Recently I was saddened to learn that a childhood friend of mine had contracted Covid and before I had time to absorb the news, I learned that he had died a few days later. As I prayed for the repose of his soul, I thought back over the memories I had of him as a child. He and his abundant Catholic family lived down the street from me when my family moved in with my grandparents back in the mid-70’s. I remember many a day playing lawn croquet or touch football with him, his siblings, and bunch of the neighbor kids until the street lights came on at dusk. Or the time I spent the night over at his place where we got stay up late to look for night crawlers for upcoming fishing trips, bugged his little sister, and played with Matchbox cars or our Micronaut figures.
Eventually my family moved on and we parted ways. While I heard things about his family from a mutual friend, I lost contact with him until very recently when a member of my church’s men's group told me he was friends with my old childhood chum. I thought about meeting up with him, when the opportunity came sooner than I had expected, when I was informed that his mother had died. So I went to the wake and caught up with my old friend and his siblings. Turns out we still had a few things in common, including an appreciation for our Catholic faith. I foolishly thought that once the current “unpleasantness” became a thing of the past and community life at church or elsewhere got back to normal, that I should connect with him more regularly. Unfortunately, the unpredictability of life and an overly-busy lifestyle got the better of my good intentions.
Getting Lost in the Fear and Confusion
Last year was both a blessing and a curse on the lives of the faithful. On the one hand, many families spent more time together during the lockdowns, they were able to pay more attention to their children's education, and they were able to slow their lives down a bit as all the activities they filled their busy lives with came to a standstill. The downside of course was that most churches were closed and people didn’t go outside their homes much, as a barely-warranted sense of fear (bordering on paranoia) grew among some people. This in turn resulted in people reducing the time they spent with others outside their immediate family, and spending more time with their modern-day scrying devices- their video screens.
Thus, just as it has been noted that the ubiquity of antibacterial soap has so sanitized our personal environment that our immune systems have not been properly strengthened through hardship, so too has the distance we’ve kept from each other over the last year created a weakened and sterile emotional landscape. Instead of experiencing real people with real emotions, far too many people have been conditioned to experience their emotions as mediated by the stimulation and entertainment offered by their video screens.
One area where this emotional atrophy is evident, is of course in how some have come to deal with death over the last year. I for one do not wish to diminish the deaths in any way of all the people that died of Covid, but to be fair Covid is not Ebola or the Bubonic Plague, and in fact there were a multitude of deaths that came about not by the virus but as a result of the isolation, the neglect, and the lack of care people did not receive. Nevertheless, we live in secure and healthy times, where living along, healthy, and cushy life is considered the norm. Death is seen as an anomaly or even an affront to our sensibilities, even though it surrounds us every day, but don’t notice it, unless we are unlucky enough to be exposed to it firsthand.
This is why I was wryly amused when I mentioned to someone that a friend of mine died of Covid, and the first thing they asked, “Was he vaccinated?” Rather than opening an argumentative can of worms, I simply replied, “Does it matter?” I mean aside from the fact that people who have received the jab have still died of Covid or other complications, the question is a silly one and a perfect example of the incredibly privileged times we live. To even ask it, already frames the argument so as to accept the modern superstition that there is always something we can do that will prevent us from dying (at least not for a very long time), and it has to be true, we saw it on the interwebs. Of course the reality is that death comes for us all, as Ecclesiastes cynically reminds us at the end of the author’s long musings, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (12:7)
This is why the Church adopted and baptized the Classical injunction from Stoic philosophers that all of us, from the lowliest to the mighty, should remind ourselves that our time on this earth is limited. The Church summarized this with the phrase Memento Mori (“Remember your death”) as well as the reality of the Four Last Things. For ultimately we are sojourners in this life, and we are making our through this world to the Kingdom of God which is, as our Blessed Lord told Pilate before his crucifixion, not of this world.
Running the Race and Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize
Since our time in this world is transitory, with a definite time limit to the life we have been given, Scripture often compares our journey here to a race. St. Paul wrote to Timothy near the end of his life that “I fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). A race that St. Paul ran through good times and bad, and through the darkness and the light, but always with the life, love, and light of our Lord for him to follow. Or as John Henry Newman mused in a poem he penned,
“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom. Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”
Furthermore, the same Spirit of God that grants us the grace to perfect our fallen natures and keeps the Sensus Fidei burning within us, is the same one that, through our baptism, incorporates us into the Body of Christ which “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39). The Body of Christ is of course the Church which is all at once a militant, a suffering, and a triumphant one. This is why in addition to the imagery of a race, Scripture also says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1)
That great “cloud of witnesses” are those who are in the Church Triumphant, i.e. the Communion of Saints which Fr. Mike Schmitz once explained by describing a marathon he once watched, where it appeared that everyone had finished the race. Soon however, it was announced that there was one last runner still making his way to the finish line. With that, all the other runners who had already completed the marathon, got up and ran out to cheer the guy on. Meanwhile, all those in the stands or along the way started to clang cowbells which is a traditional way to cheer on those they had come to see compete in the marathon. In a similar manner, Fr. Schmitz said we should envision all of the saints and angels who are waiting for us on the other side of the veil, as cheering us on and ringing their spiritual cowbells along the way, so that we don’t get lost or lose hope.
The Knights of Columbus are fond of the phrase Tempus Fugit (“Time flies”), and fly it does as all those moments of time can be lost down the memory hole, if we are not mindful enough to stop and Memento Mori. Which far from being something morbid, it is a concept that should sharpen our focus in life so that we can prudently prioritize the people and activities in our lives, and not waste our time on the things that will take our eyes off the prize or worse, cause us to pull out of the race. It should be a way for us to remember to take the time to be generous with our own lives, love, and the light of our faith with the people that matter the most. In short, it should remind and encourage us that in good times and bad, we should always fight the good fight, stay in the race, and uphold the faith. And in as much as we pray for those who have passed on, we should also remember that “great cloud of witnesses” who are interceding for us with their prayers and (spiritually speaking of course) a little more cowbell!
Dedicated to the memory of Matthew J. Wernet R.I.P