As a missionary to Russia, Fr. Walter Ciszek was stationed at a parish where he could routinely study, pray and offer the sacraments to the Russian people. But everything changed when he was taken completely out of his routine: He was captured, imprisoned by the atheistic Communist government and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in a Soviet work camp for being a priest. How could he remain faithful in these terrible conditions?
Religious practices were essentially forbidden. His food was measured to the gram, and he ate just enough to survive. The Siberian temperatures reached 40 degrees below zero. He worked long hours of heavy labor. Many men died of exhaustion. Some were beaten to death, either by the guards or by other prisoners. Morality wasn’t even considered. Everyone focused on their own survival and little else.
Yet Fr. Ciszek began to seek out God’s will even in this situation, which was so different from his normal parish ministry. He thought, “This is the situation, these are the people … that form the will of God for me today.”1 He came to understand that — even here, in this place — God had a plan for him. A mission.
He turned to God in constant prayer. He learned to rely on the Eucharist, saying Mass with smuggled bread and wine. Though he was already starving, he would occasionally skip meals to keep the fast before communion. Hidden at the work site, in a trench or in the forest, while pretending to play cards or sitting in a hospital room, he offered Mass.
Other men began to join him. They became his new flock. He said, “I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.”2 Even with no access to books, Fr. Ciszek memorized portions of Ignatius’s spiritual exercises. He shared these meditations with others, offering hidden “retreats.” He even began to strategize with other imprisoned priests on how to serve their “parish,” knowing that at any moment they could be caught and put to death for preaching the Gospel.
Fr. Ciszek’s regular spiritual practices were thrown into complete chaos during his imprisonment, yet he still found a way not only to remain faithful but to continue to grow and evangelize. In the present state of quarantines, why can’t we do the same?
As Christians we believe the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving Creator of the universe is in control of each and every moment of history. He is with us! He is in control! And perhaps more importantly, He only allows evil to take place if it brings about a greater good! Thus, the question becomes this: Will you look for the good of your present circumstance? Do you have the fortitude to look for holiness in the midst of the quarantine?
Fr. Ciszek gives us a great example of how to respond. Despite a radical change of location, community and routine, he carved out space within his day for prayer, Mass, fellowship and mission with his fellow prisoners. He even tried to sharpen his mind with the few smuggled books that were available.
You need to take similar steps for your own quarantine. Your regular routines of prayer and sacraments may have been disrupted. In fact, you likely cannot attend Mass at all during the quarantines. But here’s what you can do: You can treat this time of quarantine as a time of mission. You can continue to grow in virtue, holiness and evangelization throughout the quarantine!
It’s not enough to be faithful during the quarantine. We must be fruitful. As Fr. Ciszek’s heroic example reminds us, there is never a break in missionary discipleship. We are always on mission, no matter where we are, what season we’re in or what trials we face. St. Paul makes a similar point: “I charge you in the presence of God … preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
This truth leads to an important personal question we all must face: Is evangelization something we do merely because we are part of a group on campus, or is it something that flows from our very identity in Jesus Christ — something comes from a deep love for Christ and for souls?
Times like these reveal our true motives. Why are we sharing our faith, leading Bible studies, doing outreach on campus? Are we doing this for Jesus? Or are we doing it because everyone else around us is doing it, and it’s fun? Would I still be faithful and living mission like Fr. Ciszek did when he was taken out of his supportive Catholic community, which made it easy to deepen and share one’s faith?
COVID-19 is a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge insofar as it presents unprecedented difficulties to community living and incarnational evangelization. It’s an opportunity insofar as it presents new space for growth in the interior life and evangelical creativity. In both cases, intentionality is critical. We must be intentional and plan our time. Without intentionality, our mission will falter, and we will put ourselves in near occasions of sin. With planning, we will flourish!
I encourage you to get hyper-intentional, plan your time and make the most of the quarantine! As a practical suggestion, work through the following steps each week:
Pick a calendar: Those who do not use a calendar during this time are setting themselves up for failure. This tool is absolutely necessary.
- An option to fill out each day (digital or written) is ideal: Outlook, Gmail, Michael Hyatt’s Full FOCUS Planner, Monk Manual, etc.
Weekly Planning: Planning is not a one-time thing. It must be done regularly.
- Schedule a time (start with an hour) to plan your week.
- Identify the top three goals that you want to accomplish during the week.
Make an Ideal Week: Humans are ritualistic beings, so set your “rituals” that should happen each week. Set the “big rocks” (most important things) in your schedule each day that don’t usually change.
- What time will you go to bed and wake up? This is critical. Set a morning and evening routine.
- When will you pray?
- Other critical items: exercise, personal reading, discipleship, Bible studies, etc. These items should be a part of every weekly plan!
- Accountability: How are you going to avoid sin during this time? If you struggle with any habitual sins, what concrete and practical steps will you take this week to get accountability?
Fill in the Rest: St. Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore, the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.” Satan works in idleness, so protect yourself by planning both your work and your recreation!
- When will you accomplish your top three goals for the week?
- Don’t leave things to chance! Plan things like Bible study preparation, holy leisure, rest, calling friends, etc. Put it all in the calendar!
Repeat and Review: Take advantage of this time to hone your planning skills. Get better each week. Planning is a skill which will benefit you during your entire professional life!
- Review your weekly plan.
- Did you accomplish your top three goals?
- How well did you stick to your routines (morning, bedtime, ideal week)?
- What do you want to change for next week?
Planning is utterly critical for success during quarantine. Intentionality is key. Whether you take these steps to heart or ignore them, I encourage you to be intentional during this time.
As a parting exhortation, I was consoled that St. Joseph’s Feast Day fell in the midst of the rising hysteria. St. Joseph is “Guardian of the Mystery” — that is, the mystery of the Incarnation who lived in his home. Joseph guarded his family with a deep silence. His quiet strength and hard-working disposition were the silent soil in which the Divine Word took root.
Let’s be like St. Joseph. Let’s contrast the world’s hysteria with our peace, making our own homes places of calm, confident contemplation. Given the current hysteria and quarantines, I suspect there has never been a time presenting greater need and opportunity for silence. Let’s encounter the mystery under our roofs.