This is turning out to be a Lent we'll never forget. How ironic, as we carry our unique crosses with various sacrifices this Lent, we also have the reality of a pandemic that is causing heightened panic across the globe. Churches are shutting down, people are isolating themselves, store shelves are becoming desolate, and public venues are empty.
As Catholics, what are we to do while the rest of the world is in an anxious frenzy? The short answer is to continue to practice the faith. Tragically, however, the public celebration of the Mass has been suspended by many bishops due to fears of the outbreak.
If Mass and the Sacraments are unavailable, how can we continue then to practice the faith and respond to this situation? May I suggest we don't need to try something new. We simply perform the tried and tested method the Church has given us. The method that works the best in a crisis. That simple method being:
- Calm down
This basic recipe of remaining calm, prayer, and fasting will get the job done. Not that this is a new invention. Rather, because this formula comes directly from the Church through Jesus and St. Paul.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4: 6-7).
First, notice St. Paul is advising to remain calm. The Bible repeatedly cautions us to not be afraid. The phrase "fear not" or "do not be afraid" appears roughly 365 times in Scripture (Deut. 31:6, 8, Romans 8:28, Isaiah 41:10, 13, 43:1, Joshua 1:9, 1 John 4:18, Psalm 118:6, John 14:1, Matthew 10:31, Mark 6:50, Hebrews 13:6, Luke 12:32, 1 Peter 3:14, etc.).
In other words, what God is constantly trying to get across to the people who follow him ardently is, "It's going to be okay." This is a simple message that any parent can appreciate. Can you think of a time when you were teaching your apprehensive 4-year-old how to swim or how to ride a bike? It's a constant reminder to "Don't be afraid. I've got you." So it is the same for those who follow God. We need total assurance toward God. As Paul mentions to us, "All things work for good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28).
Just like an athlete in a crucial last play or a soldier on a battlefield, one must now exhibit a calming state free of anxiety or fear.
But how do we become calm amid a worldwide pandemic? Simple - just pray.
After moving from the assurance to calm down, Paul tells us in Philippians the next important thing to do is pray. In fact, Paul mentions that we must "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:16). Throughout the Bible, the lives of the saints, we see how essential prayer is. In fact, science now illuminates the profound psychological benefits of prayer.
Of course, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray (Matthew 6: 5-13) and there are repeated times in the Gospels which Jesus prayed (John 17: 1-26, Luke 3:21, 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46, Mark 1:35, etc.). In fact, in his most crucial time in need before he was betrayed and arrested, what was Jesus doing? You guessed it, praying (Matthew 26: 36-44). Not only was he praying unceasingly (he prayed 3 times), his prayer was also incredibly intense in which his sweat became like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
While you probably can't make your prayers that intense, one way you can up the ante of your prayers is through fasting. The prayer + fasting formula packs a heavy punch to any demonic spirit. Soon after performing an exorcism, Jesus' disciples asked why their words failed in casting out the demon. Jesus' answer is where we get our formula cited above. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29).
So, if prayer is crucial then the other ingredient of fasting must be equally important. Before even beginning his public ministry, Jesus made a point to fast for forty days (Matt 4:2). In Jesus' reply to the people on a fasting question, he insinuates the necessity of fasting (Mark 2:18-20). Recall Jesus didn't say if you fast, he said, "when you fast" (Matt 7: 16-18), thus, implying that fasting should already be a given.
Even more so, the renowned exorcist, Fr. Gabriele Amorth once said, "Beyond a certain limit, the devil is not able to resist the power of prayer and fasting." (Amorth, p. 24) Moreover, St. Francis de Sales articulated that "the enemy stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast." (Devout Life, p. 134).
While the first two aspects of this formula seem reasonable - remain calm and pray, the last ingredient of fasting often invokes head scratches. What does fasting accomplish? Why do saints and exorcists insist we need it?
First, it remains interesting that recent findings have shown several health benefits of fasting. In his book, Dr. Jay Richard highlights how intermittent fasting is good for the mind and eventually lowers one's stress level.
But, to grasp why we need fasting from a theological perspective, we must first consider human nature. Man, created in the likeness of God, has been given an intellect and will by which he may both discern truth, and choose the good. Given these two ingredients in mans' creation, man is made to know God and freely choose to love him.
With these two faculties, God gave man the ability to think (intellect) and to act freely (the will). Here is why this is crucial. There are two parts to the human soul that aren’t in the animal soul. These two parts are the intellect and the will. Your dog has passions (desires), but he doesn’t have an intellect and a will. Therefore, while animals are controlled by passions and were created with programmed instincts, human beings were created with the ability to think before we make a free act. While we humans do have passions, our passions are designed to be controlled by our will through our intellect. Animals don't have this form of creation in which they can make a moral choice based on their intellect and will (Frans de Wall, p. 209). This is one reason why humans are lifted above animals in the hierarchy of creation.
This divinely established order is what the Church calls "original justice;" the right ordering of the lower parts of man (his passions) to his higher and more exalted faculties (the intellect and will). At the fall of man, however, God's order by which man was made to see the truth and choose it was wounded, and man's lower appetites and passions came to rule his intellect and will. We who inherited our first parents' nature have not escaped from this disorder, and mankind continues to struggle under the tyranny of the flesh (Eph. 2:1-3, 1 John 2:16, Romans 7:15-19, 8:5, Gal. 5:16).
Anyone who has taken the Lenten fast seriously knows well of the war being waged within mans' soul. Our passions want to drink alcohol, but our intellect tells us that consuming alcohol deteriorates our cognitive ability. Our will has to make a decision - either listen to the intellect or the passions. Here lies the crux of who's in control of your soul. Flawed human nature continuously listens to the dictatorship of our lower faculties over our higher spiritual faculties. The reason? Because we've been so accustomed to the ease of comfort and pleasure that our passions are controlling our soul. The solution? Take back the kingdom of your soul through fasting. With fasting, the right order may once again be established in our souls. That, once more, our intellect may see the truth unclouded by the desires of the flesh and to choose the true good for which man was made.
Do not think that fasting during Lent is prescribed by the Church because eating good food is sinful. Rather, the Church fasts and abstains from meat as a way to re-assert the control of the intellect over the passions. Man was made for something more than what the flesh has to offer. Our bodies were made to serve our souls, not the other way around. By denying our fleshly desires in little ways, we know that when true temptation and crisis arises (such as the coronavirus), it will be the intellect that discerns the true good and not the appetites that lead the soul. As Saint Leo the Great teaches,
"We cleanse ourselves from all defilements of the flesh and of the spirit (2 Cor 7:1), so that restraining the conflict that exists between the one and the other substance, the soul, which in the Providence of God is meant to be the ruler of the body, may regain the dignity of its rightful authority. We must then so moderation our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For this is also a time for gentleness and patience, a time of peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil doing, we strive after steadfastness in what is good."
Here, Leo the Great is describing man in his preferred state - ruling over his flesh in which he can be closer to God. However, if a person is consumed by the passions, he'll inevitably go down a grisly path. St. John Chrysostom indicated that "the glutton, like an overloaded ship, moves with difficulty; and that, in the first tempest of temptation, he is in danger of being lost" (True Spouse of Christ, p. 140).
A lack of temperance and control of the passions leads to an inclination to indulge in countless over-zealous emotions. And once the emotions run wild, as can easily happen with the coronavirus situation, this will pull people away from their image of God and towards that of an animal - one who is totally controlled by their passions.
If we can't fast from our passions and emotions, the simple three-step formula will be flipped on its head. Here, we won't be calm in a crisis and we'll forget to pray. Indeed, St. Alphonsus indicates that the sins of the flesh are so controlling that they cause the soul to nearly forget everything related to God and become almost blind.
Even more, in the spiritual realm, fasting offers as a profound penance in which a person can work to elevate the suffering of the self or of others. This was one of the messages of Our Lady of Fatima. Even Ahab, the worst sinner in the world, was temporarily freed from destruction by turning to fasting (1 Kg 21:25-29). The Ninevites were also freed from imminent destruction through fasting (Jon 3:5-10). Esther’s fasting helped free the Jewish nation from extermination (Est 4:16) while Joel announced the same call (Jl 2:15). All these people knew the secret of fasting.
Yes, in a fallen sinful world one will continuously witness disease, distress, natural disasters and most importantly sin. What we as Catholics are called to do is simply continue to do the fundamentals of the faith. Go to Mass, stay calm, pray, and fast. As Jesus assured us, "In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
So, when it comes to the coronavirus. Don't panic. Get your game face on and keep doing the faith. There exists many ways to dive into the Catholic faith during this pandemic - Scripture, read books, watch videos, listen to podcasts. But, as the Church reminds us, stay calm, pray, and fast. It's a recipe that is sure to walk you through this Lent.