Can we find true hunger in the midst of COVID-19?
If you were starving, how would you know? There would be painful and obvious symptoms—and that’s a good thing. Eating is so important for our survival that failing to eat triggers certain alarms in our body. But what if the alarm fails to go off?
When my mother had a stroke, one of the side effects was that she did not feel hunger. When offered food, she’d say, “I’m not hungry,” and then time would pass. Eventually, she started losing weight at an alarming rate. Once we ascertained what was happening, Dad put Mom on a schedule. She had needs beyond her capacity to feel them, and we rightly acted accordingly.
I write these words as most of my fellow Americans are on some form of “lockdown” during the COVID-19 outbreak, and all parishes in America are precluded from offering public Masses. (You can find a video of a Mass I offered on Saint Joseph’s day from “the catacombs” HERE.) Some are saying that we are in effect “fasting” from public worship, but that’s not quite right.
Fasting is chosen; it is initiated from within. This undesired absence of public worship may have been reluctantly accepted, but it is not something that one embraces. It is more akin to famine than to fasting. Here’s the question that’s on my mind now: In the absence of public worship, do you feel hunger?
When we fast, if we are normal, we feel the pain of hunger. We submit to that pain to remind ourselves that we have a need for God that is even greater than our need for food. We accept that pain to alert ourselves to the danger of allowing ourselves to distance ourselves from God—a distance that can become so great that we no longer feel God’s absence (like my stricken mother unable to feel that she needed to eat).
Faithful fasting can free us from the tyrannical gluttony of lesser hungers and stir our hunger for our greatest need—the one and only Living God. The clarity that can come from fasting enables us to see our need for gratitude for physical sustenance and (one hopes) for the life-altering gratitude for our spiritual sustenance.
Looking at headlines, advertisements and social media, I see that we are being bombarded with invitations to drink, take drugs, and stare into screens, and binge watch movies and pornography. If we succumb to those seductions, we would numb ourselves further to the pain we should be feeling, the hunger for God that this sacramental famine should stir within us.
As a priest, I am heartsick that I am not able to minister directly to the flock. As a human being in a comfortable location, I am tempted to reduce this lockdown into an opportunity to catch up on sleep, reading, and hobbies. I have to choose to fight those temptations and to renew my commitments to prayer, sacrifices and worship. I have to choose to use all of the amazing means that the 21st century makes available so that I can offer the Word of God and the truths of the Faith to people in need during this time of crisis.
Lots of folks are talking about the present pandemic as a divine chastisement, or as a warning of something worse if we do not repent. I do not know how to evaluate those claims. Nonetheless I believe firmly that this crisis is a time of very great opportunity. This sacramental famine is a sword that will pierce our heart, and “the thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Luke 2:35)
Will our behavior, thoughts and feelings during this crisis reveal that we believe firmly that we need God above all else, that we live for and from the sacraments, that worship is a privileged duty, that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of our lives”? I hope so. I hope that this “famine” will lead us to a redemptive suffering, a longing for God and his Church that will push aside false loves and ephemeral hungers. I hope that we will rediscover that love of God and neighbor can make us heroes who can believe, see, lead, and feast, even in the dark.
When I write next, I will offer another meditation for Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.