Recently, a cousin of mine caught Covid and was hospitalized for it for over a month, and because of all the quarantine rules, only one other person was allowed to visit him and thus I had to read about his progress on Facebook. While he was only in his late 40’s, he had certain health issues (such as smoking) that put him in the high risk group, so when I read a post that said he had been put on a ventilator and was not responding to any of the medicines they were giving him, all of my family all began to worry.
It should go without saying that I prayed for his speedy recovery, as he is married with two small kids that he had late in life, and is the main bread winner. I also prayed for his conversion, or at the very least the softening of his heart, so that if he lives through this ordeal, he would reconsider the faith his mother tried to instill into him.
He, like myself and the rest of my generation in my extended family, grew up in culturally Catholic families during the immorality of the '70s and the materialism of the '80s. This zeitgeist certainly took its toll, as we were so poorly catechized in the faith, that most of us wandered out of the Church without even realizing it by the time we were young adults.
Interestingly enough, it was in part through the encouragement of his mother that I eventually found my way back into the Church. Like many reverts, I have become rather possessive of my faith and am more apt to “hold the line” when it comes to handing on the faith to my kids.
My cousin on the other hand, while he has made the occasional vague pronouncement about some generic afterlife where everyone, save people like Hitler or Rush Limbaugh, get to meet up after death, has gone completely native. He is an avowed atheist in principle, an anti-theist in mood, and a fervent adherent to the cult of woke to fulfill his spiritual needs. As time went on, I saw less and less of him, save when we crossed ideological swords on Facebook posts (back when I did such things), but eventually we simply went our separate ways.
Pondering Death When it is All Around Us
All of this has been on my mind, as I prayed for my cousin, who by the way, is now out of the hospital and on the way to recovery. For the last year, our society has lived in both fear and loathing under the shadow of some invisible and creeping doom that we pretended masks and lockdowns could save us from.
And often times it seemed that along with the dispensation Catholics were given from their Sunday obligation to attend mass, far too many of them also felt they had been dispensed from the commandment to love God and neighbor. Of course it didn’t help that Covid cases and deaths were given a dubious place of infamy above and beyond everything else, so that all other deaths were either ignored or attached to Covid simply to get noticed.
Nevertheless, it was the penumbral prevalence of death and gloom in the news cycle or in our daily conversations, which either caused us to become overly-anxious (sometimes cantankerously so) or emotionally numb. Thus, just like distance-learning has caused the quality of children’s education to go down, distance-feeling has caused the quality our ability to care about one another to plummet as well.
This was particularly true in my own life, as this last year was a grim one for my extended family which experienced numerous deaths (only one from Covid though) that we still have not been able to properly process because of the pandemic. Thus, not only was it hard to mourn the loss of our loved ones, it was hard to worry about a cousin who we had no idea would live or die.
And while this is no way to live our lives, it is at least fitting to make this observation on Good Friday while we consider our own thoughts and feeling about the sufferings and crucifixion of our Blessed Lord.
The Pride of Life and Its Lies
If we think back to the beginning of Lent when we read the account of the Devil tempting our Lord after 40 days of fasting in the desert, we can imagine how the Devil would do the same to us, as this pandemic draws to a close.
He would most likely use the internet and the devices we use to connect to it to tempt us, as they have essentially become sacramentals in a system of anti-sacraments in a worldview that seeks to drive our faith in Christ and his church from our lives.
“Are you hungry, tired, anxious or bored? Pick up that phone and use it to command food, porn, or games to be brought to you.”
“Do you fear dying from a virus? Don’t! Throw yourself into a life of bliss and entertainment, and wait for science and technology to save you. Don’t worry about religion or God, God is love, love is love, and you are you, and he’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to go back to church.”
“Do you see all these wonders of the world, on all of these channels and sites before you? They can all be yours with the touch of a button or the swipe of the screen. You will become a god of your own domain who can see and comment on all things, if you would only stare (or bow) down at me, the screen.”
On this Good Friday, we should take the time to examine how and when we or others we know and love have become entangled in these sorts of temptations; and how often the small compromises we’ve made during the last year have turned into big ones that we risk carrying into the future. It is also time to look at our lives to see whether or not we have fallen off the narrow path to eternal life, and are actively or listlessly moving along the wide road to perdition.
Of course, this has been the purpose of all the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving throughout Lent, but today is the one day where we should concentrate our efforts in light of our Lord’s sufferings along the Via Dolorosa which begins today.
Obviously we should take some time to sit in silence and meditate upon Scripture or some other devotional reading. But we should also take time to offer up prayers and intercessions for those whose hearts have not only become hardened against God but also softened to the truth about the danger that all the fear, contempt, and apathy running amok in our culture poses to our souls.
The Via Dolorosa Awaits, but Who's Taking it?
If there is one book that poignantly embodies the struggle of goodness and light against evil and darkness, it is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the last book, The Return of the King, Aragorn realizes that the city of Gondor, which is under siege, will fall to the forces of Mordor under the command of the Lord of the Nazgul, if help does not quickly arrive.
Seeing no other option, he chooses to take the Paths of the Dead, where he will rouse an army of undead soldiers who long ago broke their oath to fight against Sauron to a king named Isildur. As Isildur’s heir, Aragorn has the power to command them and to grant them peace and forgiveness if they fulfill their oath.
Aragorn and a small troupe of soldiers pass through an “evil door” at a place called Dunharrow, and as they ride along the path, Gimli the dwarf, was afraid to look back at the dead that followed them as he felt that he was being “pursued by a groping horror that seemed always just about to seize him.”
Eventually, they arrive at an open place where Aragorn addresses the “Oath-breakers” and tells them that “the hour has come at last” and exhorts them to fulfill their oat by defeating the powers of Sauron. The dead agree and the chapter ends it with, “and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor, and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.”
Today marks the day when our Lord willingly took up his cross, and wearing a crown of thorns, embarked upon a path to his death “beyond mortal sight.” He did so to fulfill an oath his Father made to send a redeemer to undo the sin of Adam and to give us a path to eternal life.
And although most of us would like to think we are like the heroic men, elves, and Gimli who followed in Aragorn’s stead, more likely than not we are more akin to the “Oath-breakers” who through our sin and hardness (or softness) of hearts have failed to fulfill our baptismal or confirmation oaths to reject Satan and all his empty promises.
Thus, on this Good Friday, it remains for us, who are spiritually dead because of our sins, to don our own crown of thorns and take up our own crosses to follow our Lord (and king). For in the end, the hardships and mortifications of Lent were meant to make us more receptive to the grace our Lord offers us to follow him along our own “Paths of the Dead.” So that in time we can be formed into a “Grey Company” devoted to Christ, who are capable of carrying the light, life, and love of our Lord throughout all of the “Storms of Mordor” this world has to throw at us.