Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life?... Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance.…
I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage from the 4th chapter of the Letter of St. James these past few weeks. After all, as we began 2020, we were making plenty of plans. We were anticipating some special celebrations to commemorate our 150th anniversary of being raised to the status of an Abbey. We had made arrangements for Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio, to preside and preach at our Conventual Mass this coming Saturday, March 21, the Solemnity of St. Benedict. And then … the coronavirus entered our world.
And so, these words of St. James seemed a most appropriate text with which to begin a community meeting this past Monday evening, as my confreres and I gathered in our common room after praying Compline. I wanted to say a few words about the situation we’re all facing with the coronavirus.
What kind of words did I want to offer my monastic community? Well, words of hygienic instruction, of course. “Wash your hands. Often. Sneeze or cough into a handkerchief or Kleenex. Bump elbows, rather than shake hands.”
But those were the easy words to say, the obvious ones. They’d already heard those words many times the past few weeks.
More difficult to offer were words my confreres would likely not hear from the news reports or the never-ending, always-updated health bulletins. Words of comfort and reassurance. Words of perspective and hope. Perhaps even words of challenge. These words are often difficult to speak. But fortunately, there are many ways to speak them.
This week on March 18, we livestreamed our daily celebration of the Eucharist. Immediately, the emails began to come in . . . .
“Thank you! This was such an encouragement! We love you, and are praying for you as well.”
“Thank you for providing the live feed. I needed this peaceful feeling today.”
“Thank you for live streaming Mass. It is comforting to be present with the community, even if online.”
“Just wanted to thank you for the Facebook live stream of Vespers and Mass from the Archabbey Church. It’s great to join the community for prayer in this way for the time being. Please extend my appreciation to the monks who had this idea and are carrying it out.”
Talking with the monastic community again later that afternoon, I shared these comments with them and said, “Isn’t it amazing how much comfort and support we seem to be able to provide so many people – and from such a great distance – simply by continuing to do what we are called to do? Even though we’re advised not to touch others directly, isn’t it amazing how our prayer – even over the internet – can touch the hearts of so many and bring us together in spirit?”
I take great comfort that we monks can still be instruments of God’s grace for you, even if you can’t be with us on the hill right now.
As the Letter of James reminds us, our lives are always in God’s hands, even though we aren’t always as aware of that as we should be. Monday evening with the monastic community, talking about procedures and protocols, I asked, “Confreres, how are we going to get through this?” I tried to give some answers by saying, “The same way our predecessors in this monastic house managed their way through the smallpox epidemic of 1881, the devastating fire of 1887, the great influenza of 1918, two world wars, … and every other tragedy – personal, communal, national, international – we have faced.
In calmer times, we would readily agree that our life is in God’s hands. When times are rough and tough, such as now, it’s all the more important for us to intentionally put ourselves in those provident hands. We cannot do the impossible. But we can do what is possible. We can pray. We can support and comfort each other. We can renew our faith in God. We can look for his blessings.
I can’t predict how all this is going to turn out. I can say that, as most likely you are, we on the hill are preoccupied, anxious, and worried. And I can assure you of some things …
Our monastic community is exercising hygiene and is taking the necessary precautions.
We have sent most of our seminarians home. Those who cannot return to their homes continue to find shelter and support from us here.
Our nursing and health services staff are paying particular attention to our infirm monks who are, of course, among the “high-risk” population.
Our business office is coordinating plans for appropriate and fair “time-offs” from work due to the virus for our co-workers.
Our physical facilities office is shifting workloads and assignments to minimize contacts among the various communities on the hill (monks, seminarians who are remaining, co-workers in various departments, etc.), and so reduce chances for spreading of the virus.
And, the point of my words to you here, I assure you that you continue to be in the prayers of the monastic community. For some time now, I or Father Prior John or Father Subprior Guerric have been praying the following intercession at our Evening Prayer: “In thanksgiving for our co-workers and benefactors, both living and deceased, let us pray to the Lord.” A few days ago, I moved that intercession to our Morning Prayer. Our special intercession at Evening Prayer is now, “That God protect us from all anxiety, and for those who care for our health and safety, let us pray to the Lord.”
We intend to continue to livestream our Conventual Mass (7:30 a.m. CT; 9:30 a.m. on Sundays) and Evening Prayer (5:00 p.m. CT) for the foreseeable future. We plan to livestream our celebrations of the Easter Triduum: our Holy Thursday Mass at 5:00 p.m. CT (unfortunately, we will omit the washing of the feet this year); our Good Friday service at 3:00 p.m. CT, and our Easter Vigil, from 8:00 to approximately 11:00 p.m. CT.
Please pray with us, as you are able! (You can join us by following us on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribing to our YouTube channel.)
And let us remember in our prayers those who are especially vulnerable because of age or medical conditions – and those who make themselves vulnerable by caring for those who so need others to care for them.
+ Archabbot Kurt, OSB
19 March 2020
Feast of Saint Joseph, the Protector