Here in New York City, where I live, the pandemic has so demoralized people that one Brooklyn pizzeria just implemented a rather unconventional measure to encourage forlorn customers.
For the price of one extra dollar on your order, the delivery person at Vinnie’s will look you straight in the eye and tell you, “Everything’s gonna be OK and you’re doing the best you can.”
Incredibly, more than 50 people have already availed themselves of this amenity. Others have ordered it for their friends. Still others wonder about walk-up service.
This is not silly. People are suffering. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, trauma caused by COVID-19-related deaths, widespread civil strife on our streets, and anxiety over our country’s political situation have all played their part. Through it all, people know that they need something to comfort them, and they realize that it must come from another. This is the beginning of what we call faith!
The essence of faith is that something meets me that is greater than anything I can come up with on my own. It breaks me out of isolation and liberates me from my preoccupation with myself. It enables me to resist the brute force that would otherwise pull me under. It frees me to escape my own gravity.
Faith is fellowship with him who has the power to carry me safely over the elements of death (insights courtesy of a man once known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). And all of this can start simply by acknowledging a pepperoni-scented presence!
However, Jesus asks ominously, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
Now is the time to recommit to living by faith — not by our ideas, not by emotions or feelings or passions or fears, not by our resources, by preconceptions, our plans, or by our understanding.
We need to realize something crucial about faith: It cannot grow without affliction. The 18th-century spiritual genius Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ, spells this out: “Our faith is never more alive than when what we experience through our senses contradicts and tries to destroy it. The life of faith is the untiring pursuit of God through all that disguises and disfigures him and, as it were, destroys and annihilates him.”
What we are being blessed with at this trying moment in time is the exquisite gift of desolation. Yes — it is a gift! God purposely puts to the test the very confidence he himself inspires in us. He does this, says Father Jean-Nicolas Grou, SJ, who lived in the 19th century, “by seeming to forsake those who have forsaken all for his sake by throwing them into a state of such desolation, of such a strange upheaval of all things, that they no longer know how they stand, and are almost inclined to believe that God intends their ruin.”
But why would God do what seems diametrically opposed to the very thing we need? St. Ignatius of Loyola brilliantly replies: “Desolation is visited on us so that we are not able to build our nest where we do not belong.”
How then are we to respond to our desolation? Simply by being obedient to God’s will in the present moment, and by surrendering to whatever it is that God asks of us. “Our circumstances are given to us to help us become more attached to the One who calls us in a mysterious way. Faith is trusting that he is calling us,” says J. Carrón. We must resolve to live by this counterintuitive conviction.
And we must do so with hope! Hope is a reaching out for a future good with the certainty that God’s providence is real and active. Why can we do so? Because, as the encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi” (“Saved in Hope”), assures us, we know that in Jesus Christ we are definitively loved and that, whatever happens to us, we are awaited by love, a love that takes pity on our nothingness. That is what engenders hope. There’s one simple reason for having hope, says St. Thomas Aquinas: “Because we belong to God.”
So we need to increase our sense of belonging. That is difficult when we can’t go to church and receive the sacraments. But in 2020, we can take to heart one of the first things Jesus ever said to us: “Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private” (Matthew 6:6). Because quarantining has basically forced us to do just that.
Yet, this contemplativeness is a lesson we are long overdue in learning. The 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal makes a prophetic observation in his “Pensées”: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of people arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.” That unhappiness is not long for this world, thanks to the graced occasion for solitude the pandemic has afforded.
Hope emboldens us with the certainty professed by St. Paul: “I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
We use that hope-gained strength to love our brothers and sisters whose company we miss and whose communion we now appreciate for the precious gift it is. We have never been better poised to love without counting the cost. So many are languishing in loneliness, in need of a friendly voice, an encouraging word, companionship.
Pope Francis urges us to be lavish in showing something called gratuitousness: “the ability to do some things simply because they are good in themselves, without concern for personal gain or recompense” (“Fratelli Tutti” 139).
A perfect example of this: Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., suggests that we think about someone in our life and then contact them, asking them how their day is going on a scale of 1 to 10. If they say their day is around a six, then our response would be: Is there anything I can do to move you from a 6 to a 7? By doing so, McGonigal’s research shows, you have just made that person’s day.
The beautiful part is that anyone can do this, and it is ridiculously easy. Even more, by offering to make someone’s day plus-one better, we communicate that we care about them and that we can be counted on. Bonds of friendship become more deeply forged.
Since faith is, in the words of Pope Francis, a light “coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons that guide us beyond our isolated selves,” let’s be generators of that faith for others. And if we can do so with pizza, all the better.
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