Physical Presence Matters: Wherever You Are — Be There

COMMENTARY: COVID-19 challenges Americans to embrace (their own and God’s) real presence.

(photo: Unsplash)

The windshield wipers were squeaking, and I reached out my hand to clear the fog that had formed on the interior of the front windshield. With our five kids all clustered behind us, we squinted through the blinding snow, struggling for a glimpse of our pastor’s gold vestments.

The Gloria in excelsis Deo! streamed through the car’s speakers, but the broadcast was nearly a full minute behind the actual Mass. It hardly mattered. The flakes were falling so thickly that our pastor could have broken into a dance routine without us really noticing.

Easter blizzards aren’t unheard-of in Minnesota, but Easter parking-lot Masses are definitely new. This one was altogether a strange experience. Our parish has always gone the extra mile to celebrate Mass with beauty and reverence. Now, on Easter Sunday, we sat in the church parking lot, squinting through a dirty windshield at a Mass taking place in the snow, under a simple white canopy. Aesthetically, this fell far short of our parish’s usual standard. Nevertheless, I felt deep gratitude and joy. We were here. Jesus was here. Alleluia.


Old Is the New New

As our nation and world are turned upside down by the coronavirus (COVID-19), we find ourselves more and more frequently in these strange situations. We are suddenly forced to do without things we took entirely for granted: library story times, Little League games, potluck parish dinners. Meanwhile, we may find ourselves blessed with some unexpected gifts.

My own children will probably remember this as the time when a much-loved aunt (a civil servant based in Washington, D.C.) came for an extended visit, during which she packed picnics for them and gave them drawing lessons. Without the coronavirus, it’s unlikely they would ever have gotten to enjoy her company for so long.

We’ve gotten a little taste in recent weeks of what life might have been like before society was transformed by planes, trains and automobiles. As in days of yore, leisure time has mostly become family time, and a visit from a priest has become a red-letter occasion.

In my household, the alarm clocks have been collecting dust, while the back porch collects mud. Homemade cookies are materializing like never before, but Mass has become an anticipated treat.

These experiences may lead us to deeper reflections on the importance of place and presence. When is it truly important to see people face-to-face? What do we gain from the physical presence of our fellow men?

Even after the most severe danger of COVID-19 has passed, we may find that these reflections have continued relevance. Social-distancing restrictions may continue in some form for months or years to come, and even if an effective cure is eventually found, the world will still have changed. Some changes will be grim, but others may be instrumental in rejuvenating our culture.

Looking back at this point in history, the 2020s may stand out as the decade when people gained unprecedented freedom to decide: Where do I want to be? Where do I want my family to be?


Stay-at-Home, USA

Over the past few months, Americans have been forced to re-embrace their time-honored love of self-reliance. People have learned how to bake bread, repair appliances and clothing, and cut each other’s hair. We’ve embarked on new home-improvement projects, and learned which seedlings can withstand a hard frost. Even as we’re learning to cook and garden, though, we’ve also been exploring new forms of telecommunication. Teleworking, telemedicine and online education have all advanced in leaps and bounds, such that I don’t anticipate ever again bringing a child with pink eye into a doctor’s waiting room.

Almost overnight, Americans are working from home in huge numbers. We’ve long had the technology to make this possible, but the traditional office setup has remained prevalent, probably because it was familiar and convenient for many employers. Now, though, that inertia has been broken. Wouldn’t it be interesting if coronavirus turned out to be the bug that finally sent cubicle culture to the grave?

This could be the beginning of a major transformation in American life, especially if concerns about disease transmission continue for some years into the future. For decades now, we’ve taken it for granted that professionals of various stripes should be prepared to relocate, as necessary, to follow their jobs. That arrangement has worked out very well for real estate developers in New York City or Washington, D.C., but for society at large, there are serious costs. Small towns decline when the jobs, resources and young people all gravitate to bigger cities.

Extended families can’t easily support one another when they are scattered across the country. It’s very difficult for communities to retain their traditions and character when the people just don’t stay put for long. We seem to have created a society in which people must regularly choose between pursuing professional success and putting down roots. In consequence, we increasingly find that our wealthiest and most influential citizens are also rootless, childless and disconnected from the rest of American life.


Alternate Roots

Many people have recognized that this rootlessness is a problem, but it’s difficult to knit society back together when so many are forced to grapple with stark choices. Should I develop my natural talents in ways that serve the common good, or should I stay close to my people, in my hometown? Should I marry and raise a family, or excel in my career? Should I aim to be a respected and accomplished member of a broader community, or should I focus on being a caretaker? Life will always involve some trade-offs, but for us the incentives seem particularly perverse. We urgently need to find new ways to narrow the gulf between the great and the good, helping people to form and honor commitments to family and home.

This brings us back to the critical question. Where do we want to be? It is unfortunate that, for many of us at least, it took a deadly virus to force us to ponder the matter seriously. Sometimes it may be easier not to choose. Families, parishes and hometowns all come with their own baggage, and it can be liberating to escape that, with the plausible excuse of needing to follow a job. If COVID-19 changes that reality, we may need some new explanations for why we can’t make it to Grandma’s Sunday dinners. Or we may just have to go. For some of us, the changes of the past several weeks may represent our first steps on the path to a more rooted and traditional way of life.


Be There

Changes of this magnitude can be intimidating, even if we’ve long believed that we wanted a more settled life. As Catholics, though, we should easily grasp the value of what we stand to gain. We know that physical presence matters. Christ has told us that our treasure tends to be where our heart is, and though we often read that passage metaphorically, it can be read literally also.

Physical presence matters. When we choose to be close to our kith and kin, the bonds of love between us can be strengthened. When our Catholic communities gather together in God’s name, we can grow in virtue and love. It’s not foolish to sit in a parking lot in a blizzard, squinting through blinding snow. If Jesus is there, we should want to be there, too.

Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of five, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.