When I was seven or eight, I came down with whooping cough, a common childhood disease of the day. My mom treated me at home, using her usual remedies of hot buttered rum, mustard plasters and Vick’s Vapo-Rub under the nose. Isolated from friends, I remember telling her, “Mom, I’m alone.”  With a smile, she replied, “No, you’re lonely. Offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory. They need our help.”

My mom was anything but a theologian but her Irish-Canadian upbringing molded her instinctively to connect to “the Communion of Saints,” perhaps the least understood tenet in the Apostles’ Creed.  Especially in these uncertain times, it’s wonderful to remember that we are all in this together, living and dead.

In her essay “The Discipline of Solitude,” Christian writer Ruth Haley Barton called solitude “a time to build…a retreat…in order to come back to community.” [1] Or as the French expression has it, “reculer pour mieux sauter.”[2] A worthy goal….but our distancing does not require that we wait to come back to community.

Many of us are practicing “social distancing” in order to do our part in facing this health emergency.  However,  practicing social distancing does not mean that we are communally distant.  What follows are a few suggestions on how we can enhance the bonds of community while at the same time delaying the moment when we and our fellow Canadians proceed to the next stage of the Communion of Saints!

Apostleship of Prayer       To be an apostle means to go out and spread the good news. Even though in many dioceses, for the time being, we cannot attend Mass we can still unite with our fellow believers through prayer. A recommended mode is the “Liturgy of the Hours,” which follows the monastic tradition of prayer periods throughout the day. I find it very consoling when I recognize that the prayer in which I am now engaged is being done this day all over the globe. A good source is  which originates in the Vancouver archdiocese.

nother excellent daily observation is the Examen. Those familiar with the Spiritual Exercises will recognize this daily invitation to ponder how God has been active in our lives and how we have responded to God’s grace. A pertinent twist on this for these times might be to ponder how I have responded to the needs of others in the community. Here is a good guide for doing the Examen  .

In the Winnipeg archdiocese, all public masses have been suspended.  Archbishop Richard Gagnon has recommended that, since we cannot receive the Blessed Sacrament during these times, we instead make “An Act of Spiritual Communion.” Here’s a version…

Apostleship of Fasting   Though usually associated with giving up food, fasting also has a communal aspect to it. The faster gives up distractions, simple pleasures and the like in order to become more attentive to what is truly real and what truly matters. Being more confined with immediate family members might tempt us to “get on one another’s nerves” but it can also be an opportunity to encounter one another more deeply, to appreciate more fully, to forgive and to be forgiven. While no doubt many people are bingeing on NETFLIX or finally getting around to reading War and Peace, resisting the temptation to withdraw into a fantasy world and instead becoming more fully engaged with those whom we love can reprioritize our values. And phone calls (or video calls) to those more isolated than we are can be part of this “fast.”

Apostleship of Giving    Many of our politicians seem to be focused on the economic consequences of the epidemic and, of course, that is an important aspect of the problem we face. Perhaps we can take what we might ordinarily spend on triple caramel lattes or that spring break vacation and donate that money to charities, especially to ones who focus on the least powerful among us, such as the homeless. We could also remember that although masses have been cancelled, our parish’s expenses still go on.  And, once we are reassured that our food supply chains are solid, we might take those cases of canned kale and boxes of dried chickpeas and pasta to local food banks.

Keeping the bonds of community even when we cannot gather together will do much for our equanimity and our sanity during this trying time. Keeping our solidarity will help us bounce back once that now famous curve has been flattened.


[1] Ruth Haley Barton, “The Discipline of Solitude,” Christianity Today, September 19, 2008.

[2] “Take a step back in order to jump farther.”

Johnston Smith is a retired teacher and an active spiritual director in Winnipeg.

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 08:56h, 03 April Reply

    Thank you for the deeply grounded perspective and fine advice.

  • Peter Bisson SJ
    Posted at 09:02h, 03 April Reply

    Thank you Johnston!

  • Peggy Spencer
    Posted at 04:39h, 04 April Reply

    Excellent food for thought – and practice.

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