By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As I sit down to compose and compile this edition of The Catholic Leader, we find ourselves and our whole world amuck in uncertainty. On a global scale, there has been nothing remotely like this in any of our lifetimes.

  • The stock market is trying to claw its way back from a 900-point drop Monday.
  • Also on Monday, the nation’s confirmed Covid-19 cases hit a record daily high of 69,967 on a seven-day average, breaking the prior record set Sunday – and reflecting a roughly 20 percent increase compared to a week ago.
  • Russia has seen a second surge in Covid-19 cases, prompting Putin to make wearing masks mandatory across that nation.
  • France faces a new lockdown as cases there spike again – just one illustration of Europe’s challenge, 11 countries there all reported their highest numbers of daily cases since the pandemic started.
  • Meanwhile, globally there are almost 44 million cases and more than 1.16 million deaths, while nationally there have been more than 8.7 million cases and 225,765 deaths.
  • More than 54 million people in the U.S. are struggling to put food on their tables.
  • Record numbers of Americans have gone to the polls in early voting – some after waiting many hours to complete their ballots, others using the mails and drop boxes to deposit their ballots.
  • In less than a week, Americans will have chosen their president for the next four years, although results – and outcomes -- in some states may not be known for several days, possibly veiling the overall outcome nationally. If results are tossed to the courts, which is likely, the outcome may not be known for a month or two – and exactly how the presidential and other races will ultimately be determined is also uncertain.

Meanwhile, the divergence of impacts on individuals and families are mind-boggling.

  • Some people are trying to balance working from home with home schooling.
  • Others are out of work, while still others are scrambling to cobble together more part-time jobs, and still others are working more hours than ever before.
  • In healthcare facilities, some workers are overwhelmed treating Covid cases while others are being laid off because their departments have closed down.
  • Some parents are dealing with getting their children off to school one day, assisting them with at-home online learning the next – and left uncertain about when their children can return to the classroom.
  • So many things we took for granted nine months ago are completely uncertain now.

Nothing normal

There is nothing normal about anyone’s life almost anywhere in the world just now – and there are no good estimates about when anyone’s circumstances will return to normal.

In my own circumstances, as winter weather arrives with a vengeance, our governor has closed down all indoor eating in restaurants and bars. But local restaurants and bars, their ordinarily law-abiding owners and employees desperate to survive economically, are ignoring him.

So is the county sheriff and his deputies, as well carloads of people desperate to escape the routine and isolation of living in conformance with the law and sound public safety standards.

Insurrection? Anarchy? Yes, certainly it is that – yet still peaceful, at least so far.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead the picture does not come into clearer focus, except in terms of deprivations.

My wife Jane and I have decided that we are going to pass on our extended family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve gatherings, both of which attract 60 or more people and have been a tradition for three generations and counting.

When we shared our decision with our children on a recent Zoom call, I expected to hear some expressions of disappointment. Instead, we heard audible expressions of relief and gratitude. They thanked us for putting first things first.

This coming weekend we are traveling about five hours to the St. Louis area to drop off a desk I made for a grandchild and to visit with three of our children’s families. “Visit” would be too strong a word under ordinary circumstances. We are staying in a hotel. We plan to do all of our socializing outside or in a heated but open garage, all of us wearing face masks.

We won’t stay long, and I will feel no small amount of relief when I am back in my own home. And that sense of relief will be even stronger two weeks later when, God willing, we are both feeling well and know that any exposure that occurred on our trip is safely behind us.

Our concern is not just abstract. Three of our grandchildren – all college students -- have contracted the virus, although thanks be to God, they have all apparently come through it with no severe or long-range effects.

The coming holidays are not going to be anything like any holidays we have celebrated ever before. I hope we can focus our mental radar more on being grateful for just being here than on all the wonderful socializing we are forgoing.

Thank God for technology! I don’t know how we would be coping without Zoom (though I would like to imagine that we would be coping somehow).

Coping strategies

No doubt all of us have stories about our social, familial and professional dislocations. And quite possibly many of yours are more painful than mine.  One million-plus people don’t die without leaving vast chasms filled with heartbreak.

And since there is no cure at this point, all we can hope for are ways to compensate and to cope.

My advice for the moment: hope large and think small.

Hope large

Vision is essential. We should envision a time when this virus is behind us, thanks to a safe and effective vaccine, and we can resume our “normal” lives. If we have lost someone to the virus, this will be harder to do. But it is worth the effort.

Faith can play a huge role in this effort. Share your pain and disappointments with the Lord. Be honest about your feelings. Ask for relief, even if only in temporary distractions. Remind yourself that the Supreme Being of the universe loves you unconditionally and desires what is best for you. Feel His embrace.

Recognize that human life is, by its nature, absolutely contingent. Each breath we breathe is an intentional gift from God. We rely always and everywhere on the love of God. In that sense, the great uncertainty we are experiencing now is just a reminder of the uncertainty baked into all human life. Be grateful that God’s love and care for you has brought you this far. Try to rejoice and take comfort in that.

Hope for the best going forward, recognizing that no matter what occurs in the short-term, ultimately we will be taken care of by our Father, who loves us as His own children.

Think of all the things you will enjoy when life returns to normal. Promise to not take any of them for granted when they are back in your life. Be grateful for the times when you enjoyed them before.

Make a bucket list. This really helped sustain me years ago when I was laid up for several months with a badly broken leg and knee. I kept the list handy and added to it whenever things occurred to me. About the time I was able to get around on my own again I lost it. But when I found it about two years later, I noticed that I had done all but one of the things on the list. That gave me a lot of satisfaction.

Think small

Don’t forget to think small.

Make little things matter. Take nothing for granted. Treat a favorite television program as a wonderful gift. Be grateful for it. Celebrate its availability. Savor every bit of food you eat, especially the things that are sweet but aren’t very good for you. Make those little treats a big treat in your life.

If you’re a reader, read more. If you haven’t been a reader, now is a good time to take up the cheapest and easiest entertainment ever. Some people are spending more time with jigsaw puzzles. In fact, that’s caused shortages in some places.

Our summer parish features a little self-serve lending library in the basement. You can find puzzles there as well as books. It’s a no-cost, low-maintenance way for our parish to enhance the lives of its members. There’s no budget for it: all of its materials have been donated.

Keep relationships central

Most of all, maintain your relationships. Technology can be a huge gift here. Send texts and emails. Make phone calls. If you don’t reach the party you’re calling, leave a message.

Zoom has become a huge lift in my life. We have a family call six days a week at 7 p.m. Most nights one or more of our children’s families get on the call. Sometimes the calls involve mostly adults. Sometimes the grade schoolers take over. We’ve seen a ton of art work, had a few concerts, and celebrated the arrival of puppies.

On Sunday, the day we skip our evening calls, we have an extended family prayer service. After months we are still attracting an average of 20 families signing on. They show up from about six states and one foreign country. We take turns doing the readings and various people, male and female, take turns offering a brief Gospel reflection.

Some of our most loyal participants are able to go back to Mass – and do. But they still are drawn to our little family service. Everyone gets a chance to offer prayers of petition. We even have an informal coffee klatch after the service.

Thanks to Zoom, we have more day-to-day and week-to-week contact with family members than we ever had before Covid-19 struck. I’m very grateful for that.

By the way, a basic Zoom account is free. Here’s the link. You don’t even need a computer. The software runs on tablets and smart phones. And there are other free services offering video calls as well. Here are 14 options.

You could write a letter too. When is the last time you sat down and wrote a letter to a dear friend – say one you didn’t see often even before the virus struck? If you aren’t overwhelmed with other things, today would be a good day to write one and put it in the mail.

Prayer is a constant

Through it all, prayer has become a constant in my life. When I first see my wife in the morning, I say a prayer of gratitude. “Thank you, Lord, for this day and for my dear wife Jane.” I say it out loud, in her presence. It starts the day off right for both of us.

We end our day praying together too. We don’t use formula prayers then either. I usually lead and start things off by thanking God for her and asking that He help her get a good night’s sleep so she wakes up fresh and healthy in the morning.

Then we thank God and ask His blessing on “our children, their spouses, our grandchildren and all our extended family. At that point, we ask special blessings for any of them facing extra challenges at the moment. We thank Him, too, for any good things that have happened in their lives of late.

Then we pray for “all those we have said we would pray for,” some by name. And last, but most important, we thank God for His “many, many blessings,” and we ask Him “to help us be good Christ-bearers.” As the virus and its toll have spread, we have started asking Him to keep us all safe and well. Then I saw an Act of Contrition on my own.

Between those morning and night prayers, my prayers are frequent if not constant. I try to thank God for every good thing, no matter how small or ordinary. These days I express my gratitude at least once a day for central heating and flush toilets. I thank God for the weather (usually). I frequently remind myself of three things:

  • “Be not afraid” (repeated often as I scan the headlines);
  • “You are not alone;” and,
  • “The Lord will provide.”

At a time when the sacraments are more remote than ever for many Catholics, it’s a good time to try to develop our own spirituality and work on our personal relationship to God, most especially in the person of Jesus.

Regularly reading the Bible – especially the New Testament and most especially the Gospels – is a great habit to nurture. There are a host of reflections on the day’s readings online. Look around for sources that are challenging yet inspiring and soothing. Avoid talk of malice and conspiracies.

Be generous

Jesus tells us, as last Sunday’s Gospel noted, that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s asking a lot. But are we even paying our neighbors any mind at all?

Times are very hard for some people right now. For example, Houston Food Bank is handing out 800,000 to 1 million pounds of food per day. Across the nation, the number of people – including millions of children – going to bed hungry continues to grow.

With winter coming on in many places, the need for winter clothing grows too.

Needs are great and growing now in families that less than a year ago could rely on one or more regular paychecks for a safe and seemingly secure living situation. But now the acutely poor of spring are becoming the chronically poor of autumn, and the toll extracted by Covid-19 lingers and grows.

Are we doing all we can to help our neighbors face the challenges of poverty and helplessness?

Everyone’s resources are different. But one thing we have in common. The good feeling we get from grabbing our credit card or opening our checkbook and sharing our bounty with legitimate charities is hard to beat.

And there’s no better distraction from your own aches, pains and disappointments.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of education and medical services in the world. So I especially recommend Catholic charities, whether it’s your local diocesan Catholic Charities ministry or national and international charities like Catholic Relief Services. Wikipedia offers a list of links to 15 large Catholic charities that will be good stewards of your generosity, but don’t neglect those in your own area.

Generosity is good medicine – because it reminds you of your own blessings even while it provides assistance to others in need. Make as much of a difference as you can just now, and it will make a difference in your own life as well.

Begin with gratitude

Begin and end your day with gratitude, and then keep gratitude first and foremost in your heart, head and hands all through the moments, days and weeks of your life.

Express that gratitude with generosity … and then be grateful for the generosity you can provide.

We are all in this together. And we can help others cope even as we are coping ourselves.

If you crave certainty just now, that’s a good place to start.

Blessings one and all.

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