Recently I was recovering from my second bout of Covid, which laid me up for a couple of weeks. The enforced tiredness was very frustrating, but it at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the wider situation of the pandemic, and particularly on this question: what, as Catholics, do we learn from Covid?
Three answers came to me. The first answer has to do with our faith, and what lies at the heart of our faith. And it has to do with physical presence.
Christianity is unique in the importance it places on the physical presence of God, and Catholicism among Christian traditions is unique in its fidelity to that presence. Not the spiritual or symbolic presence – not some vague, airy-fairy, intangible presence – but the actual, physical presence of God. “The Word was made flesh, and lived among us”. God can be touched.
This is the extraordinary, radical teaching of our faith. God has a physical, concrete, touchable presence: both in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Himself, and in Christ’s gift to us of the Eucharist, the Real Presence which can be touched, tasted and consumed, which is physically present on our altars and in our tabernacles. That gift, that real, physical presence of God is at the very heart of our faith. Covid has shown us once again how essential it is.
God came so that we could encounter Him in the flesh. He did not come so that we could encounter Him through our screens, or at a safe distance; but in the flesh, up close and personal, in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. This is, for us, the transformative encounter, and this is the encounter we must never, ever neglect. That seems to me the first lesson of Covid.
The second lesson has to do with the wider world. One of the significant developments of modern life in the affluent Western world has been to push God to the margins. To say we can do without Him; to live as though we do not need Him. We lead our own lives. We are strong, on our own: we are self-sufficient.
Actually we are not; actually we are very fragile. This was shockingly apparent in the pandemic. How quickly the structures of our modern life seemed to dissolve! How quickly our confidence turned to panic. Rarely it seems have we seen individuals and communities so convulsed by fear – sometimes quite over-mastered by fear and by anxiety, which persists even to this day. The pandemic has brutally exposed the superficiality of our self-sufficiency and our control over our own lives. By the same token, it has revealed the depth of our need for God.
As Christians we do not believe that we are in charge or in control, nor that we were made to be so. We were not designed to be ‘in sole command’ of our own lives. It is too heavy a weight for us; and like any other impossible weight, the burden of carrying it will distort the way we stand and walk, and the way we live. This is not how we are meant to be. It is God’s strength that we are to rest in, not our own. It is God’s will and God’s plans that we seek to follow, not our own. And, as St John Henry Newman said: “He knows what He is about.”
This brings me to the third of my answers, which is the importance of trust in God and in His Providence. ‘I know the plans I have for you,’ God says to the Prophet Jeremiah, ‘plans for your good and not for evil, plans to give you a future and a hope.’ God knows what He is about. How do we understand the catastrophe of Covid – how do we learn not to be afraid?
We do so through our relationship with God; through trust in His Providence and His plans for us. We do so through trust in His promise to us, ‘I am always with you’ – a promise fulfilled above all in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, which is waiting for us in every tabernacle in every church. When we re-learn that trust in God – when we re-learn the importance of the Real Presence, and the importance of our drawing strength from the Eucharist – then our fears and our anxieties slip away. “Be strong and of good courage; for the Lord your God is with you!” (Jos 1:9)
So as you and I ‘learn to live with Covid’, perhaps we can also learn these lessons from our faith: the fragility of any life that is lived without God; the importance of our trust in God’s Providence and His plans for us; and the unique gift of the Real Presence, never to be neglected.