The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we knew it. None of us can shut our eyes to the impact it has had, and still has, on our physical health and economic well-being. Practitioners have warned about its effects on mental health, the loneliness and isolation that accompanies a quarantine that lasts, and lasts, and lasts.
We have named and recognized losses weaving through the fabric of life, leaving us grieving for certainty and safety, for sacramental life and religious engagement, for proximity and community. Yet, for those of us in pastoral ministry, the burning question remains: How do we minister in this time of disruption? How do we engender a spirituality of hope in an age of fear?
At a recent workshop led by alumnus Dr. Tom Malewitz on post-pandemic pastoral ministry and a spirituality of hope, I realized how much I needed a day of reflection and learning so my own ministry and work might continue to bear fruit.
In this gathering, I was reminded that while this pandemic is new to us in the 21st century, pandemics have been part of human existence and part of the history of the Church. By looking back, we can draw parallels to the present and find inspiration for the future.
Scriptural wisdom is rooted in the understanding that life is communal in nature, that there is order, a structure greater than our will, and that growth in wisdom is possible because individuals are not perfect. What might scriptural wisdom teach us? It can impress on us that, despite forced separation, maintaining relationships is an essential component of faith.
It can remind us that our own will and convenience are superseded by the common good; that all of us are trying to survive as best we can; and that effort will forever be imperfect, flawed, and in need of the redemptive power of love.
The cloud of witnesses – the saints and blessed among us –lived in times of great turbulence and trial. They can model for us a way of responding to our own struggles with faith. With so many witnesses throughout history, we can safely claim that there is no one “right” way, that fidelity to the Good News will take varied expressions, shaped by historical circumstances.
The story of Vietnamese bishop, theologian and philosopher Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) moved me to look at freedom and living each day in a new way. He was imprisoned by the Vietnamese government for 13 years – nine of which he spent in solitary confinement – before he was exiled to Rome. He wrote: “While in prison, everyone waits for freedom, every day, every minute. We must live each day, each minute of our life as though it is the last.”
How can we do that? Only by finding God in the mundane, in the ordinary that creates the warp and weft of life, and by responding to that presence accordingly. Finding God and emerging with grace are two sides of the same coin: For what is grace if not the presence of God?
So I ask: Would it make a difference if we acknowledged with the poet that our world is charged with the splendor of God? How can our ministry to and with others proclaim with a clear and authentic voice that we – in the midst of suffering humanity – are holy ground?
St. Augustine’s words challenge me to break down the vestiges of idolatry lurking in our categories of sacred and profane:
"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you."
For me, a spirituality of hope is steeped in what the Church calls sacramental imagination: the ability to recognize the divine presence in created reality, both now and in the past. We are aided in nurturing sacramental imagination by visual arts, literature, poetry, architecture, music – by beauty, reflection and community. A spirituality of hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness evidenced throughout human history and bolstered by accepting that God-with-us is also God-for-us.
On that day in mid-August, a group of ordinary men and women decided to engage with one another and form a community, albeit a temporary one. Through common prayer, reflections and conversations, our eyes and hearts were opened to seek and find, to respond to the Spirit’s guidance in our life. At the end of the day, I was exhausted but thrilled that God’s presence was palpable – even via Zoom – and we all had a chance to emerge with grace.
Agnes Kovacs is director of continuing formation and associate director of the Graduate Theology Program at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.