As a human race, we have entered uncharted waters and new territory as we struggle to continue our lives in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us have attended to socially distancing ourselves, picking up essential items from the grocery store, and ensuring that our loved ones are safe and supported. As Catholics, we’ve found creative ways to gather to celebrate Mass and pray with others all over the nation and the world. However, in the midst of giving attention to all of these demands, we might forget to take care of one crucial thing in particular: our mental health.
As someone who lives with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, I can confirm that the presence of coronavirus and the changes it has wrought in my daily life are making it particularly challenging to cope. I find myself with racing thoughts: When will this be over? Will my loved ones and I be protected? How much will this affect my finances? Where even is God in this? This is why I am particularly invested in my mental health right now: the challenges of the pandemic have the potential to trap me in an endless state of anxiety, panic, and depression. Although the pandemic presents me with challenging days ahead, I know that I can survive them by taking extra care of my mental health.
To take a step back, why should mental health matter to us so much as Christians, especially now? First, mental health allows us to live in right relationship with ourselves, others, and God. By cultivating mental health, we can strengthen self-esteem, learn how to be a more compassionate friend or partner, or learn how our human experiences have affected our relationship with God. Second, focusing on our mental health allows us to be stewards of God’s creation, specifically good stewards of the body that God has created and given to us. Though we are living in a time of panic and uncertainty, we have agency and the ability to take care of ourselves in a way that allows us to continue the hard work of bringing forth the Kingdom of God, even in a pandemic. Third, focusing our efforts on our mental health is bound up in our pursuit of holiness. As we focus on mental health, we grow in self-awareness, communication, compassion, and moral judgement; in other words, we engage in formation that allows us to be a “bridge and not an obstacle” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43) to Jesus Christ in our own lives and the lives of others. In other words, intentionally focusing on our mental health during this challenging time is a way in which we can follow the command to “love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
In being intentional about my own mental health at this time, here are some thoughts and practices that I’ve found most helpful in coping with uncertainty, panic, anxiety, and depression:
How can you engage in practices that cultivate your self-awareness this week? What/who are valuable resources of support? How do you feel that you need to show up for yourself this week? Where could you use some extra self-compassion in your life? Finally, how might being intentional about cultivating your mental health bring you into right relationship with yourself, others, and God during this time?
It’s Holy Saturday. Jesus is dead; a boulder is in front of the tomb, and it is sealed. He is gone. So now what? What next?
On Holy Saturday, my thoughts are with the apostles. Although Jesus foretold of his death, I’m not sure that they actually believed him or that they imagined it would consist of the sacrifice on the Cross. But Holy Saturday is when the reality hits them. Just imagine the millions of questions that they must have had. I imagine that they were similar to the ones above. “Now what? What next?” Imagining the disciples left with these unsolved questions, I start to realize that I too have had some questions when the going got tough or when I faced challenges, like on a recent mission trip.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of accompanying 18 students from The Catholic University of America and two other staff members to the island nation of Jamaica for an alternative spring break cultural immersion trip. While in Jamaica, we visited several sites run by organizations like the Missionaries of Charity, the Missionaries of the Poor, and the St. Patrick’s Foundation. The most impactful day for me was the one I spent at Bethlehem House. Bethlehem House is a home for children with severe mental and physical disabilities. Of the eighty children who live there, only about twenty receive the occasional visit from their families. The rest of the children likely never see their families again. Most of them will also never be able to live on their own without significant medical assistance. The missionary in charge of the home asked if I would work with the older children, telling me that these children get the fewest visitors either by family members or by outside groups. “They need your love more than anyone else here,” he told me as he dropped me off in the room. It was just me, a caretaker (who only spoke Patois, a native language of Jamaica that is a mix of Scots and Creole) and the children.
For the first hour, I didn’t know what to do. I was dumbfounded, heartbroken, and depressed by their situation. I could barely even crack a smile, let alone laugh. I didn’t understand the joy that others had talked about working with this group of children. I was aimlessly walking around the room, wondering, “What next?”. As one hour turned into two, one of the children woke up from a nap. He shouted from across the room “Hey! Hey you!” I looked at him and he said, “Come here and pick me up!” Still dumbfounded, I walked over to his crib and picked him up. He quickly told me that his name was Ashanti. Ashanti was one of the few children who was able to have a full conversation. He had such severe scoliosis that he was paralyzed from the waist down and had a lump in his back. Ashanti also had an enlarged, misshapen head. After about five minutes of walking around and talking with me, he grabbed my beard and declared that I was his best friend. He smiled and let out the most infectious laugh I have ever heard! In that moment, I knew that I was not looking just at Ashanti’s face, but at the very face of Jesus laughing and expressing joy. I learned more about love in those five minutes then I had learned in years. The rest of my day at Bethlehem House was full of joy, even in the midst of such extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
In reflecting about that day, I think about the apostles on Holy Saturday who had locked themselves away in the Upper Room, unsure of what was next. They wondered and waited. But Easter did come, and their joy returned. The face of Jesus did appear again, just as it had for me in my experience with Ashanti. After Easter and with that joy, the apostles went out into the world proclaiming the Gospel. We too are called to encounter Christ in the joy of Easter and spread the Gospel message. More often than not, our days are like Holy Saturday. We experience days when all seems lost and hope seems foolish. But we must resist that temptation, resist the idea that hope will not return, that joy is lost forever. We know that Easter is coming and will always come. Joy will have its triumph. And it can be shared and experienced by all those we encounter. So on this Holy Saturday, let us be like the apostles and go out into this world after experiencing the joy that awaits us on Easter Sunday!
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This Present SadnessRead Now
As I write this, the weather is gray and cold. It has been raining for what feels like forever, though more accurately it’s been about a week. I miss the summer. I miss a lot of things, and people, when October rolls around. It seems to be a month made for melancholy.
Perhaps it is because two of my grandparents died during separate Octobers in my childhood. This month has always been a time of missing them, remembering the past, and grieving. I was eight the October my paternal grandmother died, and she was the dearest person in the world to me.
Grief is a word we use to describe the feeling of missing someone or something after they are lost to us forever. We grieve days that are behind us, relationships that never grew, opportunities that we missed. But most of all, we grieve persons. Death seems to be the end of all that is, the end of all who is. It is unbreakable, unbreachable, unending.
As Christians, we do not think in those terms because they have been proven false. Jesus Christ, as well as Mother Church, tells us that death is not the end. It is an act of hope to believe this. Death only appears to be final and absolute and unknowable. Through Christ’s resurrection, God has revealed that death is not our final end. It is often hard for us to trust what happens next because we simply cannot know it with the certitude with which we know this world. The Church speaks of the Four Last Things, with Death being the first or entryway to the other three: Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. But that is another topic. What about those of us who remain on earth while a loved one has gone ahead? What do we do? How do we live with loss?
C.S. Lewis told a friend who had recently lost his beloved wife, “Sad you must be at present. You can’t develop a false sense of a duty to cling to sadness if– and when, for nature will not preserve any psychological state forever– sadness begins to vanish” (A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken). Of course we feel sad as a result of someone’s death. A loved one who brought joy and lightness into our hearts has gone, and our sadness is a natural response. There is no Christian commandment forbidding sadness. It is an emotion, which is neither good nor evil. Emotions just are. They come and go, washing over us. If we choose to take them too deeply within ourselves, however, emotions can become dangerous. We can drown in grief, for example, if we make it our cosmology. And the Christian is commanded to have the same mind as Jesus Christ. He sees the world with the eyes of resurrected love.
While we may not always be able to choose our emotions, we can choose our attitude and our response to them. Joy, even in the midst of sadness, “comes of being loved” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est. And love has conquered death in a singular act. Jesus, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead, the Son of the Father, died on a cross to redeem us from an unredeemable bondage because he loved us and desired us to be with him. It is to that reality that we must orient ourselves. Grief can too easily turn us inward. Like a black hole, it can devour everything surrounding it so that it is the only thing left. Love perpetually calls us out of ourselves, and asks us to give ourselves as a gift, even and especially in the hard times. I do not doubt that God’s heart broke when humanity sinned the first time, and breaks again at every subsequent sin. But God did not become consumed by grief at our fall. God is love, and love gives of itself to the beloved unceasingly. Therefore, God acted in order to redeem mankind.
I want to tell you more about the process of grief, of going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, of reaching acceptance, but I don’t know your process. I don’t know your specific loss, which we all must face at various times of our lives. That’s okay. We can hold a space for each other as we go through the process of grieving. We can let each other remember and smile and laugh and cry and long for the missing one, repeating this process as necessary. As a recent homily reminded me, our God does not tolerate idols in our lives. Our grief cannot consume our love, or else it makes a golden calf of our beloved. May our love of God, united with the love our dearly departed, orient us to the loving heart of the Father. May we know that this present sadness is not the end.
Question for Reflection: Have you grieved the loss of something in your own life? How has your faith impacted your experience of grief?