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Finding God's providence in the midst of a pandemic

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for well over a month. And every time I hesitate, I have new material to add. So I’d better post it now before it gets too long for anyone to read.

Four months ago, when I announced to my immediate family my plans to quit my job, study Spanish in Mexico, and then go on a long pilgrimage in Europe, I was met with some concerns.

The concerns about the Spanish course were largely due to the public perception in the United States of how relatively unsafe Mexico is. Those concerns would not have been unjustified if I were traveling to Sinaloa or Guerrero. However, I reminded my family that, according to our own U.S. State Department, Mexico City was no more or less safe than most of Western Europe.

The bigger concern was that, although I had a starting point and and a destination for my pilgrimage, I hadn’t really filled in any of the details in between. They had somehow though I’d already have two-and-a-half months of AirBnb or hotel reservations made. My response was that, as much as possible, I’d be traveling as a pilgrim. I’d be prepared for the most common eventualities — I was a Boy Scout, after all — but ultimately I’d put myself in God’s hands. My plan was to put one foot in front of the other, and if He wills it, through His providence, I’d arrive in Santiago de Compostella ten to twelve weeks later.

I don’t think any of them were quite prepared for that response. Even my wife Kathryn, who knew well my intentions, didn’t seem ready to hear me say them out loud. It was a sort of profession of faith, the kind of which I rarely make at all, much less to such an audience.

As I returned from Mexico and started getting prepared for the next phase of my travels, I was of course aware of the epidemic that was spreading across the globe. In a sense, it made me feel somewhat lucky, if you can believe it. After all, here I was, all ready to spend two to three months largely isolated from others, at a time when the best prevention was to isolate oneself from others. I booked a flight to Paris and started investigating my options for getting to the starting point.

Rare opportunity to prepare for rain in Arizona.

Rare opportunity to prepare for rain in Arizona.

I remained cautiously optimistic as the media started to use the word pandemic and the virus started to spread rapidly through Europe. When France announced its first lockdown, it was scheduled to end the day I was scheduled to arrive. What luck, I thought. I might arrive on a day of celebration!

Rather suddenly, my plans seemed to turn to shit all at once. I learned that the French confinement, which at first was thought likely to be shortened, was extended. It wasn’t but a few hours later I learned my flight to Paris had been canceled outright.

I’ll admit, my spirits were a bit strained by this turn of events. In my last post, I mentioned feeling directionless for a few weeks. It was like being on a ship without a rudder.

Then, I started imagining how much worse it could have turned out. While in Mexico City, I spent some time talking with a Canadian man who’d spent some time on the Camino de Santiago. Given the route I was considering and the length of time I’d be on the trail, he suggested leaving several weeks earlier. It was something I’d seriously considered. After much reflection, I eventually decided I needed the extra time to prepare myself mentally, physically, and spiritually for the pilgrimage. Moreover, one of the original reasons I chose the starting date is so I could be home with Kathryn during Holy Week.

If I had followed the well-intentioned suggestion of my schoolmate, I’d have found myself in France in the middle of a complete mess. In the best case, I would have had to fly home from Europe on very short notice before the lockdown took effect. In a worse case, I would have had to find some strangers generous enough to allow me to shelter-in-place with them for what turned out to be more than seven weeks. Yikes! By comparison, the misfortune of being stuck in Phoenix seemed rather providential.

Moreover, being here in Phoenix during this time of pandemic ended up enriching me spiritually, in a way I could not have previously imagined.

About a week after public liturgy was suspended here in Phoenix due the pandemic, I received a text message from a priest at my parish church. The text went out to a small number of adult altar servers, asking whether any of us would be willing to serve in a rotation for the private Masses that would be celebrated and live-streamed during the suspension. I volunteered and became part of a group of about five laymen who, along with two seminarians who had been sent to parishes after the seminary was closed, took on all the altar serving duties for the next several weeks, including Holy Week.

Requiem Mass. (Photo: Kathryn Gilman.)

Requiem Mass. (Photo: Kathryn Gilman.)

Just being allowed to be in church and to receive Holy Communion so often during this challenging time was itself quite a blessing. However, I also ended up having several firsts as an altar server. Although I can’t say I had any idea what I was doing, I served at a Sung Mass for the first time. And I also served for the first time at a Requiem Mass, a Mass for the dead. Serving at the Requiem Mass was particularly special, as it was celebrated for the repose of the soul of Kathryn’s father.

Which leads me to the last bit of providence.

If I hadn’t been forced to postpone my pilgrimage because of COVID-19, I would’ve had to postpone it anyway due to the passing away of my father-in-law on Good Friday, during Holy Week. Easter Monday, the day I was supposed to fly to Paris alone, I instead flew to Boston with Kathryn. And while the stress of traveling to Massachusetts during the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t insignificant, the strain of trying to reschedule flights around a planned trip to Europe would have been much worse. Even more so if the trip had already been in progress.

Back in January, around the same time I was telling my family about my plans for the year, I had a separate conversation with a friend about making plans for the future. I told him that if you make plans that are too detailed, God sometimes has a funny way of reminding you who’s in charge.

Although 2020 hasn’t so far turned out quite like I’d planned, I’m happy to appreciate the many blessings that have come my way this year and accept that it may have been God’s will for me not to be in Europe right now. In the meantime, I’ll maintain my readiness and be prepared to go on His schedule.