As I walked through the busy Stuff-Mart, I felt an increasing sense of isolation and the faint stirrings of panic. It had been only two weeks since the governor’s mask mandate was ordered and I was not adapting well. My husband chatted with me while we shopped but his words sounded like muffled gibberish from behind his mask. After asking him three times to repeat himself and failing each time to understand, I gave up and, irritated, turned my attention back to the vegetables.
Living with mild hearing loss had never interfered with my daily life until masks. However, at this moment in the produce section, I could neither understand masked voices nor read masked lips. After a couple more rounds of “I’m sorry…can you repeat that, please?” with my husband and store employees, I gave up. My eyes began to sting, but I issued a self-rebuke…You’re not 4 years old, Melody, suck it up and work it out. So I stopped talking, retreated into my own thoughts, avoided eye contact, and resolved to stay home next time. Recognizing my struggle, my sweet husband took off his mask and we finished our shopping trip, faces bare and holding hands, conspicuous protagonists in a brave new world.
Once home, I marveled over the nuance of God’s perfect design for communication. Ordinarily, my response to not hearing well is to look at the mouth of the person speaking, and the intuitive process of connection continues uninterrupted. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. But without the ability to see the whole face, I am cut off. As frustrating as it was to not be able to hear my husband, the anxiety I felt at not being able to see him was even worse.
As masking mandates spread to schools, businesses, and churches, that anxiety returned frequently. I grieved for all those who needed more connection. I resolved to do my best to disrupt the somber coolness of isolation—to show my face as a testimony to the truth that God abides in His people, and that we bear His Sacred Image. The Enemy seeks to wipe out that image and distort created beauty until it resembles the collective misery of hell—faceless, isolated, and tormented. Especially in these times, the Christian must show forth a living contradiction to the lies of the world, and be a radiant sign of hope. What is happening even in our own churches, therefore, is a betrayal of that Gospel commission.
Recently, a woman I know was kneeling in prayer at a local parish when her pastor marched up and poked her firmly in the shoulder. He leaned in close and his anger was palpable. “Don’t you dare enter this church without your face covered!” She was shocked by the hypocrisy of his physical contact, but even more hurt by the bitterness in his voice. Her eyes brimmed with tears and her voice shook in the recounting: “This man knows me. He has shepherded me, baptized my children, and heard my private sins. He has counseled me and I have trusted him. And now he has cast me out like a pathogen.”
Incidents like this are increasingly common; some shepherds are allowing their spiritual authority to be appropriated and manipulated by political machinations. As the faithful, we are commanded to obey, fall into line, and cover our faces before the Lord and each other—or we will be expelled from the house of God and denied the Eucharist. It is inevitable that people begin to ask…Obey whom? Many are beginning to recognize that this apparent chain of authority leads only to transient oligarchs, and not to the God in whose very image we were created—the same image which is now masked and from which people recoil in anger. The finger-poking priest could not see the needs of his spiritual daughter, nor did he wish to see her face. Yet there are many of us who still imagine (and yearn for) a shepherd who will notice our silent figures kneeling in the churches and approach, not to chase us away, but to look into our grieving faces; to see Christ, and draw near.
Grievously, those who are expelled from the neighborhood retail shop may find a similar response from their own parish community…
Cover your damn face.
You are killing people.
Stay away from me!
Stay home from Mass.
Get out of this church.
Don’t come back.
The police are on their way.
In the years leading up to the bizarre events of 2020, many Catholics found renewal in the study of Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” This increased attention to the gift of our bodies resulted in healing for many families and relationships. Ironically, as we wrestle now with the ‘new normal,’ it seems that the renewal may have been only ephemera—a brief clanging cymbal—and we find ourselves again adrift in a sea of humanity that we can neither touch nor see with proper comprehension or reverence. What has happened to shake us from our fervor?
We have endured a full-year-offensive from secular authorities and an unceasing assault from the media. It has been a veritable avalanche of (mis)information and orders. Under that pressure, the Body of Christ has been divided by a confusing assortment of science, propaganda, and glaringly inconsistent appeals to virtue. One priest preaches the ‘gospel of masking’ while another preaches freedom. It is at this impasse that each of us must choose a direction. That direction must free us to love others with a radical selflessness, remain open to the Holy Spirit, and prepare us for a joyful embrace of holy death.
Prudence is a necessity when pondering personal and public health. Yet this insistence on masking the faithful in our churches is not prudence…it is recklessness. The ‘new normal’ of mandatory masks is deadly—physically, mentally, and spiritually. It foments an exaggerated terror of death in the very place where we are supposed find the consolation of eternity. It pretends that the mad dash after an illusory physical security is somehow more important than the pursuit of holiness and spiritual wellbeing. Mandatory masking intrudes upon the conscience and autonomy of the person, and it has become a pagan talisman of sorts—an unscientific and ineffective “rabbit’s foot,” held tightly in the vain hope that it might keep the virus at bay.
I recently brushed up my knowledge of the history of epidemics in America, and marveled at how little 2020 resembled any prior occasions. Had they been able to see into the future, epidemic survivors from the 19th century would have regarded 2020 as a time of exceptional public health, even despite the Wuhan virus. We have lost perspective and gratitude, and it seems that many of our spiritual fathers have allowed a disordered worldview to direct them—whether out of fear of the virus or concern over some potential temporal penalty. Instead of preaching like Saint Paul, they lecture like Nero. And there is no respite for the weary in such a house. But the Church has been here before.
In 1941, as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party began to squeeze the Catholic faithful of Germany, Father Alfred Delp preached boldly from his pulpit when so many would not. Eventually, he preached by writing out messages of hope on contraband scraps of paper smuggled out from his prison cell while he awaited execution. While he remained the visible head of his flock, he spoke thus:
It is time to awake from sleep. It is time for an awakening to begin somewhere; and it is time that someone places things again in the order that they were given by God the Lord. Moreover, now it is time for each individual to use every opportunity to guide life into this order now—and to do it with the same “unshakeability” with which the Lord will come. These days, life lacks people who can come through the final shakings—as well as through these present shakings—with the knowledge and the consciousness: those who are watching for the Lord will not be affected, in the eternal sense, even if they are hunted off the face of the earth.
The Catholics of Nazi Germany were not so different from us. The Enemy persistently tempted them, and now tempts us, with distractions—causes even. These false objectives are intended to rally us together under the banner of efficiency and helpfulness—it is, after all, for ‘the good of the people’ and for ‘public health.’ A lukewarm Church stands impotent and frightened in the presence of earthly power. It is in these times when we must return to the first Pentecost when the multitude surrounded Peter and asked: “What shall we do?” Peter answered them:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…. And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’
If anything, the unholy and unwarranted terror of this virus-with-a-high-survival-rate has unmasked us and revealed our lack of faith. However, this moment of humiliation is an opportunity for revival. Our churches are the final sanctuary for troubled souls in a fallen world. In the parish church, the joyful and the anxious come together to exhale in exclamations of praise, thanksgiving, and lamentation. It is time to breathe again together, without anxiety, before the Throne of Grace, and to reveal, without shame, the delightful imprint of the Imago Dei in our beloved faces.
Father Delp is profound again: “In the presence of God, the Absolute Ultimate, nothing counts but that which is real. Man can pass the test of the last days only without pathos, without cramps, without lies, without masks.” Serviam.