“I have sowed sackcloth upon my skin, and have covered my flesh with ashes.
— Book of Job 16:16)
“I hereby release everyone from fasting and abstinence. I think we’ve suffered enough already.”
— Bishop Luke Warm, Diocese of Acedia
— Book of None
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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These three responses pretty much encapsulate the three broad ways of responding to the present pestilence. The first, rooted in Scripture and tradition, sees suffering as not only necessary but a blessing; the second, rooted in a lukewarm and fair-weather faith, sees suffering as a nuisance to be tolerated if it can’t be avoided; and the third, rooted in a clueless agnosticism, sees it as senseless.
Today, as Christians experience the Real Absence of the Lord during His death and burial, we know that this year is going to be especially painful because His Real Absence will continue following His resurrection. Although the risen Lord will be truly risen indeed, He will not come to us in His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. In this sense, we will remain in the desert. We will still be fasting because our daily Bread will not be given to us. This enforced abstinence from Our Lord’s Body and Blood is far worse than the inconvenience and loss of income associated with the pestilence. So is the absence of the cleansing grace of confession. Or, perish the thought, the absence of a priest should we find ourselves at the point of death.
But what can be done? If our attendance at Mass had been allowed to continue by the bishops, Catholics would be held responsible for the spread of the pestilence. It would be our fault and we would become the scapegoat for a godless society looking for someone to blame.
So be it.
What do we do during this time of exile? This time in the desert?
We can do what Bishop Luke Warm has done, which is nothing, or in fact worse than nothing. Caring more for Caesar than the sheep of his flock, Bishop Warm not only does nothing himself but orders all the priests of his diocese to do nothing also. I know of at least one bishop who has ordered all the priests of his diocese to refrain at all times from offering any of the sacraments to any of their parishioners.
Other bishops have been more courageous and have given the priests in their charge the freedom to be creative. We hear of priests sitting in the parking lots of their churches, offering drive-through confession through half-closed car windows. We give thanks for livestream Masses which at least allow us to make a spiritual communion. In our home, we have made one of our rooms a makeshift chapel, providing some sort of spiritual space for these livestream bare-bone liturgies.
But where are we, the laity, in all this? How are we coping with our enforced exile from the Blessed Sacrament?
Ultimately, we are left with the same three responses listed above. We can join the Nones and say “whatever,” embracing the meaninglessness of life and the suicide of thought which is its consequence; we can believe that we are suffering enough and that we shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting to Mass in such difficult times; or we can follow the example of Job by wearing sackcloth and ashes as an act of penance for the pestilence which is plaguing us and our neighbors, vowing to continue to do so until Our Lord is returned to us in the Sacraments. I would add, lest I be accused of madness, that I’m not suggesting that we literally wear sackcloth and ashes. I am, however, suggesting that we do something significant which we would not do normally, which takes us outside our comfort zones, and which would be an outward manifestation and expression of our longing for Our Lord’s return.
We might be considered a little crazy—as Saint Francis was considered crazy for stripping himself naked as an outward sign of his total dependence on God—but none of us should be too concerned about being seen to be jongleurs de Dieu, or fools for Christ, as was the good Saint Francis himself. We are happy to wear a cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday; why not do something significant during the many weeks of Ash Wednesdays that we might be facing ahead of us?
As I’m no saint, and certainly no Saint Francis, I have chosen something which might seem trivial as my own personal sackcloth and ashes. It is, alas, the best I can do. And yet, for me, it is psychically shocking enough to serve its purpose. For the first time ever, in my sixtieth year, I am growing a beard. I don’t like it and would like to get rid of it. I’m a hair minimalist—as I am a techno-minimalist—heading straight to the barbershop the moment my hair is long enough to touch my ears. Now, however, I am resolved to neither shave nor have my hair cut until I am released from the desert of my just desserts in which I, a miserable sinner, find myself. Have I suffered enough already? No, I have not. I know, as that other miserable sinner Oscar Wilde reminds me, that God’s eternal laws are kind and break the heart of stone because, as Wilde also reminds us, it’s only through a broken heart that Christ may enter in.
I hope and pray that my own rather pathetic “sackcloth and ashes” might help my heart to remain broken until it is once again restored in communion with Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Photo: A Good Friday procession by a fraternity of lay Franciscan penitents in León, Spain (Getty Images)