As we’re all navigating an unexpected reality of widespread sickness and lockdown and quarantine, it’s oddly comforting to know that this is not the first time that the world has suffered from a pandemic. While that fact alone may not make our own here-and-now situation any better, it does remind us that there is some real wisdom to be gained from our predecessors who lived through similar experiences.
The Catholic Church honors thousands of holy men and women people who lived with heroic virtue in their own particular age. The Church presents the thousands of saints to us as examples of how to love in concrete ways, kind of like how a single diamond can reflect thousands of shards of light.
People in a particular vocation or situation or region often choose one of the saints as their own patron, invoking that saint’s prayers and intercession in times of need. We’re all familiar, for example, with Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland, and Saint Anthony as patron of lost things.
In this current COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to propose a few saints that we might consider calling upon for help in navigating this strange new world.
St. Benedict, patron of schedules
Saint Benedict (c. 480-547) lived in a time of great upheaval in the Italian peninsula, as the Roman Empire had crumbled and each hilltop city was a kingdom unto itself. Disillusioned by the state of society (such as it was), Benedict became a hermit and for three years subsisted on the charity of people who brought food and supplies to his cave as they came to consult him for advice and prayers. His reputation for holiness led a local monastery to ask Benedict to become their abbot, a spiritual father and leader for their community.
Benedict knew that these particular monks were an unruly bunch and feared that they would revolt against his leadership, but he consented anyway. He created a list of rules for the daily life of the monastery centered on a regular schedule of prayer and work: eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work, and eight hours of sleep per day. Not surprisingly, the lazy monks did indeed resent Abbot Benedict’s rule, and tried to get rid of him by poisoning his cup of wine. As he said the blessing before the meal, the cup shattered, and Benedict realized that the monks would never accept his leadership (as he had predicted).
Benedict left that monastery, but later established several other monasteries around central Italy, all of which did accept his guidelines for monastic life. This so-called “Rule of Benedict” was praised for its balance and moderation, and two words were singled out to capture the essence of his guidelines: ora et labora (“prayer and work”). Eventually, the Benedictine Rule was adopted by monasteries throughout the Church, as monks and nuns realized that following this well-regulated schedule of prayer and work would help them thrive.
In our current situation where we find ourselves living in faux-monasteries with our roommates, or perhaps living alone in a faux-cave like a hermit, we too can look to the example of St. Benedict and develop our own regular schedule of prayer and work. Rather than sleep in as late as I want and then bumble through my calendar until the world gets the all-clear to return to normalcy, St. Benedict would urge me to set a wake-up alarm and approach every day with a definite plan, each division of the day devoted to a specific task, while making sure to schedule time for prayer, meals, and checking in with family and friends. Consistency, balance, and intentionality: that’s good advice from a master of the Christian life. Saint Benedict, pray for us!
St. Therese of Lisieux, patron of house chores
Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873–1897) felt an early call to live as a nun, and petitioned the pope so that she could enter a Carmelite convent at age 15. Living in a cloister out of the view of the world, she developed a spirituality of showing her great love for God and others by performing small deeds and sacrifices that we know today as “the little way.”
For St. Therese, “the little way” was a wholehearted commitment to the tasks and to the people she encountered in her day-to-day life in the convent. She let her love show by being conscientious about her daily tasks: taking care of the altar and the chapel, serving her sisters in the dining room and in the laundry room, even writing simple plays for the entertainment of her community. With every activity, she gave evidence of her love for each of her sisters in the convent. This can sound incredibly routine and ordinary, but for Therese, her loving commitment to others was practiced without fail — especially toward those sisters whom she did not particularly like.
As we embrace this period of forced cloister in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps we too can practice a version of St. Therese’s “little way,” and perform our own mundane tasks with great love. Maybe this looks like taking on a few more segments of your household’s chore wheel. Or perhaps it’s offering to pick up some groceries for your elderly neighbor. Or placing a call to an aunt or uncle whom you don’t often speak with, simply to check in and let them know you’re thinking of them. In every action, no matter how small, you can express your great love. Saint Therese, pray for us!
St. Albert the Great, patron of learning new things
Saint Albert (c. 1200–1280) was a philosopher, natural scientist, professor, and bishop who never lost his love for learning and discovery. Born in Bavaria to a noble family, he entered the Dominican Order, was ordained a priest, and then sent to teach at the University of Paris, where he taught a young Thomas Aquinas (who also became a great “Doctor of the Church”).
Albert’s own scholarly formation took place just as the writings of Aristotle were being re-introduced to Europe through the commentaries of Islamic scholars. Albert was one of the first European scholars to read and comment on these ancient Greek texts, which spanned the disciplines of natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics, and metaphysics. Yet his work was not limited to merely rehashing the thoughts of ancient philosophers: Albert also advocated what we would recognize as an early form of the scientific method, writing that “it is [the task] of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of natural things.”
In our own day, when the collected knowledge of humankind is all online and no longer stuck in some stuffy library, and it all can be accessed from a device that fits in our pockets, we might take inspiration from St. Albert to open our eyes to the real, touchable, smellable, tastable world around us. Like him, let us observe and encounter our surroundings with wonder and delight. Even as we are told to keep our distance from other people out of an abundance of caution, there remains a wide world filled with beauty and goodness just outside our doors, waiting to be discovered (and re-discovered). Saint Albert the Great, pray for us!