I used to sleep well. So well, in fact, that I could enjoy an espresso after dinner and still nod off the moment I went to bed. I loved the rest; I loved the dreams. Going to sleep at night was a pleasurable experience.
That hasn’t happened for a long time.
This year, for the first time in my life, my doctor gave me a prescription for sleeping pills, because I felt that if I had to endure even just one more panic-filled night, I’d go quite mad.
It’s not an abnormal reaction to the year we’ve all been living. Sleeplessness is one of many disorders on the rise, and it’s easy to see why. The novel coronavirus has brought a degree of anxiety into the world matched only by other pandemics—or wars. We’re fearful on so many levels as the losses mount up: the loss of friends and family to a death we cannot properly process or even grieve, the loss of income, the loss of security, the loss of homes and livelihoods… We know that more and more children are going to bed hungry, that whole families have nowhere to live, that the death toll is mounting at an ever-increasing rate.
It’s not just not being able to sleep, either. Others are experiencing depression, anxiety disorders, hypervigilance. We’re afraid because of a sense of the world being totally out of control, the wildness and irrationality seeping into every aspect of our lives.
My academic work was primarily in religious history, and to some extent I draw comfort from knowing we’re not the first to experience these levels of anxiety and despair. The Hebrew Bible is filled with lamentations as generation after generation cried out to God. Wars. Slavery. Pandemics. Injustice. Why, why, why? I read the books of the prophets and they could well be speaking to our times.
And then we turn the page and open to the New Testament, and everything changes.
A child is born into poverty, his family forced to migrate into a foreign land. He grows up in relative obscurity, is mocked and despised, dies an agonizing death. This doesn’t sound like what anyone would call a successful life, does it? Yet that child became the savior of the world. Everything about Christianity turns past assumptions on their head.
The powerful? They count as nothing. The religious zealots? They are hypocrites. The riches of the world? They are as valuable as dust.
And the assumption that God is distant, unheeding, is gone forever as he gives his beloved son to save humanity from its own stupidity, folly, selfishness. The assumption that God is distant and unheeding is gone forever in the gift of the Holy Spirit, given so we need never again be alone. The assumption that God is distant and unheeding is gone forever in the promise of eternal union with him.
God is here, now, and will not abandon us, no matter how difficult our journey home to him might become. “Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?” asks Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. “Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Do not be afraid. Words that cut through the pain of our present reality. Words that weave themselves into our troubled dreams. Words that echo in our hearts. Do not be afraid. God is with us. We are not in this terrible moment alone, no matter how isolated from others we may feel, because God is with us. God cares. God knows us and loves us and will never leave us.
And that changes everything.
We don’t know why our lives, our world, must be so painful and difficult now, but they are the lives and the world we have been called to live in. To journey through. To endure.
But we’re not in them alone. The promise is there, as new and fresh as when it was first made; the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the promise. God is with us.
Years ago a monk in a Vermont priory set the words of a collection of Scripture verses to music. This pandemic year, Catholic musicians gathered virtually to sing it again, and I invite you to listen to them today. And tomorrow. And for as many tomorrows as we need to remind ourselves… that everything has changed.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.