I have been doing a book study with the Abiding Together Podcast, run by Sr. Miriam James Heidland, Heather Khym, and Michelle Benzinger. The book study is on The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. The lessons I have learned from this book study are endless; however, there are a few things that I believe pertain directly to the situation in which we are currently living: the era of COVID-19.
People are afraid and anxious about a future in which COVID-19 is a reality. It is uncertain, and there is no way of knowing how long we will have to live like this Enter: the story of the Prodigal Son. Right now, many of us are the younger son. Many of us are the elder son. But, we are being called to hear the voice of the Father, calling us to the one path before us that IS certain . . .
THE YOUNGER SON:
“And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously” (Douay-Rheims Version, Lk. 15. 13).
For many Catholics, the sacraments, liturgy, prayer, etc. are events which we participate in to varying degrees of authenticity. Some people attend Mass and merely go through the motions. Others do not attend because they do not see the point. “I’m a good Catholic. I don’t kill anyone. Why do I have to go to Mass?” The graces of Catholicism have become for these people much like the father’s gifts had become for the younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son: something to be taken for granted.
The younger son’s only interest was the inheritance promised him. The blessings of a home, a loving father, and much else besides had become for him (perhaps) a set of inconvenient rules to follow, preventing him from acquiring what he wanted. It was not until he squandered the inheritance and had everything taken away that the younger son saw his situation from a different perspective. He finally recognized his father’s gifts and desired everything he had left behind. For many people, COVID-19 has taken away their ability to participate in the blessings of a Church family that before had been “boring” and “restrictive.” St. Augustine of Hippo, a reckless youth who came to see the light and truth of the Church, wrote in Confessions:
“Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. . . . Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. . . . Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace” (ch. 27, par. 38).
Younger Sons, COVID-19 has prompted an awakening in you – a renewal of love for the Church and her liturgy. You miss the sacraments. You miss the Eucharist. Recognize this longing as God the Father, lovingly calling you home. Yet, you are not the only individuals in our Church family who have a lesson to learn from COVID-19. Your elder brothers and sisters do as well.
THE ELDER SON:
“Behold, for so many years do I serve thee, and I have never transgressed thy commandment . . .” (Lk. 15.29).
There is another group of Catholics, for whom the sacraments, liturgy, and prayer are their life source. They are the fervent followers of the Church, who attend Mass on a regular basis, because they genuinely understand and desire the life of Christ within their souls. Such individuals – to the best of their ability – have lived their lives in accordance with the Catholic Church and thrive off the sacraments God has given them.
And now, they feel left in the darkness. It is no longer possible to attend Mass. In many places, it is impossible to adore the Eucharist in adoration. Receiving confession has been made difficult. The Easter liturgy in many dioceses was significantly cut back. For these individuals, COVID-19 has thrown them into a state of despair. They feel keenly and rightly the loss of the Mass and the sacraments, and although they would not word it as such, they feel uncertain and slightly betrayed by God.
These Catholics are the elder son. They cry out to the father for justice. They too – just like the younger son – are afraid, but for a different reason. They cannot see a purpose in what God is allowing to happen. However, for them too, it is a blessing. St. Thérèse of Lisieux once wrote the following to a priest, Fr. Bellière. She was nearing the end of her life and was unable to receive the Eucharist, due to the intensity of her tuberculosis symptoms:
"No doubt, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments. When God does not permit it, it is good too! Everything is grace! . . . When I shall have arrived at port, I will teach you how to travel, dear little brother of my soul, on the stormy sea of the world: with the surrender and the love of a child who knows his Father loves him and cannot leave him alone in the hour of danger . . . The way of simple love and confidence is really made for you” (266-267).
Elder sons, you have been denied the ability to taste Him on your tongue in holy communion, but that does not mean He cannot enter your heart, if you let Him! God is teaching you to trust in his power! Our God is a God that causes saints to levitate and bi-locate. Our God is a God that transcends space and time. Our God is a God that can turn a piece of bread and simple wine into His very Body and Blood. A virus cannot stop a God like that. If Christ so desires to come to us in the Mass or in adoration through a live video, who are we to dictate to Him the way He distributes His graces? Our God is a Father who abandons all propriety to run to His prodigal children and welcome them home. A computer screen cannot stop a Love like that.
“Son, thou art always with me, and all I have is thine . . . ” (Lk. 15.31).
Regardless of whether you are the elder or younger son, we must recognize that our loving Father has only one request for us in these trying times and it is twofold – to trust in His Plan. He is drawing us closer to Him. We are desiring Him now like never before, and in so doing, being carved more sharply into our true identities: children of God, weak and humbled. This is our true identity, but so many of us have forgotten it in the worries and anxieties of adulthood. Nouwen describes spiritual childhood thus:
“Isn’t the little child poor, gentle, and pure of heart? Isn’t the little child weeping in response to every little pain? Isn’t the little child the peacemaker hungry and thirsty for uprightness and the final victim of persecution?” (55).
Younger and Elder Sons alike, God is teaching us to recognize our identity as His Beloved children and to trust in Him. We should not shut our hearts in order to protect ourselves from being broken. If we are to enter in to our identities as God’s children, we must aspire to become the Father: the loving parent who is willing to let their heart be wrung for love of another. Once we are able to fully embrace our identity as His children who have nothing to fear, we can truly recognize that we are home, no matter what perils threaten us. In this awareness, we can enter into the role of the Father and welcome others home. This kind of inner peace can withstand any trial. I leave you with this last reflection from Henri Nouwen. May God the Father hold you all close. May God the Son embrace you on His Cross. May God the Spirit enflame your hearts with His Love and break them open to receive and give love!
“Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests’ . . . the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light . . . Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there” (Nouwen 37-39).