Lent hit before the pandemic did, remember? It seems like so long ago, but I do remember how Ash Wednesday brought about the traditional pious squabbles about how best to observe it — or, more accurately, about how poorly everyone else was observing it. Traditionalists sneered at the soft and feeble neo-Caths whining over the few penances modern Catholics are still obligated to perform; and left-leaners rolled their eyes at the performative masochism inherent in extravagant fasts and self-deprivations. Remember when that what we wrestled with? 

Also according to tradition, I struck a healthy spiritual balance by being annoyed with everyone.

I have scant patience for people who loudly and self-righteously announce they are exempting themselves from fasting because it makes them feel tired, and therefore it must not be healthy, and their God is a God of love who isn’t into that kind of thing, and anyway their Fitbit doesn’t have a way to track “dying to self.”

I also have zero sympathy for Catholics who are passionately in love with their faith as long as it’s gory and dramatic and self-aggrandizing (but when it has to do with loving their fellow man, not so much). Scratch a Twitter Catholic who’s really enthusiastic about old school penance, and you’re pretty likely to find an old school fetishist. (On second thought, don’t scratch him, unless you want him to think you’re asking for some amateur photography in your DM’s.)

So anyway, yeah, I recall heading into Ash Wednesday Mass with a heart full of dust. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost like I need a savior. 

One of the conversations around these topics did yield something fruitful, something I somehow never understood before. It is this: Fasting isn’t just an exercise in self-control, and it isn’t just something we do in solidarity with the poor, who have fasting imposed on them.

Fasting is also, maybe even primarily, a way of revealing to ourselves just how helpless we are.

It’s a way of reminding us something about ourselves which is always true, but gets masked by a razor thin veneer of strength, an illusion of control. We fast not to work our way up to crushing sin with our new spiritual muscles, but because we forget so easily how close we always are to being just plain dead. We fast because we need to be reminded that we are helpless.

Well, just in case you didn’t catch that lesson when Ash Wednesday came around, the virus followed up. And now every single one of us has had a penance, a fast, imposed on us from the outside. Want some food? There isn’t any. Think you’re in charge? Here’s an invisible enemy that can attack you through your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Forgot about death? Here are the bodybags. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. 

It’s up to us whether or not we learn from these privations and revelations of the pandemic. We do have free will, and even when our exterior circumstances are out of our control, we still have interior options. 

The same is true with fasting. It’s entirely possible to follow the Church’s guidelines on fasting — to voluntarily undertake this discipline —  but to still do it the wrong way. We can fill ourselves full of beef broth and milk and carbonated beverages and feel as full as possible without actually eating, and thereby miss the full experience of emptiness and want. And we can masochistically revel in the perverse pleasure of our meal-deprived agonies, and end up feeling proud and accomplished at our strength the end of the day. We can waste the opportunity the Church offers us, and make it useless or even harmful. We can miss the point, which is that we are helpless, in need of a savior. 

And the same is true with the privations imposed on us by this pandemic, including the temporary loss of the sacraments.

The last few weeks have been a study in how to get through a pandemic wrong. We can trample each other, steal, hoard, and lie. We can be imprudent and reckless and cruel. We can call each other either communists or fascists based on whether we’re more comfortable with risking the lives of the vulnerable or risking the livelihoods of the poor. We can use our suffering as a chance to tell other Catholics that they, too, would disobey their bishops if they just wanted Jesus badly enough. 

But the only real answer is the same as it was on Ash Wednesday, when the statues were covered, the alleluias were taken away, and the angel descended to tell us we are dust. The answer is: We are helpless. We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. 

There is no system that will bring about only good things for all people. Someone always gets broken. Someone always gets infected. What we are, what we always have been is helpless, helpless. In need of a savior. 

So now we’re rounding the corner toward Holy Week, and I still have a heart full of dust. I have stuck to my penances, more or less. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have bleated out my confession to a priest six feet away. I have done my best to be prudent. And I have still been infected with rage and disdain for my fellow man, still allowed fear to colonize my heart. I have still scrambled to mask myself with a thin veneer of control as I watch everyone I know wrestle with this angel, and watched them receive what I know will be a permanent limp.

It says in the Torah: Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.

I do not know how to do this right, any of it. The sanitizing, the fasting, the sacraments, the seclusion, the shopping, any of it. I do not know. Because I am helpless. It’s almost as if I need a savior. 



Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia

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16 thoughts on “Helpless”

  1. I’m away from home, living with my mother-in-law, who is dying. She was put on hospice the same week that the facility she lived in was closed to protect the residents. We couldn’t leave her alone – not now – so the family brought her home and we’re all doing what we can to help out.
    She is an amazing woman, and you can see that in how much her children love her. Boots-on-the-ground love of changing her clothes and helping her go to the bathroom and feeding her, but also the gentle hands and eyes and voices that make it obvious how much they love her.
    This Lent, this pandemic, this end-of-life journey has me so keenly aware of death. Connie could live a few months, or weeks, or she could easily die at the next meal (aspiration is her biggest risk right now). We’re all circled around her, experiencing her presence in a way you only can when you know it’s almost over.

    I went with her to her church the other day. One of the kids had called ahead, and was told that she could come into the sanctuary and maybe a priest would come out and pray with her, but no anointing or communion would be given.
    We got in there and settled in and a priest came out and greeted us and said he just needed to get his protective gear on. He came back with gown, mask, and gloves on, and gave Connie the Anointing of the Sick and gave all three of us the Eucharist.
    I wept.
    In that beautiful, empty sanctuary, that priest walked right up to the front lines, risking himself to give us life that came from death.
    Because I am a small and weak sort of soul, I pray that I may never experience a Lent with quite as profound blessings as this one.

    1. Kira, I’m so sorry for what you and your family are going through. I’m so glad that you were able to receive the Eucharist and that your mother-in-law was able to receive anointing.

    2. Wow. Peace and quiet protection to your beautiful mother-in-law Kira. And your family. So hard right now. We need God so much.

  2. The thing that’s given me most peace during all this is knowing God has placed us where He needs us to be right now. In all the suffering, how many will come to Him for support? How many will look to Him for reassurance and comfort?

    I’m in the category of WFH and homeschooling (our kids are in our parish school), so we are staying relatively busy. But, gee, don’t miss the 2 hours in the car and scrambling for uniforms and outside activities. Have time to laugh and hang out with the kids. It’s been beautiful really.

    Just trying not to worry about dad-in-law getting this- he’s 70 and asthmatic. Yikes.

  3. Thank you.

    It is all so surreal now. I was glad to read that all of your children are home. I have four with me. Thankfully my daughter in NYC was able to get home to SF–20 mins. from us. She was almost at the end of her quarantine phase, so we could see her, but a friend just notified her that his girlfriend, a nurse had just tested positive. He was at their house for a whole day using their wi-fi. Sigh.

    I think part of our trauma here is that we have gone from catastrophic event to catastrophic event–wind, fire, flood, drought, power shut offs–now a tiny unthinkable monster that has us surrounded. It is unprecedented. The delicate web of nature has been disturbed profoundly.

    A couple of months ago my friend told me that when she was picking up food at Costco for our school, the place was filled with panic shoppers pushing pallets of paper goods–all Asian. They knew what was coming. I shrugged and thought they were behaving oddly.

    I hope your mother is okay. Mine is all alone. She can’t even go sit at the graveyard which she used to go to daily. My son buys her what she needs, and leaves it on a table outside.

  4. There are so many people for whom this time is devastating. Families who’ve lost love ones. People who live off tips (and their shop’s owner), landscapers, tradespeople, small business owners, and the list goes on. Seniors in high school and college are having interrupted senior year festivities as well as facing uncertain job prospects. People going into depression from all the isolation and financial distress. The list of devastation is long. This whole thing terrifies and distresses me, and I know the recovery from what people are experiencing will be slow, but still, am I the only one not feeling very Lent-y?

    I mean, my whole family is home, even the big kids. We’re eating lots of meals together. Watching movies. Playing cards and other games. There’s no practice or games or meets to drive to. No last minute school projects or dress down days. No worrying if the uniforms are clean or if the boys have showered before rushing out to some public event. I’m finally decluttering the house. Neighbors are asking about everyone’s welfare. This afternoon, the whole neighborhood (while maintaining a safe distance from each other) came out to sing Happy Birthday to a little girl. In another hour, we’ll be competing on a google hangout team with other families in an online facebook trivia contest with an 80’s and 90’s theme. Right now, I hear my husband and big kids out in the dining room laughing up a storm while they study the music of the era. Yes, our income will be waaaaay down this year, but we’ll survive it and we’re unlikely to be as poor as we once were, and even if we do get back there, the kids’ braces have all already been paid for and we own paid-off cars in very good shape.

    In the face of all the suffering going on in the world, I’m almost ashamed to say I would be happy living this life for a few more months. My sincere hope and prayer (and if I’m honest: expectation) is that my children will remember this time of quarantine fondly.

    1. Hey Philly!
      I’m glad you are doing well. I implored my husband to give up his booze fast–finally wore him down like Eve with an apple. This is plenty Lenty.

      (okay, I’m still not eating chocolate and trying not to cuss.)

      My kids think it’s amazing that they don’t have to get up at 7 a.m. I have turned into a confused, giant sloth. :/. I refuse to watch that Tiger show that everyone is talking about though.

      1. Anna Lisa! So good to see you. Hah! Funny about the booze! You should see our kitchen counter. It’s covered in alcohol. Pennsylvania has ridiculous liquor laws and the governor closed the state stores. Fortunately, they recently had allowed supermarkets to sell wine and beer but with all kinds of restrictions. We feared the state store closures were coming so while other people were hoarding toilet paper we were hoarding wine. Good thing too – the grocery stores can’t keep it in stock. Also, in all our decluttering we found four very old bottles that we must have been given to us as gifts circa 2000, we think. The big kids opened an old bottle of wine the other night but it was rancid. Now, They’re waiting on delivery of margarita mix to try the old tequila. And it probably depends upon how long this whole thing lasts whether or not my husband cracks open the fancy bourbon.

        My big kids have those hangout happy hours several nights a week. I think all these online happy hours going on now are going to result in some marriages. Like letters from World War II. With sex off the table, the young people are actually talking to each other. I hear lots of laughing and introductions taking place. Another good thing to come from this quarantine.

        I’m sorry about your daughter. I know NYC was hit like crazy so if it’s any comfort she’s probably already been exposed and has built some immunity. The medical people in our family say rich NYers are coming down here (in some cases by Uber – yikes!) to get treatment in our less crowded hospitals.

    2. I’ve also enjoyed the positive aspects of being homebound during this crisis. We’re healthy, our income isn’t suffering much, and we’re enjoying our time together. I don’t have to juggle homeschooling with trying to work fulltime from home like some people. I don’t have to scramble for childcare like some others do with the schools closed. I’m also an introvert, so social distancing isn’t as hard on me as it is on many. I often feel guilty about how easy I have it compared to many others in this situation. Yet it is stressful to be away from the sacraments, away from my mother and friends, my son not being able to have in-person contact with his peers. And just the scariness of the whole situation. I do feel that my cross is much smaller than average, and I know that there are things about this experience that I will always treasure. But I would still say it’s the most sacrificial Lent I’ve ever had.

  5. The fact this all has unfolded during Lent is not lost on me. It’s meant to be a reset for mankind like Lent is supposed to do every year for us, but I honestly don’t think it will make a difference this time. I really hope I’m wrong.

    1. I think it already has made a difference to some extent. For one thing, the welfare of the elderly is now being talked about in the public square, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

      1. Where do you start? The devastation economically for families with small business is soul crushing. That’s years, if not decades down the drain and their children will suffer as a result. And these are the businesses doing the right thing, shutting shop, letting staff go and isolating and following the rules. Yet an incompetent government releases 2700 people off a cruise liner riddled with the virus into the community, with little more than a welcome wave and pinky promise to self isolate. And yes we may be “talking” about the elderly but it’s only to reassure the greater community that we are isolating them further than what they have ever been from civilisation. Nothing will change with protecting our vulnerable. And we are telling those at deaths door we can’t save you because our hospitals are under resourced and programmed to look after the “virus”. No sorry. Still I’m not seeing the sunshine in this one.

  6. now is quite definitely the winter of our discontent, whatever the season in your part of this Earth. It is impossible to trust in earthly princes but thanks to their rank incompetence it definitely feels easier to be humble and grateful before God.

    Please take my good wishes wherever you go and may your days be as gentle as possible.


  7. Wow. Well said. I’ve been craving this type of post. You have captured perfectly how Lent relates to this crisis.

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