Editor’s Note: As we all return now to Ordinary Time, liturgically and otherwise, we are also realizing the effects of the choices we have made during the holidays. The precautions we took or didn’t take. The people we hugged or didn’t hug. The things we did or didn’t do. Now is always a good time for washing. The time is Ordinary, but God does the extraordinary even with the ordinary.
I find myself washing my hands in the outdoor sink quite often these days.
Many years ago we moved the utility sink (that’s the white plastic one with a deep basin) out of the laundry room and installed it near the hose bib outside the side door to our garage. At the time, it made sense to clean up from gardening, yard work, and small engine repair outside before entering the house. With all of the more recent COVID precautions, it’s also become our first decontamination stop and a convenient place to wash fresh fruit. So, when I return home I’m often staring at the stucco sidewall of our house just outside the garage door washing my hands and wondering,
“is this enough?”
Of course, a theologian never just washes his hands. It’s also time to think in 20 to 60 second bursts. Even those short moments pose the question at multiple levels. Is this act of washing my hands enough to prevent contamination and contagion of a virus, an illness, even just greasy grim? Is this process of caution “worth it” in the larger sense, or am I wasting time and money on soap and extra steps before entering the Air-conditioned environment with my family? And, of course, with this particular illness, we’ve all got to wait 5 to 14 days to find out if today’s extra caution “pays off.” Add the uncertainty of not actually knowing in most cases whether we were even exposed to an infection, and the process is puzzling to say the least. Add the uncertainty of not actually knowing whether this illness would cause great suffering, mild inconvenience, or remain undetectable, and we’re on the edge of a crises about washing our hands that quickly symbolizes a deeper issue within human life.
Is it ever “enough?”
This question, “is this enough?” is often put on the doorways in monasteries in one way or another. It is a fundamental question of Catholic Spirituality and Salvation. “Is this your path to holiness?” “Is this your most genuine vocation?” “Is this the Way, the Truth, and the Life?” hangs on the lintel posts of every place of retreat and reflection. The Coronavirus has about a two-week wait-and-see period. Catholicism has a lifetime waiting period to find out if what we did was “enough.”
Was missing Mass one Sunday the exposure that will have driven me away from salvation? Was that party that got too wild a few weeks ago my moment of contagion? Did one drink lead too far and start a cycle of sin? The advertisement with the skimpy outfit? The picture of the perfect kitchen in my neighbor’s house? Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 suggest we could pose ten forms of these questions to ask if that was the lethal exposure. We find ourselves staring at the wall, washing our hands, and wondering, “Is this enough?” or “is this the right way to cleanse and prepare myself?”
There is also uncertainty in salvation history.
While Catholics have firm reason to hope in our salvation, we always walk the line between presumption and despair. (1 Pt 3:15-16) Frankly, as with COVID, we do not know how our lives will turn out. But unlike the constantly changing science that explores human health and illness, we do have certainty about the method of washing and the means of salvation. There are no words of absolution for me when I’m washing my hands after returning from a possibly infected environment, but there are words of absolution within the Church against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.
God has revealed Himself definitively in the Incarnation. God has established His Church. God provides for us in the Sacraments. Let’s remember to wash more than our hands.