I want to offer a brief reflection today that draws some connections between Lent and the relative quarantine in which we find ourselves. I say ‘relative’ because the State of Kansas/Sedgwick county stay-at-home orders currently in place do allow us quite a bit of freedom, albeit with strict suggestions on socializing, the size of gatherings, and what the essential functions and institutions are in commerce, infrastructure, and society.
While the novel coronavirus may be a novel experience for us, as the first pestilence on a pandemic scale that we’ve personally experienced so up close, history is full of pandemics that require prolonged quarantining. Nonetheless, the timing of this particular outbreak is a coincidence that many Christians have noted.
In short, we have found ourselves during this lock-down squarely in the period of fasting and preparation known as Lent. Lent is a period of detachment from the world. It is a time when people are called to loosen their attachments to the small pleasures and habits which can, over time, weaken the soul and atrophy its ability to endure the labors of virtue: self-sacrifice, humility, patience, acts of love, and works of mercy.
Lent is much like an exercise regime for the soul; it’s not permanent, but it is meant to instill certain qualities that will hopefully carry over into normal life afterward, and keep the habits of virtue in place for when they are needed. At a deeper level, Lent is a preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of Christ, Pascha. This is its fundamental orientation.
The parallels between quarantine and Lent may have occurred to you, but let’s explore them, starting with some etymology.
Lent lasts, as we said above, for 40 days. The word for “forty” in Italian is quaranta. (Do you see where I’m going?) The English word “quarantine” comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni, which means ‘forty days.’ This was the period of time that a ship coming into Venice in the middle ages was required to moor away from port as a precaution against the plague.
As P. Manoussakis goes on to say here, this period of forty days of nautical quarantine got its name and number from the Lenten period of the same duration. I recommend that you read Manoussakis’ article itself for a more thorough discussion than I could provide. He points out that, in Latin, Lent is known as Quadragesima, again implying the 40-day period.
On a deep level, there is more to the overlap of the outbreak and Lent this year than a coincidence of timing, or a linguistic connection. For Christians, the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t help but seem both especially inconvenient and surreal, and at the same time strangely appropriate. If people are open to understanding its significance in their own lives in this way, the pandemic can be seen as a sort of global Lent: a time when almsgiving and helping those in need increases; a time when deprivation and enduring life with less material satisfaction becomes the norm; a time when we put aside our own usual habits of self-centeredness and come to reflect on the importance and impact of our connection and relationship with others.
At the same time, there are significant differences between Lent and the COVID-19 pandemic. Novel coronavirus and responses to it are having a serious global impact resulting in economic downturn, physical suffering, and loss of life. I am not breezing over the messy reality in the name of drawing a merely individual moral or spiritual lesson. For we must also see this pandemic as the sort of time for which periods of fasting, charity, and almsgiving like Lent strengthen us. These are times when virtue is demanded of us in critical forms: bravery in face of fear, faith amidst panic and doubt, and heroic selflessness.
These parallels and differences are manifest, in order for us to observe and consider them. I encourage you to draw your own reflections on their significance in your life. Each person is called to take account for themselves how they will put to good use the challenges that present themselves in life. Each person has the inalienable freedom to decide how they will apply a deeper commitment and return (metanoia) to what is essential in their own situation, and what this looks like in practice in their own life, according to ability. If this is done in consultation and conversation with trusted mentors, friends, and clergy, all the better.
Easier said than done, of course. But the fact remains: every single struggle, large or small, can lead to perseverance, and character, and hope, and love “by the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us,” as St Paul teaches in our verse for the year from Romans. God by His grace opens us to being transformed through hardships, if we let Him. And we can do so together. (David Brooks gives some examples here).
In closing, let’s remember Gandalf’s words in the Lord of the Rings to Frodo, which relate so powerfully to this time of the church year and this moment in history:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”