Contemplatives in Confinement: 3 Lessons Learned While Battling Coronavirus

I recently achieved the dubious honor of being the only person I know to contract Covid-19. Although mine would be classified a “mild” case—clear lungs, no ER visits, no hospitalization required—I wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone. If the flu is an uninvited guest that hangs around for three to five days, the coronavirus is a squatter that moves into your home and decides to ransack the place during an extended staycation of, oh, two or three weeks.

On the plus side, I now have some sort of immunity, although the experts don’t know how long it will last.

On the minus side, I lost two full weeks of my life to sleep, fever, sleep, low energy, and sleep. On Days 4–6 I lost my senses of taste and smell. (That was weird. I told Rob to give me the cheap food, since I wouldn’t know the difference.) On Day 10 an itchy rash broke out all over my body and still recurs randomly. I mostly sat around like a slug.

My coronavirus experience occurred during the first two weeks of May, when most folks were sheltering at home in order to avoid people like me. Before the fever hit, I had been thinking about the lessons we’re all learning during this pseudo-monastic experience of social isolation. My two weeks of Slug Life gave me time, in my more lucid moments, to think about a few of them.

1. Gathering for Worship Is a Privilege.

I had understood this in a theoretical way. I’ve read stories of suffering Christians worshiping secretly in Nazi concentration camps, in Soviet gulags, and in Chinese prisons. Unlike them, I can still worship freely, with access to all kinds of Christian books, online services, and podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.

But I dearly miss my brothers and sisters in Christ. Friends. Family. Familiar faces. Cute little toddlers who won’t stay still during the liturgy.

Two months is a long time without gathering together. Once this crisis passes and we are able to worship and pray in community again, I plan to wear waterproof mascara on that first special Sunday back at church. Tears will be shed.

I hope I will never forget this lesson. I hope I will never again take for granted the joy of corporate worship. I hope I won’t grumble about parish responsibilities or getting up early on a Sunday morning.

The body of Christ, in the community of His Church, is truly a gift.

[Image from Facebook page “So You’re a Pastor’s Wife”]

2. Sacraments are a necessity.

During the first 45 years of my life as an Evangelical, I never would have written these words. I didn’t have anything against the sacraments; I just didn’t think about them much. They weren’t central to my Christian life—they were barely even on the periphery. Baptism was important for believers (although its method and meaning varied from one church to the next), and the communion service was special (although its method, meaning, and frequency were always up for debate).

[Photo by Rob Horner]

Ten years of walking this ancient path in the Orthodox Church has changed my perspective radically. The  Eucharist is central to every single Divine Liturgy, and participating in an online service without receiving it is an unnatural experience.

Next Sunday I plan to receive communion for the first time in many weeks. I have missed it deeply. Not only is the liturgy incomplete without communion, my life feels incomplete without it, in ways I can’t quite articulate. Sure, I can discuss the theology, that the bread and wine mystically become the Body and Blood of Christ, and the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality. But the Eucharist, and confession, and the baptisms and chrismations that have been postponed are more than theological propositions. As the page on “Holy Mysteries” in OrthodoxWiki states, “The sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible. In every sacrament there is a combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace.”

I have missed these specific gifts of grace that the Church offers.

3. God’s love for us doesn’t depend on our “usefulness.”

The day after my battle with the coronavirus began, Fr. Stephen Freeman published a blog post with the provocative title, “The Useless God.” His thoughts on the utilitarian value system of modernity gave me much food for thought, at least during my occasional moments of clarity.

Fr. Stephen wrote,

The useful thing (or person) gains its value from something other than itself. It is a tool. I value the tool because it allows me to do something else. In many cases, when the usefulness of the tool is expired, it is simply thrown away. In a throw-away society we slowly drown in a sea of obsolescence, surrounded by things for which we no longer have any use.

That sort of utilitarian thinking can infect our spiritual understanding. I think I tend to measure my worth in God’s Kingdom by what I can do. If I’ve followed my prayer rule, I’ve had a good day as a Christian. If I serve my parish and give my time, talent, and treasure for God and others, then I have value.

[Photo from Denver Rescue Mission]

Of course it’s true that we cooperate with God’s grace in our salvation. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving and serving out of a desire to prove ourselves useful, rather than simply giving back to God out of a heart of love and serving others out of our love for Him and for those created in His image.

While I was sick, for the first time in my adult life I went a full two weeks without cooking or preparing any meals. My husband and daughter ate lots of take-out and easy-prep foods: pizza, Chipotle, frozen chicken tenders, and ramen. They also consumed far less than the USDA-recommended minimum amount of vegetables. (Don’t think I didn’t notice, guys.)

I was useless as a wife and mom.

I made some attempts to feed my spirit. While spending the first three days in bed with a fever hovering around 101°, I would recite the Jesus Prayer for a while until my mind wandered. I may have lasted a few minutes, or most of an hour. Who knows? It was all a blur.

After the fever broke, I tried to keep up with the daily lectionary readings. But my efforts often consisted of reading the epistle and gospel, closing my Bible, and having no idea what I just read. Or, more frequently, staring into the middle distance then gazing at my Bible or a spiritual volume and thinking, “I should read that.”

But I couldn’t sustain the mental focus to write a blog post, do creative work, or think deeply about anything. From a spiritual standpoint, I was useless. From an intellectual standpoint, I was useless.

“In current American parlance,” Fr. Steven writes, “‘useless’ is mostly a term of abuse. Who wants to be seen as useless?”

And yet, God loves me. His love does not depend on my ability to do, to give, to serve.

I know this on a surface level, but I’m not very good at resting in this divine love. So I can’t honestly say that I’ve learned this lesson yet. I think it may take me a lifetime to comprehend.

3 comments:

  1. Lynnette I’m so glad you’re okay. This is a good post. You’re so honest in your writing that it helps me too because I can relate. May God bless you and your family.

  2. Thanks be to God that you are recovering!! How l have missed your reflections. May God continue to strengthen you physically and spiritually. Though we have yet to meet, l thank God for placing you in my life .
    With loves and hugs, just me,AT 😉

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