By: Dr. Tom Neal, Professor of Spiritual Theology
When I discovered last week that the word quarantine stems from the Italian quarantina, “forty days,” my Lent suddenly came into stark relief.
During Lent, we willingly deny ourselves of good things in order to purify our inward-turned egoistic tendencies, and grow outward in love of God and neighbor. We pray so that we may receive, we fast to grow in the freedom of detachment so we might cheerfully “sell all [we] possess and give to the poor” (Mk. 10:21). In other words, Lenten renunciation exists to increase our capacity for mercy.
During these days, our civic leaders have asked us to do something we rarely ever hear outside of religious contexts – Sacrifice! We are being asked to put others’ welfare and interests ahead of our own. For the sake of the common good, we are being asked to be attentive especially to the impact our decisions can have on the elderly and vulnerable. We are being asked to renounce some of our most cherished “possessions” and freedoms, reminding us that our individual rights also entail grave duties toward others. Yes, we are our “brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9), and our freedom and comfort is always to be placed in service to the demands of justice, of love and of mercy.
For my wife Patti and I, along with our four children, these days of quarantine have been filled with blessings and challenges. Though, as my wife often says to our children, “Our sacrifices are tiny compared to most others, so let’s never complain.”
Amen to that.
Having six adults living in close proximity in a modest sized home has offered us many laughs and times of closeness, as well as plenteous frustrations. I have found it difficult to think clearly in my work preparation, which has been blessedly humbling. We have each faced our fears independently and worked through them together. We have prayed more together as a family than ever, and our prayers now contain very long litanies of the names and professions of those who are facing the worst effects of this crisis. We have played more games than ever, our house is cleaner than ever, and we miss being face-to-face with friends, parishioners and co-workers more than ever.
And though we have felt the painful ache of being without Sacramental Communion or Eucharistic Adoration, we have come to experience in wonderfully new ways the words of St. Thérèse, tout est grâce, “grace is everywhere.”
Our youngest daughter and second eldest son both have admirably embraced the fact that their senior year of high school/college will not end wrapped in any of the traditional festivities and memorable “lasts.” For me as a father, seeing them grieve this fact cut me to the heart in a way few things ever have. Yet it is in times like these that we are given an opportunity to grow not simply in age, but in wisdom and grace. Deo gratias.
One other specific practice we have taken up has been visiting my mother’s grave at the end of every day, and seeking her intercession. As the bonds of love are only intensified in death, in that great Communion, this has been a source of strength and peace for us. My mother, as far back as I can remember, lived in a perpetual state of prayer (and worry!) for her children and grandchildren – and anyone who would pass into her field of vision with a need.
Now, each evening, we seek her prayers for us and for all who are living through this Great Lent. May it all be “for the glory of God” (Jn. 11:4). Amen.
“And a pic of our oldest son, Michael, praying before my mom’s grave”–Dr. Neal
About the Author: Dr. Tom Neal, Professor of Spiritual Theology
Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and has a particular passion for exposing the unlimited potential of theology to offer the faithful a deeper sharing in the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. He has worked for twenty years in adult catechesis, retreat ministry and teaching theology in various contexts trying to make present for others the “Word made fresh.” Tom received a Masters in Systematic Theology from Mount St. Mary’s University and a PhD in Religion at Florida State University. His Masters studies focused on the Orthodox theology of salvation known as theosis, and his doctoral studies concentrated on the socio-historical contexts within which late medieval mysticism flourished in Spain. His dissertation was on the Teresian Carmelite reform and the construction of ascetical identity in the writings of St. John of the Cross.
While he loves to continue his work on general topics of spiritual theology, especially inasmuch as they relate to priestly formation, Tom has dedicated much of his energy more recently to theological reflection on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful to be “secular saints” whose essential labor is to consecrate the world itself to God by faithfully living out their personal vocations in the world. He believes that the Church has yet to produce a proper theology of “lay secularity” and, consequently, a robust vision of spirituality that is suited to those whose primary path to perfection is to be found in engaging in temporal, secular affairs. His hope is to make a small contribution to that development.
Originally from Rhode Island, Tom has lived over the years in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Iowa and (presently) New Orleans, Louisiana. His wife and four children live in Metairie, LA and they love being called to be saints among Saints.
Find more of Tom’s writing at his blog, Neal Obstat.
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