I’m a list guy.
Most evenings before I go to bed, or mornings while I have my coffee, I write out the tasks of the day: “pray, go to class, exercise, read, write a thank you note, send a birthday card.” Sometimes the items get more esoteric: “call T-Mobile about their special rates for missionaries” has appeared on my list more than once.
While I’ve learned to forgive myself for not completing a day’s tasks, I’ve always drawn comfort from knowing I could turn to my list when life seemed chaotic, or unmanageable, or exhausting. “Don’t worry about doing everything,” I’ve said to myself, “just do the next thing on the list.”
And so when the world entered a chaotic, unmanageable, exhausting period earlier this year, I knew how I’d cope. My early days of sheltering-in-place involved crafting a new list suited to pandemic life. “Pray, log onto Zoom theology class, read Don Quixote (three chapters), work out (in my room), earn 100 points on DuoLingo, pick a movie for our Jesuit house to watch.” Those frightening days seemed a little less scary if I distracted myself with the quotidian.
A couple of times, my sheltering in place has turned into a more intense quarantine. My ever-reliable list got me through the anxiety and tedium of these even more isolated days. In moments of panic, I could turn to my list and thank my former self for providing me with such effective distractions.
That changed during my most recent quarantine. During a trip to visit family, I was directly exposed to a person with COVID-19. In the interest of everyone’s health, I entered a strict quarantine upon return to my Jesuit community. I expected my list to carry me through the fourteen days. Just a few days in, though, I realized it wasn’t sustaining me the way it had before. I continued to pray every morning, and rack up DuoLingo points, and catch up on Netflix. What had changed?
What had changed was that after my direct exposure, it was no longer safe for me to go to Mass with my Jesuit brothers. One of the benefits of being a Jesuit in quarantine is that I’ve always been in a “family pod” with priests. During one of my periods of isolation, a young Jesuit priest from Indonesia even volunteered to be locked up with me!
But in my most recent quarantine, I finally experienced what millions of Catholics around the world have been going through since March. I was locked away from the “source and summit of the Christian life.”1 I joined the rest of the Catholic world by logging onto livestreamed liturgies, but something was missing, even when I tuned in to Masses from the most inspirational priests I know. For two weeks, I experienced the inevitable distraction that friends had reported feeling while watching Mass on Facebook Live. I got a taste of what they’ve been missing because I missed it, too.
I missed the daily connection I had with my Jesuit brothers. Despite working in disparate ministries on irregular schedules, our daily gathering around the altar unites us.
I missed the opportunity to make petitions during the prayers of the faithful. I hadn’t realized how much I’d treasured naming people on their birthdays, holding them up in sickness, and asking for their peaceful repose after death.
I missed that feeling of connection with the Church around the world that is unique to the Eucharistic table. At every Mass, I feel a profound sense of reconnection to all those friends in the Lord to whom I’ve had to say goodbye.
For years, I’ve looked to scribbled lists on scrap paper as a way to ease my mind when the world gets too crazy or too unwieldy or too tiring. Locked up in quarantine, I realized the thing that was easing my anxiety was not the rote completion of mundane tasks. All the distractions that 21st century technology could offer simply didn’t sustain me.
My solitary confinement revealed to me that, maybe without my realizing, I’ve been offering up that worry and stress and exhaustion to Jesus everyday at Mass. I’ve asked Him to take my troubles, my embarrassments, my successes, and transform them. My ability to get through each day was not the result of missions accomplished but of the grace foisted upon me at Mass.
And so, after the requisite time in isolation, I returned to my simple, daily community Mass. On my first evening back, we heard in the Gospel about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law and dining in her house. In the homily, the presider mused about transformations that might have taken place around her table. I rejoiced to be able to join in with that transformation again. I pray fervently for the day when we’ll all gather to be transformed again, maskless and closer than six feet apart.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1324. ↩