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"Social Isolation" as Spiritual Formation

What does it look like for us to walk as children of light during Lent — especially during this particular, exceedingly strange Lent?

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor's Note: What follows is adapted from Fr. Mark's sermon for Lent III yesterday, which you can read or listen to here.

I generally find Lenten disciplines easy and enjoyable for the first week or so — a nice change of pace, a sharpening of mind and spirit. Right about now, though, is when motivation flags. The novelty has worn off. Now it just seems difficult. It would be easy to let things slide. Now is when we need to be shaken — hence the conclusion of the epistle text for Lent III:

“Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (Eph. 5:14).

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus startles his audience out of their complacency. He never permits a lukewarm neutrality but always pushes towards crisis, towards critical moments of decision. Our lives are filled with such decisions — to follow Christ or to neglect him, to grow through ever-deepening conversions or to fall into slumber and slip away in a practical apostasy.

Perhaps we ought to conceive of our current, unusual circumstances as just such a moment. I am not at all suggesting that God allowed, much less foreordained, a coronavirus outbreak to boost your spiritual life — heaven forbid I should be so presumptuous. But I am suggesting that, while we have little control over the things we confront, we do control how we interpret and respond to them.

Many of us will find our lives less busy in the coming days. Most of us will be at least somewhat affected financially — in some cases, perhaps quite seriously. As one author wryly commented, “[I] honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.”

We may also find ourselves more uneasy. And yet, because the light in which we dwell comes from who we are in Christ and not our circumstances (Eph. 5:8), even amidst the dark anxiety of this moment we have the opportunity to bring forth Christ’s light.

To that end, let me make a few suggestions:

First, consider how you might help those in need, especially those of your parish, which is a local instantiation of the Body of Christ. Our parish has a "St. Stephen’s Fund," which exists to help those among us in financial need. Consider making a comparable contribution. Others may suffer from loneliness due to the “social distancing” measures encouraged by public health experts. Think about ways that you might safely mitigate the impacts of such isolation upon others. This is part of what it looks like for us to “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2)

Second, recognize when a prudent desire to stay informed becomes an unhealthy obsession. Consider placing deliberate boundaries around your media consumption.

Third, use this as an opportunity for spiritual formation. Every day and every moment we choose whom we will serve. That’s true of the most mundane periods of our lives, and it is true now. The best way to do this is simply to continue your Lenten rule of life, but if you find yourself at home more or alone more often or with less work than usual, consider dedicating more time to prayer and devotional reading. And if you find yourself more anxious than usual, the Book of Common Prayer can help you channel and reshape your anxiety in healthy ways. The prayer on page 45 of the BCP expresses this beautifully:

“O MOST mighty and merciful God… grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life.”

Likewise, the Lenten collects are generally quite appropriate for use in any time of need. The one appointed for Lent II especially fits our current moment:

“ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Let us use this time — and all times — as an opportunity to root ourselves more deeply in Christ.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.


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