisely! “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9). The devil will come especially when we are idle. So keep busy, but not the kind of busy which keeps you from reflective prayer. I know I’ve wanted to work on playing the guitar, so I can do that now! But I also wanted to make sure I set aside a few minutes a day for silent prayer. So, I need to make sure I don’t let my hobbies take over my free time and that I still have plenty of time for homework and prayer and conversations.
4) Keep in contact with your friends (in this world and in the other)
In the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas gives us five remedies for sorrow and pain. One of these he calls “the sympathy of friends.” St. Thomas writes, “Since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves: so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him” (I.II. 38. Art. 3).
So call your friends so you can hear their voices. Skype of FaceTime them so you can see their faces. It’s not the same, but it still helps. Ask them how they are doing. Really listen to what they have to say. Keep praying for them, because you don’t know how this all is affecting them and their families. By talking to them, you bear their burdens with them. Likewise, when you talk with someone, they can bear your burdens just as you help bear their burdens. And don’t forget about your friends in heaven, the saints! Talk to them too! Pray to your favorite saints and ask them to intercede with God for you. Look up prayers to them, novenas to them, or write to them in your journal.
Who better to help us carry our burdens than Our Lord? “Come to me,” He tells us, “all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Our Lord is our best friend. He will always listen to us and bear our burdens with us. We, then, strive to take His cross upon our shoulders and bear His cross with Him, just as Simon of Cyrene did, not because He cannot do it (because He can, for He is God), but because we love Him and want to share in His suffering.
5) Look back on history
Please put this situation in perspective. This is not to minimize your sufferings or distress. Rather, it is to place your struggles within the context of salvation history. This pandemic and the shutting down of public masses and the elimination of public gatherings larger than fifty people can be likened to the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and took the Jewish people to their own land to work as slaves.
The prophet Daniel recounts:
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or tens of thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today and find favor before you; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame (Daniel 3:37-40).
I encourage you to read the Book of Daniel, not only for the rest of this passage, but for its parallels to today.
The sacrifice in the Temple was how Jews praised God and sought remission for their sins. During the Babylonian exile, they lost the Temple, and thus they lost their main way to pray. But this did not stop them from praying to God, offering anything they could as a sacrifice, begging God to accept it as though it were their beloved sacrifice in the Temple. We now have no public masses. We have lost the opportunity to receive Our Lord in our bodies. But let that not stop us from receiving Him into our hearts. Let us never again take the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for granted again. Let us leave our hearts before the tabernacle of our church, and let it adore the Lord there. So, whatever you are suffering, offer it up to God, and know that “your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:4).
Another of St. Thomas’s patented remedies for sorrow is “tears and groans.” Aquinas writes, “a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged” (I.II. 38. Art. 2).
Bottling up your emotions doesn’t help anyone. Let it all out. Cry into your pillow, cry in the shower, cry into your favorite stuffed animal. God will hear you and will cry with you. “In my distress I called out: Lord! I cried out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry to him reached his ears” (Psalm 18:7). “When Jesus saw [Mary, the sister of Lazarus] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Sir, come and see.’ And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him’” (John 11:32-36). Christ weeps with us now. Cry with Him.
7) Hold on to the Cross
Venerable Fulton Sheen famously said, “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.” We must keep this in mind when we think about the state of our world. St. Bruno said, “While the world changes, the cross stands firm.” Let us cling to that cross. Though it pains us to do, it pained Him so much more to bear it. We wear crucifixes around our necks, but do we think about its real weight? Our faith implies the cross. But the cross implies the resurrection.
We receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday in the shape of a cross. The Sacred Host bears the imprint of the cross. The resurrected Christ bears the wounds of His passion on His glorified body. The cross is integral to who we are as Catholics. And the cross is suffering. To take up our crosses and follow Christ is to suffer pain, misery, despair, loneliness, exile, isolation, all things for the sake of His name. The martyrs of our beloved Holy Mother Church knew this and rejoiced in joining their sufferings to Christ’s on the cross. St. Thomas recounts the martyr Tiburtius, who, “when he was walking barefoot on the burning coals, said: ‘Methinks, I walk on roses, in the name of Jesus Christ’” (I.II. 38. Art. 4). This is how Christ makes our burdens light: He compels us to join our sufferings to His, so that, when we suffer, we count it a joy, because we suffer for Him and with Him.
Venerable Fulton Sheen put it this way, “Evil may have its hour, but God will have His day.” In all this, we can cry out with St. John, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). So do not lose heart. Do not be afraid. “And behold, I am with you always,” He says, “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).