By Father Greg Cleveland, O.M.V.
G.K. Chesterton and several other literary figures were asked one evening what book they would prefer to have with them if stranded on a desert isle. One writer said without hesitation: “The complete works of Shakespeare.” Another said, “I’d choose the Bible.” They turned to Chesterton. “How about you?” And Chesterton replied, “I would choose Thomas’s Guide to Practical Ship Building.”
Like Chesterton, we might be looking to escape our confinement of living in our current circumstances. We feel imprisoned in our homes, isolated from others, desperately wishing to go back out into society to live our normal lives. We have felt the devastation of the COVID pandemic – the loss of precious loved ones, the absence of meaningful connection, unemployment, economic ruin, family stress, and the challenge of educating our children. We often feel vulnerable, out of control and fearful. In many ways, the COVID experience has been a desert existence, stripped down and empty. And yet in the emptiness, many have discovered the fullness of God’s presence. God seems to be clearing away non-essential things to make us realize what is truly important.
The desert is barren and inhospitable, often the abode of wild animals and snakes, and subject to extremes of temperature. We either don’t want to be there out of reluctance and fear, or we freely go there with some strong and set purpose, which is at least necessary to pass through it. The desert is a place that symbolizes the test of endurance with two possible outcomes – victory or succumbing. Desert dwellers seek a barren physical environment for the same reason that they seek an undistracted mind, namely, to reduce the struggle to its barest and most essential elements. The desert affords us the opportunity to unite more fully with the Lord. Jesus, who himself endured the desert, wants us to realize his presence to us in the emptiness we feel in our hearts. He wants us to rediscover the value of prayer, especially with his Word in the Scriptures. He wants us to hunger and thirst for his Body and Blood in the Eucharist, the manna in the desert which sustains us on our journey through this life to life eternal.
The desert seems to be barren of plant life. But the soil is fertile, and with a little rain, old seeds generate new plants. In our stripped-down existence, we may discover new life being generated. During the pandemic, I have witnessed growth in the virtue of humility in the realization of how little we are in control and need to depend on God and one another. People have been tried in the virtue of patience in bearing with self and one another. There have been so many opportunities to show charity toward one another, especially those who are poor, weak and needy.
The pandemic has made us re-examine our priorities and re-evaluate the status quo in our lives. I know many people who have made extraordinary changes in their lives, reinventing themselves by starting new careers or caring more for family members. One woman, frustrated in working from home, has decided to transition from her usual work to pursue her dream of becoming a life coach. Personally, I was frustrated by hardly being able to celebrate my 25th anniversary of ordination during the lockdown. Instead, I commemorated it by writing a 300-page book on the priesthood over that intense three-month period. Using the imagery of the Song of Songs, I was able to show how the ministerial priest radiates the beauty of Christ the Bridegroom, and perfects the beauty of the Christ’s bride, the Church.
One thing is certain, the COVID crisis has meant suffering for everyone. We as Christians recognize the Cross as essential to our lives and necessary for spiritual growth. Jesus explained: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things andenter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26). A scientist once observed a new butterfly struggling in an exhaustive fight to release its wings from the imprisonment of its cocoon. Out of curiosity or pity for the poor insect, he intervened and carefully freed the butterfly by cutting it loose from its thready case. Later he observed that the wings did not develop normally. They were smaller and weaker. Also, the color in the wings was not as bright and beautiful. Finally, sooner than expected, the butterfly died. His conclusion from this intervention in nature was that the struggle of the butterfly was a necessary step in its development of the strength and stamina required to endure greater the challenges awaiting it.
Through our sufferings God is making us brighter and more beautiful people, fire-tried gold in the furnace of adversity (Eccl. 2:5). May the Lord turn the desert of this pandemic into living streams of his love.
The Lanteri Center offers spiritual encouragement and spiritual direction. If you are committed to growing in a disciplined life of prayer and would like to meet regularly with a mature and experienced guide, contact the Lanteri Center at 303-298-1498, or learn more at omvusa.org/lanteri-center.
Father Greg Cleveland, O.M.V. is the Executive Director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality.