In the early days of the pandemic, we all learned an old lesson in a new way: suffering is unavoidable. But we also cling to the wisdom that we are not alone in our suffering. Here’s how that insight came to Tim in a small, empty chapel — and rekindled his hope.
Early in the spring of 2020, I went on long walks with the kind of wanderlust that is only possible when a society shuts down. During my daily seven-mile walk from my home to the Catholic campus where I teach, I did not encounter another person.
Strangest of all was the campus itself. Before there was a fall reopening plan, before there was regular surveillance testing on campus, I was there. Alone.
There were traces of presence. Remnants of ads for upcoming events that would never happen. Dorms with flags in windows. Student cars that were left behind after our semester went online. But the general mood on campus was absence. No students. No faculty. No one.
Absence was the hidden cost of the pandemic for many of us. The terrible nature of contagious disease is that it separates us from one another. Even if we did not get COVID, we suffered from the malaise of being alone — apart from our friends, apart from our colleagues, apart from our community.
In the week or so before Easter, I changed my routine. Instead of walking straight to my office, I stopped on the first floor of the building where I work. The chapel on the first floor was open. It was a space where I had often gathered with colleagues and friends for prayer. But this time, it was just me. Like the rest of campus, I was there. Alone.
Except, I noticed that the tabernacle candle was lit. A life-long Catholic and a theologian, I rarely attended to the presence of this light. Like many cradle Catholics, my general tendency was to mindlessly genuflect toward the tabernacle in a church.
This time, though, it was different. I was different.
I had been mourning the loss of so many things, including the absence of my colleagues and students. The cancellation of commencement, of my son’s kindergarten graduation, and any future trips to visit my family in Tennessee.
Worse, I had succumbed to the kind of despair palpable in the early days of the pandemic. Like much of the country, I spent my time obsessively looking at charts of COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. I had come to recognize that normalcy was not around the corner. It would be months, maybe a year, before I could gather with friends in their homes. And this slim hope was dependent on a vaccine that seemed a distant dream back in April of 2020.
In this cycle of despair, of an unknown future, I happened upon the most terrifying absence of all: the absence of hope.
And yet, here I was. In this tiny chapel on a campus where a burning candle testified to the presence of hope.
I am not a charismatic sort of Catholic — the kind who easily prays using his own words or who publicly expresses religious devotion. Most retreats in college made me uncomfortable as I was urged to share the deepest desires of my heart with strangers.
Yet here I was. Before a tabernacle, before what Catholics profess as the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist: body and blood, soul and divinity. With tears in my eyes, I discovered a presence that was there all along. From my lips came forth a line from a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist: “Where the senses fail, faith alone suffices.”
As these words escaped my mouth, I found myself changed. St. Thomas Aquinas, as it turns out, knew what he was talking about. He recognized that our experience of the Eucharist felt like absence. On the altar, you did not see Jesus. You saw what looked like bread and wine. But faith enabled a new way of seeing. Ordinary bread is by no means ordinary. The presence of Love itself is enshrined in every tiny chapel and large cathedral throughout the world. The flickering light manifests this presence to us. In this village, in this town, in this city, in this rural hamlet — Love is there.
This moment of insight changed my experience of this pandemic. I tell my students nearly every semester that life is hard. I tell them you do not need to seek out suffering because it will find you. But I had forgotten the second part of this wisdom, the part that really matters for Catholics. Yes, life is hard. Yes, there is suffering. But we do not go it alone. Jesus is with us.
He is with us not in an abstract presence, a kind of “I’m with you, man.” He is present in our churches in the Blessed Sacrament — present in the hungry and thirsty, those suffering from the sin of racism, those dying in hospitals alone. He is present. With them. Through them.
God is with us. God has decided to dwell among us, to walk with us in this valley of tears. And through the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we are invited to see this God present in all dimensions of our lives, even when the senses fail.
Especially when our senses fail.
On Easter Sunday in 2020, instead of large family gatherings and going to Mass, my family was at home. Alone. And yet, in the distance, we could hear the Easter bells from our parish ring out, announcing to the world that Love won. Love defeated death. Divine love is present in every crook and corner of the world, especially in those places where there is suffering and hopelessness and death.
I turned my eyes toward the sound of the bells, my eyes once again welling up with tears.
I was wrong all along. We were not alone. I am not alone.
There is a presence, the Presence, who dwells among us.
In the Eucharist you really meet Jesus, share His life, feel His love; there you experience that His death and resurrection are for you. #HolyThursday
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 18, 2019