Lots of inspiring things happen inside churches. One of the most inspiring that I’ve witnessed was the renewal of vows by the Benedictine sisters living at St. Bede’s in Eau Claire, where I was their chaplain for seven years. Each year on the feast of St. Benedict, July 11, the jubilarian sisters celebrating 25 or 50 years of professed life would come forward to the altar. There, they would kneel with their arms stretched out wide, side to side. Then they would chant: “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my hope” (Psalm 119:116).
I was so moved at this time of recommitment there was no muscular resolve to keep going by their own strength. Rather, they asked for the only thing that could sustain them to sustain them: the hand of God.
In them I saw utter humility, trust and vulnerability. Their posture was one of unrestrained offering—try striking that pose yourself and feel it. Their words were at once both confident and vulnerable, showing both the remembrance of God’s life-giving promises, and the honest fear that they could be disappointed. That’s why we call it faith.
Those are two things, confidence and vulnerability, are so needed for our times. Clearly we are vulnerable. Any sense that we might have had before March 2020 that we are in control of our world has been shattered. As infection rates climb and we discern things like how safe is it to come to church or how safely we can educate our children in our classroom, we feel vulnerable.
What of confidence? In the midst of such uncertainty, is there anything certain to which we can cling? Are we aware of God’s promises? What are they? It seems to me that the main promise God makes in the Old Testament is that he will not leave us; I will be your God, and you will be my people. In the New Testament, this presence continues but intensifies. Jesus’ promise is unprecedented. To paraphrase, “If you believe in me, you will never die, and I will raise you up on the last day” (John 6:54; John 11:26).
Of course we know that people die, of the corona-virus and many other causes. And yet, we the Baptized believe that we don’t die—our lives have been joined to Christ who died and rose, and so within us we have the Spirit of Christ who has conquered death, and is Risen and Eternal. On our best days at least, we can live from the strength of our Risen identity, knowing we are here not to fearfully secure our lives but to generously give them away. Our security is in God who never leaves us. The eternal life of God within us is the one certain thing to which we can cling. Our response is to love one another; God takes care of the rest.
Today, throughout the world, loving one another means taking care to not harm each other and taking precautions so to keep the virus from spreading. Earthly life isn’t our ultimate value, but it’s a pretty big one! Loving one another also means praying for each other and supporting each other however we can—a phone call, a note, financial and moral support. As it says in the funeral rite, “One day, the love of Christ, which conquers all things will destroy even death itself.” Truly, one day all this difficulty will be over and we will look back and appreciate all those who kept hope alive and sustained our faith.
I pray that these difficult days of separation do not diminish your faith or your felt connection to God and to one another. There is truly a lot we are missing now. I miss casual affectionate touch. I miss joyful celebrations in a full church. Truly the most joyful part of my priesthood is gone now, temporarily. And I know there is a lot you miss, too. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, you might consider getting on your knees and chanting, “Sustain me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my hope.”