On May 13, Steve Skojec issued a call for submissions detailing a “positive development” showing how “grace is at work in building up the Mystical Body of Christ” in the midst of (among other “demoralizing” events) the COVID epidemic. Here is how one man – namely me – has in the past year been taken in by such grace.
I’m blessed to live in a place (Hakodate, Japan) where the parish to which my wife and I belong keeps the church doors open 24 hours a day. (It’s one of the benefits of being in a country where, unlike many lands traditionally seen as “Christian countries,” church vandalism seems to be entirely nonexistent.)
I must admit, though, that for most of my life it has been difficult for me to pray without a book, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, or a set of Rosary beads in my hands. In particular, I’ve never been one to go to an empty Catholic church on anything even close to a regular basis and pray silently before the Blessed Sacrament. My mind races too much; my body is uncomfortable being in an extended state of physical inactivity that isn’t anchored to my concentration on some tangible task.
So, I was not one to avail myself of the benefits of living within walking distance of a parish where anyone can pray before Christ’s Real Presence at any time day or night.
Until last year, that is.
Our Ash Wednesday Mass last year was the first one that was canceled due to COVID fears. My wife and I didn’t like it, of course, but honestly we weren’t surprised. And we thought, or at least hoped, that the cancellation of Masses would be very temporary. Needless to say, we were wrong.
Mass-less Sundays dragged on for several weeks and there seemed no end in sight. It wasn’t long before spiritual deprivation was acutely felt. Our bishop had ordered Masses shut down even though there were no Japanese government requirements for it and large swaths of our diocese, including Hakodate, had few COVID cases. So I was angry at him – but I didn’t want to be.
It soon dawned on me, though, that I couldn’t do anything about it except pray. So that’s what I decided to do; I decided to take my prayer life to a new level, to borrow an old sports cliché.
One night about two weeks into the Mass shutdown, as I was taking one of my evening walks while praying my Rosary, I decided to see if the church’s back door (which faces the street I was on) was unlocked.
It was open, so I went inside. I made my way down one short hallway, turned right down another one, and then entered the nave. Apart from the candle on the wall next to the Tabernacle all the way up at the front of the church, it was dark. Many would have found it to be spooky, but there was a feeling of peace that’s difficult to describe but was quite easy to sense.
I know where the church’s light switches are, so I went over to them and turned one of the four of them on. It provided enough light in one part of the nave to be able to better see where I was going, while still retaining an inviting sense of holiness that too much brightness would have chased away.
I walked up to the pew closest to the Tabernacle, genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross, and knelt down. And I began praying before the Blessed Sacrament for a period of time which turned out to be the longest I’d ever done. It wasn’t more than 10 minutes, so it was nothing close to the hours and hours that so many of the saints spent in prayer before His Real Presence. For me, though, it was a major spiritual step.
I don’t remember praying for very much in particular, other than (as can probably be guessed) an end to the spread of the COVID, and for God to watch over my wife and our loved ones. For most of the rest of the time, I just knelt in silence – and I focused on trying to clear my mind of all thoughts and just placing myself before Him. And for several minutes I managed it, for what was the first time ever in my life.
The next night, I went into the church and did it again – and then again the next night, at which time I promised God that I would do my best to make it a habit. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come to the church every night, I said to Him, but I promised that I would come and pray before the Blessed Sacrament at night as often as I could.
So it became a regular occurrence; as our Mass shutdown dragged on, I found myself walking over to the church several nights a week and praying before His Real Presence in near-darkened silence. Typically, I would start by thanking God for the good day that I’d just had. I would pray for an end to the COVID, for the souls of those who’d died with it, and for those in the medical field working so hard to care for people with COVID who were in serious condition.
Perhaps most of all, I prayed for the resumption of our Masses, not only in our diocese but well beyond. Some might say it’s selfish to pray for such a thing – to which I would plead guilty. When it comes to the Mass and receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, yes, I suppose I am selfish. May I dare say that all Catholics should be?
Before long, I began to truly cherish my evening visits to the church; on those occasions when I was unable to make it there for some reason, the evening somehow felt incomplete. And I kicked myself (figuratively speaking) for not having made an effort to engage in such a spiritual exercise earlier. I felt guilty that it had taken a pandemic, one that even at that time last year had already begun to take such a toll on our temporal lives, to push me to take up a course of action that brought such benefit to my spiritual life. I am tempted to wonder if I ever would have begun spending part of my evenings with the Lord in His sacramental Tabernacle if it hadn’t been for the COVID – but that’s one temptation I’m all too eager and willing to avoid. It’s probably best that I don’t go there.
During one of my early experiences in private evening prayer, I’d promised God that I would continue to visit Him in the evening as often as I could until our Masses resumed. In my mind I loosely compared it to going to a hospital to spend time with a sick person who wasn’t getting many visitors: if the bishops and priest weren’t going to offer Christ’s Body and Blood to us, I thought, then at least I would come to the church and spend time with Him. Under the circumstances, I figured it was the closest to Communion that I could get.
But what about after Masses started up again? What about when the COVID was over? So after I’d been at it for a few weeks, I made a new promise: I said to God that even after we could start attending Mass again and then after the COVID had wound down, I would make every effort to continue taking evening walks over to the church and praying before Him in the Person of the Son in the Blessed Sacrament. It was this pandemic, I have to admit, that pushed me into this religious practice that I should have been engaged in all along anyway; to stop doing it post-COVID, I thought at the time, was now out of the question.
Our Mass shutdown continued for three months, until Masses were resumed in our diocese in early June of last year. I didn’t stop going to the church in the evening to pray, however; I have continued to slip into the church at night to place myself before the Blessed Sacrament at least three or four times a week.
As COVID seems to be winding down in the States and other countries (though not here in Japan just yet), many of us understandably are looking forward to “getting back to normal.” My frequent evening private times with Christ in His Tabernacle, though, have birthed in me a feeling that I actually don’t want to “go back to normal,” at least not completely. For me, “back to normal” would mean being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament only at Sunday Mass, so I don’t want to return to normal in that sense. I’ll gladly ditch the mask and the social distancing and all that – but I’m committed to carrying on “quality time” with Christ Present in the Eucharist long after COVID is gone.
There are elements of the often-discussed post-COVID “new normal” – continued mask-wearing, further withdrawal into an online world where everything from higher education to Friday night parties takes the form of a Zoom meeting, that sort of thing – that make me cringe. But I’m looking forward to carrying on my quiet moments spent in soulful near-darkness with Christ beyond the days of the pandemic. While we should eschew much of what the secular world sees as a “new normal,” positive post-COVID changes in the way we live out our faith are not at all a bad thing – and for me, spending more time before the Blessed Sacrament and sinking myself in more prayer before Him will surely be a major part of my post-COVID life.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.