The Spiritual Aftermath of Covid-19
A catastrophe can shape the way a generation thinks, as can be testified by children who are born after a war, mothers who see their children fleeing poverty, and the millions of refugees in the world today. In the history of humanity, wars, pandemics and famines, as recurring phenomena, require an adequate understanding of their causes and consequences, otherwise there is a high risk of repeating mistakes, losing our way and becoming shipwrecked again.
In the specific case of pandemics, repercussions can be even more deleterious, because the culprit is not the aggressive neighbor or the absence of rain: the scourge is not just invisible, it is inside us. If it is difficult to cure it, it is even more difficult to understand. As an example of a pandemic, many history books cite the Black Death of 1348. But it should be emphasized that this type of calamity does not belong only to the reviled Middle Ages: it is enough to mention smallpox in the 16th century, cholera in the 19th or the so-called (improperly) Spanish Flu of a century ago.
Viruses and bacteria do not understand economics. Yet the hardest hit groups have always been the poor and those trying to help them. When the population was decimated, it produced demographic shifts, food shortages and price rises that altered the social order in a matter of months. Perhaps the area in which the impact was strongest was religious and existential. Those ancestors of ours did not, of course, have our technology. Each generation tried to answer the questions that arose with the tools they had, and among the causes put forward that of divine punishment was the favorite. Above all, the way of understanding the world was altered, to the point that the perceptions of God and humans, death and life, could change in a few years. Sometimes reality exceeds fantasy, and pandemics can become real turning points.
Unlike the case with other pandemics, this crisis has caused us to employ rivers of ink about the physical and psychological aftermath. For many patients who survived Covid-19, the personal story did not end with a tale to tell their grandchildren, the loss of hair or the sense of smell. There are serious long-term physical consequences: among others, altered coagulation of fluids or pulmonary fibrosis. These are not to be taken lightly. The same goes for psychological consequences, such as post-traumatic stress in those who have spent weeks in intensive care, or the tendency to depression during isolation, not to mention addiction to social networks and eating disorders in adolescents. In addition, knowing from experience what this pandemic is like and what previous ones have been like, one asks the question: What are the spiritual after-effects of Covid-19?
Soon the death toll, the ambulance sirens and the concern for our loved ones will come to present us with the bill: they all remind us that we are not machines. But on this point we should go deeper, because the spiritual sphere does not coincide with the psychological, although sometimes we find it difficult to distinguish them. There are aspects in common, and yet we repeat that they are not the same thing. It is not at the same level as getting excited about a beautiful song, enjoying a sunset over the sea or being anxious about an exam. Spirituality pertains to our relationship with transcendence, therefore it is a relationship; it contemplates an otherness. It is a function of this bond that we relate to our reality – other people, context, nature, time, space, society and culture – and to ourselves. Everything is connected, and changes affect us so intimately precisely because they challenge our way of being in the world and how we perceive our identity, our freedom and our existence.
Spiritual consequences have a particular characteristic: they can be transformed into opportunities. We find a significant and recurring example of this in the experience of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: the cannonball that injured his leg also initiated a change of life and a very fruitful spiritual conversion. Each of these consequences has a positive side and, although we do not know how, they will one day bear fruit, as happens to the vine after each pruning.
The image of God
In life, questions are more important than answers because they allow us to take steps forward. They multiply exponentially when uncertainty confronts us. What have I done to deserve this? Why does God allow this? These are just the first legitimate questions which we must ask ourselves often, because they will allow us to grow even if the answer is silence.
The problem, however, arises when we attribute everything to God’s will, making God responsible for whatever happens in the world, without distinction: good things and bad things alike. Then we get, yes, an answer to all our questions, but this leads us up a blind alley: in which God do we believe? Is it in a God who wants us to suffer?
This aftermath of the pandemic has a theological and pastoral side because, if it is not explained well, it can affect the way we approach God. It must be said loud and clear that God never wants us to suffer. Blaming God may be easy and frequent, but it is neither just nor fruitful. That a virus passes from animals to human beings and spreads throughout the world, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, is not a punishment from God, nor nature’s revenge. It is quite the opposite: God is with those who suffer in every hospital bed, accompanies them in their solitude, encourages the researcher and consoles the families. Any pastoral deviation that promotes the image of a chastising God can cause spiritual harm, because our way of understanding God and relating to him changes when fear is involved.
In order to understand this theological – and consequently spiritual and pastoral – dimension, we can be helped by the figure of Job, a man who, in his extreme suffering, realized that evil came neither from God nor from his own actions. This is a wisdom that, through faith, seeks to approach God in an authentic way. God does not abandon us in our pain; he continues to make the encounter possible. Salvation comes only through him. However many millions of questions, silences and doubts resound in our heads, pain does not have the last word.
The ‘desacramentalization’ of faith
Not without some controversy, in almost every country in the world, confinement has prevented millions of faithful from celebrating the Eucharist, something that had never happened before. Some priests celebrated Mass in private and transmitted it via social media, supporting spiritual communion with word and image and thus maintaining community bonds. Nevertheless, no matter how much effort was made to minimize the effects of confinement, the people of God have had to survive spiritually without the habitual recitation of the sacraments, or at least without maintaining their continuity. At stake here is not only the relationship with God, but also that with the Church, with the community, and with oneself.
When all current restrictions are lifted, perhaps many Christians will return to church strengthened by a faith that is nourished by the sacraments. This particular abstinence will possibly have served them well, bringing an appreciation of how important the sacraments are to each of us. Unfortunately, however, to some Christian communities this temporary “desacramentalization” will bring problems, and some faithful will be lost along the way for the simple fact that custom forges virtue. Think of parishes with faithful in poor health, for whom going out into the streets and among people can be risky. Or those parents who, having experienced a certain difficulty in educating their children in the faith, will now have to convince them all over again of the importance of attending Mass after several months of absence.
What can we say about youth communities in formation, which have lost the customs that encourage sacramental practice? Or of those people who – perhaps doubtful about their faith, afraid, or overworked – have lost the healthy habit of attending the Eucharist each week, and now question their belonging to the Church?
It is also good to keep in mind that the difficulty is not limited to the celebration of the Eucharist. Pastoral activity requires a great investment of time and imagination, because it aims at creating processes in people. With the current pandemic, this work has probably been interrupted, and in some cases it will have to be resumed from scratch. Similarly, it will be necessary to rethink liturgies, meetings and celebrations without the heat of the crowd – processions, groups, retreats, community prayers, conferences, World Youth Days, and the like – because for some time to come their formats will have to be re-thought.
Aware that our Catholic faith is reliant upon a sacramental life, we find ourselves in the urgent need to redesign new pastoral models that respond to the spiritual needs of the people of God and can once again weave new community bonds. All this requires an additional effort and creativity on the part of pastoral ministers, who are sometimes not in sufficient numbers. This is already the case in some parts of the world where there is a lack of priests, and in the present situation there is also the fact that many communities have to reconstitute themselves at a forced pace after several months without physically shared celebrations. Fortunately, there is no lack of sufficient time, motivation and creativity to celebrate life.
Over the months, we have seen the number of deaths increase in almost every country. A tragedy reflected in statistics, but no less painful for that. The global culture that tends to hide death has come up against statistics that read like lists of casualties in war. Perhaps the cruelest aspect is that we have become accustomed to this fact, which obscures the reality that lies behind that bare statistic, that of thousands of people in agony in hospitals and just as many prostrate families. Consequences ensue on all levels. The proximity of death reminds us of our limitations and vulnerability, though the image-centered world insists on proclaiming the opposite. Life is a gift, and yet we do not know how long it will last. Even if we try to look away, death is part of life; it affects our existence and thus our spirituality.
Death generates grief, guilt and vulnerability, which affect not only Covid-19 survivors or those who have lost a family member. Every society must mourn the loss, accept the pain suffered and grieve as necessary. It is up to us Christians to accompany this journey on a personal and community level, to stand by believers and non-believers alike. First of all, this involves looking at the past and making room for memory, which with its wisdom is capable of including in the life of a community those who are no longer with us. Secondly, in the here and now of today, we are challenged to listen, reconcile, celebrate successes, serve and heal wounds. And, finally, we are invited to look to tomorrow, because in faith in Christ we find the promise of resurrection and a future that gives hope.
This aftermath or consequence also has a positive side: the cathartic function of death. Facing the possibility of the end of our lives makes us question how we want to live, and makes us better distinguish what is profound from what is superficial, what is important from what is transitory. This is how Saint Ignatius of Loyola reasoned when, in the Spiritual Exercises, he invited exercitants to contemplate the last day of their life and to ask how they would have liked to have behaved. The French Nobel laureate Albert Camus said that “it is when night falls that one meditates.” This time of personal and communal darkness, in which we have painfully perceived our limits, should be accompanied by a reflection capable of helping us to live more from God’s perspective and to discern what is important in our lives and how we really want to spend them.
It is said that as the Plague of Justinian raged in the 6th century, some of the inhabitants of Paris returned to seek solace in their ancient deities. Similarly, within a few weeks, our world was in turmoil, as if under the effects of an earthquake. An economic, social, political and, above all, health crisis struck. Basically, almost everything that inspired confidence and security and gave stability to our existence has disintegrated. On the other hand, the opposite became rampant: an insecurity toward life that plunges us into uncertainty. The fear of living and an existential vertigo emerge in people who have suffered Covid-19 in their own bodies, because they have felt life slipping from their control.
Not only have existences, families, projects and jobs crumbled, in some cases faith has also been in crisis. Spirituality puts us in relationship with our environment and, if everything around us is overwhelmed, we can become confused and think that God – who guided our lives when everything was going well – has abandoned us. Think of the despair of the person on the brink of ruin, the politician busy looking for solutions everywhere, or the family member stuck on the phon. In the end, it is part of our human condition to ask ourselves, when everything collapses, whether the rock on which we had founded our lives is strong enough, and this helps us to understand those sixth-century Parisians: if they chose to return to the idols in which they had previously placed their trust, it was because instinctively, at first, what is tangible seems safer.
We must accept that in some circumstances our reality will be so complex and unstable that we will be able to rely only on God, as happened to Job and so many Covid-19 sufferers. If we look at the lives of the mystics, we see that situations of abandonment are moments of giving and total union with God, in which despair elicits the most authentic trust. Similar circumstances have occurred in the lives of Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Calcutta and Etty Hillesum, to name but a few. Not dissimilar is the case of Jesus’ disciples in the boat when the sea was stormy. And what about Jesus of Nazareth himself praying in the Garden of Olives or abandoned on the cross? Here, in the abyss of this pandemic, the inspired words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe can help us: “The Lord had been so close to us, perhaps as never before; in fact, we had never been so insecure.”
One of the peculiarities of this virus is that it has profoundly transformed the world of our relationships. No one now dares to cough or even give a hug in public. Physical contact and closeness have shifted from the role of affectionate gestures to that of a serious risk to collective health, because the best way to curb the pandemic is to maintain social distancing and isolation. It is no exaggeration to say that loneliness constitutes one of the worst after-effects. The examples are numerous: the sick person fighting for his or her life far from loved ones, the children alone at the cemetery, the health care worker overwhelmed by a sea of emotions, the elderly confined far from family, and many other similar situations that show the loss of a dimension that was natural to us and our way of relating.
It should be pointed out that this isolation should not be confused with the estrangement that we impose on ourselves during a spiritual retreat, which comes with a great “desert moment” of solitude. This enforced time with ourselves has caused us to suffer, to doubt; it even torments us. As much as the prevailing global culture advocates an exasperated individualism, the human being is a social being, because through others we discover who we really are, and this also involves our spiritual dimension.
Along these same lines, as a consequence of the protective measures, we have lost many of our social rituals, that is, gestures and actions that give us more help than we are perhaps aware of. There have been similar repercussions in Christian communities that were supposed to remain united despite the distancing, because God is present in the community, especially when it is gathered. This enforced isolation made us realize how much we need others, the feeling of community and being part of something larger than ourselves. In addition, solitude and compassion have heightened our interest in others and our search for new ways to establish relationships and support one another. The tributes paid to health care workers, the projects to help those most in need, or the phone calls to lonely people, to name just a few, show that a “culture of caring” is far from impossible.
This desire to be with others and to value the collective dimension can help us to situate ourselves within this new social crisis that has not yet reached its peak. In this time of reconstruction, we have an opportunity to share life, rebuild relationships and strengthen a new social fabric, because in this way we will better protect ourselves from adversity. Pope Francis explains this clearly in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, when he emphasizes that we must recover fraternity as a vital, Christian attitude. He sees this not as a classical ideal, but rather as a concrete choice to share time, effort and goods, since now more than ever it has been shown that we cannot save ourselves alone.
During the period of isolation, attitudes of nostalgia have manifested themselves among people. At the same time, the consumption of medications to combat anxiety, insomnia and depression has increased, as have psychological consultations. Let us add that many have experienced moments of desolation in their spiritual life, caused by the fatigue of a situation to which they cannot become accustomed.
Nevertheless, to be lulled into nostalgia to the point of developing almost an addiction is a human characteristic, not just of this moment: the people of Israel missed the onions of Egypt, forgetting that they were fleeing from a much worse past situation. This is further confirmation that life experience also affects spirituality. Indeed, sometimes art and politics look for inspiration in the past, when they consider the present exhausted and look for reference points on which to lean. In the current pandemic, fatigue, fear and loneliness are combined with stagnation and the impossibility of glimpsing a clear future, since any project will be subjected to the arbitrariness of a virus that we cannot contain. It is equally difficult to feel at ease in an unpleasant and anonymous present, so that return by means of the imagination to the idyllic past is more attractive than usual, and there is as well the question whether we have really chosen the right path.
But it is one thing to be sad and tired, and quite another to lose heart, making nostalgia a habitual state. Even if it is not depression, if we give in to this feeling we will be very ill; therefore we must employ every means to recover joy. Bad motions must be rejected, but first we must realize the state we are in and want to get out of. To change this state of mind we will have to examine our lives before God and accept the situation. This is a very simple thing, but at the same time it is very complicated. It is certainly not a matter of questioning past decisions or fantasizing about parallel lives that do not allow us to move forward, but of recovering the perspective of time and recognizing that the present also offers possibilities, and that tomorrow will be good, for the simple reason that it belongs to God. Ultimately, not seeing the end of the tunnel does not mean there is no exit.
All in the same boat
As we said at the beginning, the fact that all of humanity has been affected by Covid-19 does not mean that everyone will suffer the consequences in the same way. Not everyone will have the same outcomes: this depends very much on the individual, how the disease has reached them, and the context. It is not the same thing to spend the pandemic in a comfortable home on the outskirts of a European capital as it is to experience it in a poor neighborhood in Latin America. Nor is it the same to face it as a young person or as an elderly person, to be able to work from home, or to find oneself in the front line of a hospital, to accept it by placing one’s trust in God or by indulging in the most primitive superstition, not to mention the difference between living it as a healthy person or as a sick person. There are many other situations of which we know nothing and which for those who have experienced them have turned life into hell. Therefore, it is necessary to be attentive and prepared so that no one is left behind.
The time will come when society will retrospectively analyze the consequences of the pandemic, because other problems – not only spiritual ones – and also other solutions will arise. In the present circumstance, as Christians we must insist that this pandemic is also an experience of crisis and learning, of necessary pruning and urgent renewal, and above all of hope, because it will certainly condition the future of humanity in the coming years.
In particular, we are faced with the great challenge of transforming this misfortune into an opportunity to draw closer to God, so that each individual – and each nation – can recognize God’s salvation and mercy in their own personal history. If we succeed in making this relationship with God become deeper, more authentic and solid, our bonds with others, with our surroundings, with the Church and with ourselves will also be strengthened.
On March 27, 2020, in a deserted St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis addressed the whole world thus: “The Lord challenges us and, in the midst of our storm, invites us to awaken and activate solidarity and hope capable of giving solidity, support and meaning to these hours in which everything seems to be shipwrecked.”
Once again, as Christians, as members of society, we have the task of accompanying and serving all of humanity in this difficult navigation toward a safe harbor, remembering that even though the storm is raging, God continues to call us, guide us and sustain us.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 5, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.5
. Cf. E. Mitre Fernández, Fantasmas de la sociedad medieval: enfermedad, peste, muerte, Valladolid, Universidad de Valladolid, 2004. The work illustrates the impact of health catastrophes on the medieval mentality.
. The mortality rate was estimated to be between 40 and 60 percent.
. Cf. P. Rodríguez López, “Los jesuitas en las epidemias, entre la incertidumbre y la dificultad”, in Manresa, vol. 92, 2020, 291-300. In the article the historian looks at pandemics as turning points or hinges in history.
. On this and other occasions we will refer to him to better situate some characteristic elements of spirituality, in this case Ignatian spirituality.
. “I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion” (Francis, Fratelli Tutti, No. 34).
. Á. Cordovilla Pérez, “Teología en tiempos de pandemia”, in Vida Nueva, No. 3178, 2020, 23-30.
. “He shall pray to God, and he shall show him kindness, and cause him to rejoice, and again God shall repay him for his righteousness” (Job 33:26).
. Cf. 1 Cor 15.
 . “Third rule. I must consider, as if I were at the point of death, the criterion and measure which I then wish to apply in the present election; and thus regulating myself, I shall firmly make my decision” (Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 186).
. A. Camus, Lettres à un ami allemand, Paris, La Pléiade, 1965. The phrase is reported in the author’s second letter to a hypothetical German friend, published in a French newspaper. This writer, who declared himself a non-believer, used the expression “night” to refer to another global catastrophe, the Second World War.
. Cf. L. M. García Domínguez, “Tercera semana de Ejercicios y pandemia”, in Manresa, vol. 92, 2020, 235-246.
. This is how Benedict XVI referred to Etty Hillesum in the general audience of February 13, 2013: “In her scattered and restless life, she found God right in the midst of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah.”
. Cf. Mark 4:27-41.
. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).
. “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34).
. Fr. Pedro Arrupe was Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983.
. Cf. Á. Lobo Arranz, “Se nos había olvidado sufrir: claves ignacianas para acercarse a la crisis del Covid-19”, in Manresa, vol. 92, 2020, 253-262.
. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).
. “In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ that permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us” (Francis, Laudato Si’, No. 231).
. “Unless we recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources, the global illusion that misled us will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness” (Francis, Fratelli Tutti, No. 36).
. Cf. E. de Benito, “El consumo de medicamentos para ansiedad, depresión y problemas de sueño subió un 4% durante la primera ola”, in El País, December 3, 2020.
. We do not go into examining psychological consequences, because the impact on mental health requires more in-depth study.
. “By desolation I mean everything opposite to the third rule, for example, darkness of the soul, interior disturbance, attraction toward low and earthly things, restlessness due to various agitations and temptations: thus the soul is inclined to distrust, is without hope and without love, and finds itself sluggish, lukewarm, sad and as if separated from its Creator and Lord” (Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, No. 317).
. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num 11:5).
. Cf. A. Cano Arenas, “Discernir en el dolor”, in Manresa, vol. 92, 2020, 301-304.
. In No. 319 of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius advises more emphasis on prayer, to prolong the examination of conscience and to do penance.
. “The only way not to be paralyzed […] is to look our weakness in the face. Today, unlike in the days of Ignatius, it is not cowardly to say and tell me, ‘I am afraid of this and that’” (T. Catalá Carpintero, “No quedar atrapados por el miedo y por los ídolos” in Manresa, vol. 92, 2020, 215-226).