There is a mindfulness exercise that I learned during my psychology training. It involves sitting comfortably in a chair and imagining that all of the thoughts that come into your head are riding along a conveyor belt and you just observe them as the belt takes them in and then out of your consciousness. You are not supposed to judge them in anyway. No bad thoughts, no good thoughts. You just observe them, acknowledge they exist and let them go. I hated that exercise, it is too hard for me to just observe my thoughts and let them go. I have to mull over them, know them inside out, judge them, change them and shape them. I have to embrace them fully or send them into exile forever. I have to process and make sense of them, to fit them into my understanding of the world, and life, and God. In short, I am a terrible mindfulness patient.
In a lot of ways, my life right now feels like it has turned into that mindfulness exercise. As I respond to the dramatic changes that are happening in my life, sometimes on an hourly basis, my reactions are too big and powerful to process right now. I can’t let myself dwell on any of them because when one knocks me down, I have to right myself before the next wave crashes over me and I get knocked over again. Someday, I will process them and make sense of them. Someday, I will understand how they fit into my life story, my salvation story. I will do this because that is what we all must do to survive traumatic experiences without lasting psychological damage. I will do this because that is what allows us to ultimately move on. However, right now, the only way I can keep going is to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and let them drift by me, to be revisited on another day. Consequently, it is difficult to write anything cohesive, so I will instead offer a few of my reflections that, while I have only partially absorbed them, have been meaningful to me.
Several years ago, my daughter was the kid who told the whole Sunday School class what leprosy was. Not unexpectedly, it horrified her classmates. However, I am realizing recently that we have all lost sight of some of the power behind the Biblical stories about leprosy. Since the discovery of a cure, leprosy is no longer a feared disease. In fact, it is such a non-issue that I didn’t even know that the current name for leprosy is Hansen’s Disease. However, in Biblical times, symptoms of leprosy not only meant often life-long health issues, but they also meant mandatory social distancing. Extreme, mandatory social distancing. In fact, this social distancing is actually codified in the Levitical Law which clearly lays out the way for the priest to determine if a person was “clean” or if he or she had leprosy and was, therefore, “unclean.” In some cases, this determination alone required weeks of isolation. When a priest made the determination that a person was unclean, the following was required to occur:
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” – Leviticus 13:45-46
Clearly, this law would have huge implications for the lives of lepers. Implementing it would completely upend their lives. It would put them at risk by forcing them to live outside of the camp. However, over the past few weeks, as we have practiced social distancing, I have been struck by the social implications of this law. A person with leprosy would be socially distanced, even to the point of being seperated from his or her immediate family, for what could well be the rest of their life. That would be the worst part of leprosy.
In Father Damien and the Bells, Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan described the fear of leprosy among the Hawaiian people in the 1800s thus, “It meant the most terrible doom they knew. ‘Separating Sickness’ they called it, for it was not so much the lingering death, the ugly disfigurement it could bring, or even the fact that it could not be cured that alarmed the people so much. It was because to be a victim (of leprosy) meant to be perpetually exiled. It meant never to see one’s family and friends again.”
Perpetually exiled. The most terrible doom. Yet, Jesus, when confronted by a man with leprosy, did not just say a word and heal him. He reached down and touched the one who had longed for human contact for so long, then he healed him (Matthew 8:1-4). And his followers were told to do the same (Matthew 10:8). Many did, among them St. Damien, who sacrificed his life serving the lepers quarantined on the Island of Molokai. What great love and compassion they had!
The Bible relates another encounter that Jesus had with lepers. At one point in His ministry, ten lepers came to Jesus and, standing at a distance, asked Him to heal them. Jesus sent them to see the priest and, as they went, they were healed. However, of the ten lepers who were healed, only one came back to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19).
So many times over the past few weeks, I have wondered why I was not more grateful for things that this pandemic has stripped away. Why did I get so frustrated and stressed every Sunday morning before Church, rather than thanking God for the amazing blessing of being able to actually go to Church? Why didn’t I thank God for the walk to my daughter’s school? Why did I forget to thank Him for playgrounds, playdates, friends and family? Why didn’t I thank Him for being able to get a book from the library or for being able to go to the doctors office to treat something that wasn’t emergent? Why didn’t I thank Him for hand sanitizer, lysol wipes, or toilet paper? Why didn’t I thank Him for the masks that my doctor wore during surgery to keep me healthy? Why didn’t I thank Him for flour or same day grocery deliveries? Why did I not give thanks each day that my husband, mother and father returned from the hospital healthy?
Why did I think of all these things as things that I was entitled to? Why did I think of them as rights? Why did I not think about them at all?
Whenever this pandemic ends and life becomes whatever our new normal will be, I don’t want to forget to thank God for all of these things. I don’t want to be like the other nine lepers.
In addition to realizing how grateful I am for the things I used to have, I have realized how fragile everything I built my life on really is. Living in a wealthy, developed country with a good education and stable income, it was easy to imagine that my needs were pretty much covered. While I knew that these things were gifts from God, it was more in an abstract sense. I had no way to imagine what the widow who had nothing but a little flour and a little oil left to feed her son must have felt (1 Kings 17:7-16). If I am honest, I still can’t imagine it, but I do know the pangs of fear brought on by the thought of not being able to find flour so I can make bread for my food allergic children. I know what it feels like to pray that God will actually give my children daily bread to eat. Infact, I know more now about how dependent we really are on God for every aspect of our lives and I can understand a little bit more about how difficult it must have been for that widow to share what little she had with the prophet Elijah. I can begin to sense how terrified she must have been as she chose to trust God’s promise that, “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.” (1Kings 17:14). As a very human mother, I don’t want to understand this story any better than I already do, but I absolutely want my faith to grow to be more like this poor widows.
This brings me to my final thought from recent days which also has to do with dependence. In many ways, the needs that I am trusting God for are physical needs, however, the past few weeks have taught me more about how dependent I am upon God for my spiritual needs, as well. If my faith is to grow, it will not be because of anything I can do – I am just holding onto life with a white knuckle grip. As all of the external things that I do to nurture my soul (the Mass, Church, fellowship, Holy Week) have been stripped away and as the Church has recognized that even those things we do individually to worship and revere God (fasting, etc.) may be impossible for some of us to do right now, I am realizing that, in the end, we really do stand before God as unworthy sinners, unable to do anything to change our fallen state. Yet, more importantly, I am reminded that God has given His son to deal with our sin and that He is at work in our lives. I am recognizing that He alone is forming everything that is good about us, about what we do, and even about what we offer Him. Without God, we are nothing. We are dust. Yet, because of God, to dust we will not return.