Springs of Mercy in the Coronavirus Desert

This period of pandemic has been one of significant suffering and substantial sacrifice. Most notably, we mourn the physical suffering and loss of life of those most deeply affected, and the grief of those who love them. Those of us less closely touched by the illness are facing our own set of trials: isolation, anxiety, financial hardship, disruption of life, and shortage of essentials. Hardest of all, an increasing number of regions have had no choice but to suspend public Mass attendance. Stand on any eerily vacant neighborhood street, walk by a deserted playground, or tug on a locked church door, and it’s hard not to think that we’re suddenly living in some sort of proverbial desert.

In the midst of such a desert, we might ask ourselves why we have been led here. We might especially ask ourselves why God would permit so many of His faithful to find themselves in a liturgical desert, with no or very limited access to Mass and the sacraments. More than once, the Israelites asked the same question. Granted, if the Israelites had not lost heart and begun to doubt God’s care for them, they would have realized that they already knew the answer. God had told them. They asked less for information than as a sort of reproach, grumbling to Moses and to God about how trying their desert sojourn turned out to be. Nevertheless, we can take up the question of Israel, because perhaps the answer for God’s people then is also the answer for God’s people now.

So, why did God lead the children of Israel into the desert? The answer initially seems obvious — to deliver them from slavery and give them the promised land. True. But there was also another reason, greater and more fundamental. Moses repeatedly tells Pharaoh the words of the Lord: “Let My people go to serve Me in the wilderness.”1 The request that Moses consistently makes of Pharaoh is freedom to journey into the desert to sacrifice to God. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, is emphatic that this is not an excuse to sneak the people out of Egypt so they can escape to the promised land; it is the real reason for their departure. God calls His people into the desert to worship Him. The wilderness is a place of worship, and the eventual promised land, too, will be given that the people may have a place to worship God.

Pharaoh tries a few times to half-accede to the request. He suggests that they sacrifice to God without going to the desert, or that only the men go, or that all the people go without their livestock. Moses won’t budge. They must go into the desert, all the people must go, and all the livestock must go, because they won’t know which animals are to be sacrificed until they get there.2 We don’t worship God on our terms, but on His. God leads His people into the desert to teach them how to worship Him.3

What does this mean for us today? Certainly, the most desert-like aspect of this coronavirus pandemic is lack of access to the liturgy and the sacraments for many of the faithful. Can this liturgical desert possibly teach us something about worship? It emphatically cannot be to teach us some alternative form of worship that is somehow better than the Mass; there’s no higher or more perfect form of worship, and nothing better that we could be doing to honor our God, now or at any other time. In that regard, it is a great comfort to recall that the Mass is still being celebrated around the world — it is only public attendance, and not the Mass itself, that is suspended. Individually or with only a few present, Christ’s priests are still offering to the Father the most perfect sacrifice possible to us, and the graces of this highest of all prayers are still being poured out for the salvation of the world.

Nevertheless, the loss of the gift of our physical presence and personal participation in the Mass is not nothing. Jesus has given all of the baptized the great dignity of personally uniting ourselves with His own offering of Himself to the Father through the action of the priest, as well as the inestimable gift of Himself as our Food.4 Our spiritual life needs nourishment as much as our physical life, and even more so. This is especially true at a time when we are laboring under so much stress, and have already sacrificed so many natural comforts. The inability to attend Mass now — for many weeks, and even over the great season of Easter — may feel like a condemnation to starvation. Especially at such a time, we need our daily bread. It may seem that we have reached a stretch of desert in which our deepest need is utterly unable to be met.

The Israelites certainly felt this way when they repeatedly grumbled to Moses that he must have taken them to the desert only to die there, without food or water.5 But consistently, God provided for their every need in miraculous ways. They were fed manna from heaven and given water from the rock.6 When they actually grew tired of and complained of miraculous bread from heaven, they were provided an overabundance of meat.7

God could have brought His children to the promised land by a much more direct route, but instead led them the forty-year scenic path through the wilderness. Why? Because they needed that time in the wilderness. The shortest route to the promised land would have taken them through the land of the Philistines, and had the people immediately been asked to wage war, they might have lost heart and fled back to the slavery of Egypt.8 The route through the desert didn’t preserve Israel from hardship, or even from battle — they met their share of both. But their time in the desert was a period when Israel could see more clearly what was true of them at all times — that God Himself always, unfailingly, provided for their every need. Cut off from ordinary sources of necessities like food and water, they could more clearly see God’s providence for them when He provided these miraculously — and so learn to trust in Him.

The Israelites take a long time to learn this lesson; their appeals for their needs are not the confident requests of a child who knows his father will provide, but the grumbling of a people about to revolt against a tyrannical leader. They are continually tempted to doubt that God has their best interests at heart — a fact which only makes it clearer to the reader of Exodus that trust is, in fact, a central lesson of Israel’s desert sojourn.

Human nature doesn’t change, so we face the same temptation today. But perhaps the example of Israel and the wisdom of the saints can help us to be quicker learners. We are cut off from our ordinary means of spiritual sustenance, but not from God’s ability to provide. The God who can bring water from a rock and manna from heaven can provide ways of sustaining us spiritually while we wait for the gift of personally participating in the liturgy to return.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux was convinced that she could become a great saint in spite of her littleness and imperfections because “God cannot inspire unrealizable desires.”9 This does not mean that wanting to attend Mass right now will reopen my parish church; God does not fulfill our every desire in the exact manner and on the exact timetable that we would envision. But He also does not inspire holy desires and leave them unfulfilled, or permit real spiritual needs that cannot be quenched. If we long for God, He will come to meet us. He has met His children in the desert, in prisons, in the lion’s den, and in the belly of the whale. When we cannot come to Him, He comes to us, often in ways that are surprising and unexpected.

The Father who always provides for His children has given us one vessel for receiving the love He longs to lavish upon us: trust. Jesus told St. Faustina: “The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is — trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.”10 To fit ourselves to receive God’s good gifts, we have only to trust that He wills our good. Trust is a resource that is available to us no matter who we are, no matter where we are, and no matter what our circumstances.

In fact, Thérèse and Faustina remind us that the greater the need, the greater our claim to divine mercy. As water rushes to the lowest place, God’s mercy seeks out the most hardened of sinners, the weakest of imperfect disciples, and the faithful in the direst of circumstances.11 He gives lavishly not because we are good, but because He is good, and because we so desperately need His goodness. It is not strength that attracts His merciful love, but weakness. Therefore, the great need of our time, far from making His mercy less readily available, rather gives us an even greater claim on our Father’s supernatural help.

Our omnipotent Lord limits His mercy, not by the constraints of our circumstances, but by only one thing: the size of our trust. Jesus told St. Faustina: “I am making Myself dependent upon your trust: if your trust is great, then My generosity will be without limit.”12 It is not that God could not work miracles without us — the Israelites complained that they were dying in the desert, with “nothing to look forward to but this manna,” and God granted their request for meat anyway.13 But God so desires our humble confidence and freely given love that He chooses to limit Himself to the space that we’ve allowed for Him. Jesus worked few miracles in Nazareth because of their lack of faith.14 The Israelites got meat, but meat in such abundance that it would become noxious to them, to teach them gratitude.15 How much greater might they have received if they had learned their lesson of trust sooner?

I think we have been led into the desert for the same reason that the Israelites were — to be taught to worship God more perfectly through an increase of our trust. It may seem strange to think of trust as worship; after all, worship is what we offer to God, while trust is concerned with what He provides for us. But do we not worship God best when we offer to Him what He most wants? And such is the generosity of our Father that what He most wants is not that we do something great for Him, but that we give Him the space to do great things for us. St. Thérèse offered herself as a victim to the Lord’s merciful love in order that all the “disdained Love” which others had rejected would not “remain closed up within [His] Heart.”16 Jesus told St. Faustina, “I desire to bestow My graces upon souls, but they do not want to accept them. You, at least, come to Me as often as possible and take these graces they do not want to accept. In this way you will console My Heart.”17 Nothing consoles the Heart of Jesus like letting Him lavish His mercy and love upon us, with confident, childlike trust.

Trust, then, is worship in the broader sense of anything good and pleasing offered to God. It is also at the soul of true worship in the more specific and traditional sense — an interior disposition that fits us for a worthy celebration of the liturgy. We can’t pray better than the Mass, but we can pray a better Mass, with more purified hearts. The place of true worship is no longer the promised land, but “in spirit and in truth.”18 God is deeply concerned with the interior of our souls. Our own desert period can teach us to rely more completely and confidently on our Father, expanding our hearts with a greater capacity to drink of His mercies in extraordinary ways now, and still more fully later, when liturgical participation becomes open to us again.

When the pandemic began, we were journeying through Lent, a period which has often been compared to a time of spiritual desert. Many noted that the sacrifice and hardship that the pandemic occasioned meshed well with this desert-season, and perhaps helped us to embrace its penitential and austere spirit. Now, though, we find ourselves in the midst of the joyous season of Easter, which, liturgically, is the polar opposite of a desert. It is a season that bursts with life and abundance; a time when we typically gather, indulge, and rejoice. Yet our coronavirus desert stretches on, and suddenly seems at dissonance with the tone of our liturgical season. Can we possibly experience the joy and abundance of Easter without personally participating in the liturgy? We can, for Easter is also a season overflowing with the torrent of divine mercy. We have only to trust confidently and joyfully in the will of our merciful, risen Lord to break through the confines of our present circumstances and provide a spring of water in the desert, welling up to eternal life.19 Wherever we are this Eastertide, we can trust that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”20

  1. Ex 7:16.
  2. Ex 10:26.
  3. My reflections here are drawn from the analysis of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2008), 15–18.
  4. Lumen Gentium 10, 11.
  5. E.g., Ex 14:11.
  6. Ex 16–17.
  7. Num 11:5–20.
  8. Ex 13:17–18.
  9. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, OCD, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996), 207.
  10. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge: Marian Press, 1987), 1578.
  11. I am grateful for this image to Fr. Michael Gaitley, 33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-it-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy (Stockbridge: Marian Press, 2017), 53.
  12. Diary 548.
  13. Num 11:5-6.
  14. Mt 13:58.
  15. Num 11:18-20.
  16. Story of a Soul, 180–81.
  17. Diary 367.
  18. Jn 4:23.
  19. Jn 4:14.
  20. Is 35:6–7.
Dr. Katie Froula About Dr. Katie Froula

Katie Froula received her doctorate in systematic theology from Ave Maria University. She currently resides in Menlo Park, California, with her husband Jeff and three sons.