What perverse creatures we are! Surround any other organism—an amoeba, a tree, a dog—within a good environment (that may include food, rest, shelter, sex) and it thrives. Put a man (especially a Western man) in the midst of an apparently good environment with leisure, money, entertainment, cuisine—and he becomes miserable, sick, and even suicidal.
Anyone familiar with Walker Percy’s writings will recognize that this Catholic novelist and philosopher has made these insights practically his stock and trade. On more than one occasion in his writings, he invokes the blessed freedom found in the danger of a hurricane as a means of snapping postmodern man out of his gloomy, average everydayness. Percy asks: “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane” (Message in a Bottle, 3-4)?
Percy, who died 30 years ago this May, was a Southern writer, philosopher, and physician. He was fascinated by man’s peculiar position in the cosmos—hence his oft-asked question, “Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?” For this reason, he was a fan and friend of the hurricane (or, if you are not from the coastal southeast of the country, pick your own flavor of catastrophe), for it seemed to shake one out of the blind doldrums of the daily grind—what he called “everydayness.” As he put it, “Everydayness is the enemy…. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it—but disaster” (The Moviegoer, 145).
Percy would be loving life right now. The current COVID-19 pandemic would be seen by him, in some strange but real way, as a hurricane-type event that could shake us out of our everydayness and help us to step back and look with new, clear eyes at our world, our selves, and our destiny. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve been feeling especially good in this ostensibly bad environment, I have been trying on the lenses through which Percy sees catastrophe not as hopelessness and despair but as a cause for contentment and perhaps even joy. I’ve tried to see things as Percy sees them in the hope that this perspective might help me—a Catholic husband and father, diocesan liturgy director, and editor—see things aright, and no longer in the fog of the good life. It’s a task, I hope, that each of us will undertake: what have I learned about myself? about my place in the world? about my understanding of the faith? about my relationship to God in the sacred liturgy? Here’s three early conclusions from my own perspective.
First, the liturgy is not essential—at least in the eyes of the world. I’d imagine anyone who is reading these words has been rightly astounded—yet not surprised—that in most places liquor stores, McDonald’s drive-thru’s, and (in some states) abortion clinics are considered by gubernatorial orders “essential,” while church services are not. But as alarming as it is that a politician may consider religious worship inessential, it is more disturbing that many—although not all—Catholics, Christians, or other believers would find it so. The Abitene (Tunisia) martyrs of 304 told their judge, “Without the gift of the Lord, without the Lord’s day, we cannot live!” How many Catholics (including myself) have echoed these words of the early martyrs? I fear our politicians are simply echoing what too many Catholics are saying (or not saying).
Second, the Mass is not enough for a fully-formed liturgical life. While the Mass is the source and center of the Church’s life, and that of her children, it is not the only part of the Church’s liturgical life. Like many, my family had been watching Masses live-streamed and on-demand for much of the end of Lent and beginning of Easter. We dressed up, as if we were going to our parish; we sang along with songs and responses; we stood, sat, and knelt at the usual times. When the Triduum came around, we were grateful to join, even if virtually, our bishop from the barren cathedral church. But by the time Easter Sunday arrived, we (OK, I) had had enough. We turned off the TV and turned to praying Lauds together as a family, from actual Liturgy of the Hours books, in real time—and it was fantastic. It even led my wife and me to consider making the praying of the Liturgy of the Horus by the family a regular event (we’ll see what comes of that!). We also found our family praying the Rosary on a daily basis, versus the occasional basis when, in normal, “everyday” times, we had access to the Mass. In short: the Church wants her prayer life to be based upon the Mass, but also surrounded by other liturgical and devotional prayers. The coronavirus has made this truth clear.
Third, Jesus alone is the real deal, the reality beyond, beneath, and behind all things, the one truth that, like a Rock, will not falter. As we are witnessing, our economy, culture, and civilization are easily shaken. My pope, bishop, and pastor will lead for better or worse—but not perfectly. Presidents, governors, and mayors will direct with a mix of prudence or negligence. Most alarmingly, I can’t even rely upon myself, since physical, mental, and spiritual health seem more precarious now than before. Only one thing remains: Christ and his divine life. Sacramental and liturgical theologians call this reality the res sacramenti, the reality of every sacrament. The coronavirus pandemic was thus a kind of lesson in liturgical theology: Jesus is the solid ground of all things liturgical—of all things period.
In one of his final books, Lost in the Cosmos, Percy takes us through a thought-experiment. What if at the brink of committing suicide, he asks, one were to change his mind and decide to live? “What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so…. Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach…. Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time in your life to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife” (77-78). Like the brush with suicide and weathering the hurricane, may today’s pandemic help us to see—perhaps for the first time—our liturgical heart with fresh insight. In fact, ask yourself: how does the liturgy appear to you now compared to six months ago?
Lord Jesus, you know that, like your friend Lazarus, we were once dead men, but through your Resurrection we have come back to life. Help us, O Lord, to see with the eyes of faith.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.