Healthy at Home: A Modern Day Ritual of Initiation

            During a time of social distancing and self-quarantine to slow the spread and transmission of the novel Coronavirus, people around the world have been instructed to remain “healthy at home.” As days turn into weeks, the ritual of mask-wearing, six-feet of separation, and repetitious hand-washing have all become habitual. Psychologists and medical experts are already warning against the trying stress that quarantine is placing on our mental health.[1] Taxing as this may be, government officials continue to implore citizens to remain “healthy at home.” As Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear states in his daily COVID19 updates, “it is our patriotic duty as Kentuckians and as Americans” to remain “healthy at home.”[2] This tension between healthy and unhealthy at home follows the model of many initiation rituals. “Initiation was always,” writes Richard Rohr, “an experience of the tension and harmony of opposites: of loss and renewal, darkness and light, the cycle of seasons, death and resurrection, yin and yang, the paschal mystery.”[3] In what follows, I will attempt to examine the sacraments of initiation and draw parallels to our present-day situation with Coronavirus.

The Sacraments of Initiation

            A ritual of initiation is an attempt to symbolically articulate a transformation from an old way of life to a new way of living.[4] Through a set of practices, an individual affirms a particular set of values and joins in communion with others.[5] These practices could take place over several days or weeks and were intended for an individual to bear the responsibilities of the greater community.[6] By creating a set ritual of initiation, “the individual and the society at large,” established a practice that validated their norms and beliefs.[7] Completing the ritual allowed the individual to assume a new role in society.[8] The goal of an initiation practice was to stand as a sign of one’s commitment to a larger collective and leave an undeniable mark.[9]

            In many cultures, water became a natural symbol that marked one’s ritual initiation.[10] The cleansing properties of water offered a clear depiction of washing away the past.[11] The refreshing properties of water offered reassurance that thirst for renewed energy would be quenched.[12]  Water offers the perfect witness to the balance between death and life. Too little water desiccates the promise of life. Too much water drowns the promise of life. The balance between death and life is the sacramental balance needed for ritual transformation. 

            For Christians, the waters of baptism “marked a dividing line between the old and the new,” becoming the symbol of this first sacrament of initiation.[13] As an initial entrance into the Church, Baptism promised unity with the “body of Christ,” creating a collective “we” with all of its members.[14] As a celebration of “God’s free and unmerited grace,” the entire Christian community becomes celebrants of the initiation, each person playing a necessary part in welcoming and supporting one another.[15] Over the centuries, the formula for the sacrament of Baptism has been practiced in various configurations; however, the use of water and an individual being welcomed into a broader community has remained constant.[16]

            Historically linked to Baptism, “Confirmation as a separate sacramental ritual… did not exist before the third century.”[17] While separated as a unique sacrament apart from the baptismal initiation in the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Confirmation retains its initiation quality.[18] When a catholic decides to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, they reaffirm the claim that was made during their Baptism.[19] Their recommitment to the community, sealed in the chrism oil, intensifies their membership to the body of Christ.[20] The spirit of God, which has been and continues to motivate the person, inspires the confirmed to mirror the loving compassion of God to everyone.[21] By accepting the missionary responsibility of the Church, the individual receives “the same Holy Spirit as the Apostles, who will ‘make [them] more like Christ and help… [them] to be witnesses to his suffering, death, and resurrection.’”[22] This unification and recommitment with Christ and the global church place Baptism and Confirmation in a “full interrelationship of the sacramental realities of Christian initiation” along with the Eucharist.[23]

            The unity of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are each vital to Christian initiation.[24] The Eucharist creates a communal bond with all who participate, affirming their commitment to one another.[25] By “taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice,” each person “manifests in a concrete way [the] unity of the people of God.”[26] Catholics understand that throughout “the life of the Church and the history of the world, there is only one Mass and one Communion.”[27] As Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin writes:

All the communions of a life-time are one communion.
All the communions of all [people] now living are one communion.
All the communions of all [people], present, past, and future, are one communion.[28]

This singular communion celebrated through the Eucharist and shared with all people makes real the unity received in Baptism and Confirmation. The values established in each of the sacraments of initiation are reaffirmed not only each time a new person is baptized and confirmed but also every time a member receives the Eucharist.

Sacramental Parallels to Healthy at Home

            The global pandemic caused by the Coronavirus has created unprecedented circumstances. In the United States, nearly all businesses are closed, and churches and parishes have shuttered their doors.[29] With the inability to administer sacraments, churches have attempted creative ways to maintain a pastoral presence to their community. Online services have become the norm. New prayers have been written.[30] Our forced hermit-life has garnered a resurgence for monastic spirituality.[31] Yet, with all this creativity, the sacraments remain locked behind the stain-glass illumination of our digital screens. The thirst for the baptismal waters remains unquenched. Confirmed members of communities remain unaffirmed and dismembered. The hunger for a communal meal turns to starvation.

            While the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation may leave an “indelible mark” on the soul of the faithful,[32] it is the worship and assembly in the Church that remains an “essential criteria” for the unity of Christians.[33] The limited access to the sacraments is creating a tension between indelible and erasable that parallels the tension between healthy and unhealthy at home. It is in this liminal space that rituals of initiation emerged as a way to mark this transition with time symbolically.[34] As Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio wrote in the March Newsletter from The Omega Center: 

Christianity can help us realize that death and resurrection are part of the evolutionary path toward wholeness; letting go of isolated existence for the sake of deeper union. Something dies but something new is born—which is why the chaos of our times is, in a strange way, a sign of hope; something new is being born within. Out of chaos, a star is born. Breakdown can be break through if we recognize a new pattern of life struggling to emerge.[35]

This “sign of hope” presents an opportunity for new life to emerge. Amidst what feels like insurmountable darkness, Christians are called to remain faithful of the commitments of their sacramental initiation. Rituals of initiation are an attempt to symbolically articulate a transformation from an old way of life to a new way of living.[36] This time in quarantine is becoming a ritualistic moment. New practices have emerged that individually affirm the values that join people in communion with others.[37] As these practices continue, humanity collectively bears the responsibilities of the greater community.[38] God is present in all things;[39] thus, all things have the potential to reveal wisdom, since nothing is wasted.[40]  

            Current Center for Disease Control guidelines recommends that people should “wash [their] hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds,” to kill any trace of the Coronavirus.[41] Diligent washing has been proven to help keep individual people healthy as well as preventing the spread of the virus to the greater community.[42] Centuries before COVID19, ritual washing was common practice in ancient cultures for personal and communal health.[43] Throughout the Bible, references to washing parallels the significance of personal, communal, and spiritual health. References to using running water to clean and bathe for personal hygiene,[44] washing as an act of service and reverence to others,[45] offering our cleanliness to God in worship,[46] and washing away the sins of our past to begin again,[47] are but a few of the scriptural references that reveal the development from personal health to communal responsibility as a means of spiritual significance and faithful renewal.

            Continual development of personal health, communal responsibility, and spiritual commitment is a necessary component of humanity’s ability to emerge from this moment. Just as Confirmation is a recommitment to a community that intensifies an individual’s membership,[48] daily updates by government and health officials remind people of their personal responsibility to the greater community. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear begins each of his daily COVID19 updates stating, “We will get through this, we will get through this together,” and encourages each person listening and watching to repeat it with him.[49] This daily commitment “strengthens our individual faith,” and reminds each person, as Beshear says, “that working together, we are strong enough to defeat this virus.”[50] Confirmation is an initiation that invites people to “witness [the] suffering, death, and resurrection [of Jesus].”[51] The daily recommitment that Governor Beshear provides invites people to witness the suffering of those infected by the virus, mourn those who have died, and celebrate those who have recovered. It is this communal invitation that places each person “in a concrete way” directly with the “unity of the people of God.”[52]

            This communal unity initiates people into the Eucharistic responsibility to actively engage a world in need.[53] Just as Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are not an “instant cure for human depravity,”[54] our time in quarantine and the eventual gradual-loosening of restrictions elicits a responsibility and an empowerment to do good.[55] There will be a new normal, not a return to the old ways. The Coronavirus has brought to light radical concerns for our brother and sisters in society who have systemically been left behind. While most of the United States remains closed for business, much of America’s minority residents are experiencing a higher rate of exposure and death rate. Of the total coronavirus deaths in the US, racial and ethnic information is currently available for only about 35%.[56] While black Americans represent only about 13% of the population in the states reporting racial and ethnic information, they account for about 34% of total COVID-19 deaths in those states.[57] Various states and cities are seeing even more staggering variations. In Louisiana, black people make up 70% of coronavirus deaths, but only 33% of the population.[58] In Chicago, black residents are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents.[59] No matter how the data is examined, the statistics are disconcerting, further stressing humanity’s responsibility to do better.

            By remaining healthy at home, we are initiated through the repetitious ritual washing, the daily recommitment to the community, and the intimate unity we share with each person. It is time for a deep cleaning of the surfaces of our histories that washes away the sins of our past. It is time to plunge into the waters of the present situation so that the virus of today may drown the errors of our past. It is time to emerge from quarantine reborn. Our time remaining healthy at home is a chance to be reborn into a new way of living that initiates us with hopeful grace and the promise to support our brothers and sisters. As newly initiated people, we should be motivated to find new ways of being that moves beyond the divisions and segmentation of the past that prevents a return to our old ways of being.[60] Initiation is not intended to be a clean slate; rather, it is a gateway into a new life.

            In the days, weeks, months, or minutes that remain of being healthy at home, I pray that we may recognize that each human life offers endless potential for hope and love. While COVID-19 has highlighted critical historical disparities in our society, the Coronavirus also highlights the interconnected unity of all life. The air one person breaths in China can affect the air people breathe in every home on the globe.

God,

As the waters of creation inspired new life on the world,
  may the healing waters of today cleanse our soul
  and unite us into a new life with all of our brothers and sisters.

Send your Holy Spirit to guide us and inspire us.

May this time in quarantine be a sacrifice in praise to you
  so that our lives may be more united in love with all your people.

Make holy, oh God, the gifts of this time
  so that we may be initiated into a new life
  that is in union with the whole world.

We ask this in the name of unending grace,
Amen. 


[1] Samantha K Brooks et al., “The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It: Rapid Review of the Evidence,” The Lancet 395, no. 10227 (2020): pp. 912-920, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30460-8).

[2] “Kentucky Governor Calls COVID-19 Response ‘a Test of Our Humanity’,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, April 6, 2020), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/kentucky-governor-calls-covid-19-response-a-test-of-our-humanity).

[3] Richard Rohr, “The Patterns That Are Always True,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 3, 2020, https://cac.org/the-patterns-that-are-always-true-2020-03-29/).

[4] Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori, 2014), p.172).

[5] Ibid., 13-14.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 212.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 171.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Ibid., 170.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 171.

[14] Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), p.32).

[15] Kenan B. Osborne, Sacramental Guidelines: A Companion to the New Catechism for Religious Educators (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), p.45-46).

[16] Martos, 173.

[17] Ibid., 211.

[18] Ibid., 211-212.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 212-213.

[21] Osborne, 65.

[22] Eugene R Schlesinger, “Baptized into Christ’s Death: Christian Initiation as Missional Vocation,” in Missa Est!: A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017), pp. 89-104, doi:10.2307/j.ctt1ggjhhj.11, p.98). Note: Schlesinger is quoting from “Catholic Church, RCIA, Study ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1988), no. 233.” Schlesinger’s citation, not mine. After some research, it appear that Schlesinger is referring to “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Study Edition: Complete text of the rite together with additional rites approved for use in the dioceses of the United States of America” by the International Commission English Liturgy and the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. Due to present circumstances, I was unable to gain access to this text, and thus I have no other option but to trust the commentary and context that Schlesinger provides.

[23] Osborne, 44.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Martos, 242.

[26] Vatican II Council. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium” (hereafter LG). Solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, par. 11. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

[27] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), p.96).

[28] Ibid., 97.

[29] “Churches Closed By Coronavirus, Faith Leaders Seek New Approaches To Pastoral Care,” All Things Considered (NPR News, March 22, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/03/23/820119972/we-can-t-anoint-the-sick-faith-leaders-seek-new-approaches-to-pastoral-care).

[30] Pope Francis, “Letter of the Holy Father to the Faithful for the Month of May,” Vatican, April 25, 2020, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200425_lettera-mesedimaggio.html).

[31] Gregory Hillis, “We’re All Monks Now,” America Magazine, April 23, 2020, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/04/22/were-all-monks-now).

[32] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1121.

[33] CCC, 1126.

[34] Martos, 212.

[35] Ilia Delio, “Dear God,” Omega Center, March 23, 2020, https://omegacenter.info/dear-god/).

[36] Martos, 172.

[37] Ibid., 13-14.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Romans 8:28.

[40] 1 Corinthians 15:58.

[41] “How to Protect Yourself & Others,” Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 24, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html).

[42] Ibid.

[43] Martos, 170.

[44] Leviticus 15:13.

[45] John 13:1–17.

[46] Psalm 134:2.

[47] Acts 22:16.

[48] Martos, 212-213.

[49] Andy Beshear, “Update on COVID-19 in Kentucky,” (April 27, 2020), https://youtu.be/Hn7ylUVQoc0.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Schlesinger, 98.

[52] LG, 11.

[53] Osborne, 71.

[54] Martos, 172.

[55] Romans 6:12-19.

[56] “State COVID19 Testing Data by Race,” Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, n.d., https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/racial-data-transparency).

[57] Ibid.

[58] Jamelle Bouie, “Why Coronavirus Is Killing African-Americans More Than Others” (The New York Times, April 14, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-racism-african-americans.html).

[59] Cecilia Reyes et al., “Chicago’s Coronavirus Disparity: Black Chicagoans Are Dying at Nearly Six Times the Rate of White Residents, Data Show” (Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2020), https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-coronavirus-chicago-coronavirus-deaths-demographics-lightfoot-20200406-77nlylhiavgjzb2wa4ckivh7mu-story.html).

[60] Galatians 3:27-28.

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