Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dealing with solitude

This morning after celebrating Mass I took a quick walk around the block. I’ve been very cautious about interacting with others since I’ve returned from overseas travel and today was the first step out of the house since my return.

I went half a block and passed some teenagers on bicycles who said quite loudly and with evident pride: Man, we’ve got to find somebody and smoke some weed. I don’t know what followed that, but it struck me as disturbing in our quaint little neighborhood. It was the attempt of these two, at least for me to hear, of dealing with solitude: the isolation that COVID-19 has brought to us.

It makes me wonder what we do with this time. What are you doing these days? If you are under a stay-at-home order or not, what are you doing during these days? I will admit that it has been a challenging transition to come back to the United States where it’s very easy to be pulled back into the world of work. But I am doing my best to remain in the reality and the spirit of my sabbatical (which is still happening, by the way!).

If work (or substitute school if you are of the younger variety) offers us one thing it is order. There is a set time we get up and go to work. There are certain things that we do throughout the day. There are conversations we need to have and people we need to check in on. Work offers us a sense of order, even if we don’t like it. And it is a good thing for us, because our lives need order. They need to be structured towards something fruitful. So, question 1 is this: what is your time ordered toward these days?

Prayer seems to always be the first thing to go. When life gets distracting and other things are more pressing, prayer is almost always the first thing to go. It’s the first thing to go because it seems to lack practical consequences that make a difference on our immediate circumstances. But prayer is a gesture of dependence. And if this virus has taught us anything it is that it is beyond our control: all we can do is follow instructions and hope that those in the medical field can find an appropriate response. But for the vast majority of us, we are left in the position of begging: begging that people are responsible; begging that our loved ones are kept safe and healthy; begging that we can find a reason for all that is happening to us and around us. For this reason, prayer should be the first thing to stay. So, question 2 is this: how has your prayer life been these days?

Loneliness is a battle for every human being. I’m coming to the end of The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (and if the basketballs ever stop bouncing outside my house I will finish apologies for that aside). In it, the lead character, Scobie, says this from a place of despair:
No man surely was less alone with his wife upstairs and his mistress little more than five hundred yards away up the hill, and yet it was loneliness that seated itself like a companion who doesn’t need to speak. It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before. 
Sometimes it’s not the absence of people that makes us lonely, it is the absence of hope. Scobie is alone because he sees no way out of the dramatic situation he has gotten himself into. Hope is not just the expectation of what is to come, it the ability to acknowledge that even now, in whatever mess we may be in or our world may be in, we hope in a present Presence. There is Someone who cares about our destiny, about our hearts. So, question 3 is this: in what or whom do you place your hope?

Friends, isolation does not mean loneliness and being together does not imply companionship. What we need is something greater, something that emerges from within  us and finds its ultimate expression (in time) in communal life. Escaping our circumstances through drugs or binge-watching or porn or constant texting is not an adequate response to what our hearts are made for. So let’s look for order, prayer and hope in our lives today. Maybe somewhere in there we can find ourselves becoming more human and more holy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Light and Resurrection

As I settled into the Bealey Hotel yesterday in Arthur’s Pass I came to the end of the novel Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy. As with Anna Karenina, Tolstoy doesn’t spare the reader any of the drama endured by the characters or the painful interpersonal struggles they need face. It was only this morning that I came to appreciate more fully the meaning of such struggle and the novel’s title, Resurrection.

I watched the sunrise this morning over the mountains (I apologize for being the cause of any jealousy). Before the sun crept over the horizon there was just a hint of color in the sky, a deep red outlining the profile of the dark mountains. And little by little the clouds above the horizon turned burnt orange then faded to yellow and the surrounding landscape moved from pure darkness to that phase of light where you can distinguish between tree and rock, but can’t see any of the detail. As I’m typing this, the sun is rushing into my windows and illuminating the northeastern side of the surrounding hills. Throughout this day, as this light makes its way across the sky unimpeded by the clouds, it will make visible what had been hiding in the shadows. 

This was the path traveled by Nekhlyudov (Nekhlúdoff) in Tolstoy’s Resurrection. With each turn of the page Nekhlyudov meets a new injustice that he seeks to correct, both in himself and in his native Russia. It’s fascinating to watch how his awareness changes, how the light of the circumstances that he’s forced to confront show him things that he had either previously ignored or had not seen. Only after this light of awareness ran its full course across the sky of his experience did he discover a new reason to live, a new object to follow. He becomes a new man, a new creation precisely because he follows what is happening around him and within him.

Resurrection is the story of one man’s awakening and the journey needed to arrive there. We don’t have to create the drama so marvelously described by Tolstoy; we have plenty in our lives. The challenge is to look at all of it in the light: to grow in awareness of what God makes happen. Particularly in these days when many of our circumstances are clearly out of our control, we can ask whether we are merely pushing them back into the shadows or if we are willing to look at them for what they are—as given. What are we hiding in the shadows? What newness we could experience if we brought it to the light!

Monday, March 16, 2020

An Impossible Unity

I have not blogged for a few days, not because nothing has been happening, but it’s been tough to find the right time and the right Wifi connection to get it done!

This evening (my Tuesday evening, your break of day on Tuesday), I was celebrating Mass in the shadow of the Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. If you promise not to laugh at me I will tell you that I did so with tears in my eyes, because I thought of all the things that I have seen there is nothing that compares in beauty to this tremendous gift. And I am aware that throughout the world there are now many Catholics who are not able to receive this gift due to the Coronavirus. This evening I remembered you.

There was a line from the first reading from the Prophet Daniel:

We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,  no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,  no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit  let us be received; As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,  or thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today  as we follow you unreservedly;  for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
Perhaps for many Catholics it is not possible to physically participate in the sacrifice of the Mass: to make that offering to the Lord. But as the Prophet says, so then “with contrite hearts and humble spirit let us be received.” In other words, let this be our offering and let this offering be as if it were “rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs!” Let this be our offering: an offering of our hearts to the Lord. If we cannot gather physically as God’s people at the Eucharist, then let’s be united with hearts that are directed towards the single goal of acknowledging the Presence of the Lord where we are.

I want to point out two things that the Eucharist teaches that we should not lose just because we may not be able to attend Mass: obedience and mercy. Obedience teaches us the virtue of humility, because in the sight of God’s power we are dust: a lesson this season of Lent clearly reminds us of. Obedience to the Lord opens us to the grace that heals us. This is not a public service announcement for the CDC, but our obedience to what is being asked of us by public officials while this virus is contained is for our good and for the healing of the world. If we cannot learn obedience in simple ways and adapt our behavior because of our circumstances, then how will we ever learn obedience to the Lord Jesus who calls us to be perfect as His Heavenly Father is perfect?

The second lesson of the Eucharist is mercy. We cannot stop begging the Lord for mercy during this time. Every morning, every prayer, every opportunity we have should be filled with a plea for the Lord’s mercy on the world. 

Being together in obedience and in mercy, we can experience a unity that seems impossible in the face of necessary social distancing. Christ alone is the unity of humanity. Christ alone through the Spirit holds us close to the Father.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Because it’s life

After a conversation with a friend tonight, I am much more aware of how we can find ourselves in situations where there is not much to do or to say. Sometimes we are simply left to recognize that life is given for the sake of our that we can grow as human beings and become more ourselves, more the people that God has made us to be. 

Perhaps there are some who greet each day with sadness, with a question of the value of life and if it’s worth rolling out of bed. One of the great things that my dearest friends have helped me to acknowledge is that, as a human being, I am filled with need: a need that I cannot on my own fulfill. And rather than running from that need, I’ve come to see the beauty of hearing others express it in a way that I could never dream of doing. And so my need has become not a problem to solve, but the doorway through which I can discover the real genius of others.

For me, this song by Charles Bradley has been one that has captured well the sentiment of what I find myself experiencing. It’s not the precise lyric that I find so accurate, but the feeling behind it...the longing, the struggle, the hope. I encourage you to give it a listen. The other song that moves me every time I hear it is by Mumford & Sons. You can listen to it here. It’s a song that makes me want to move, to keep searching and keep moving because of the fact that I am made for something greater. 

We are all searching, all longing for something greater. And if we take this need seriously without trying to distract ourselves from it or drown it with something else, it can lead us to discover a solidarity with others even when we feel only solitude. We are not alone. I am not alone. You are not alone. It is our common search for the truth of our being that draws us together. 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

False Freedom and Hopeless Happiness

Painful, I think, is the best way to describe my reading of Brave New matter how beautiful the coffee shops where I read it! Painful because what is most essential to the human, what is most correspondent to the human heart is squelched with the aim of false freedom and hopeless happiness. As with most dystopian novels, it’s done for a “better purpose”, a man-made model for generic human fulfillment.

The Savage, the ironically-named character created by Huxley to offer a true form of civilization to a world sterilized against it, reaches a point of brilliant clarity and authentic desire when he exclaims,

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.
A world anesthetized by illusion and drug-induced euphoria can’t compete with the great drama of the human person searching for meaning and purpose. Because that drama necessarily entails all that the Savage lists and more. To desire God, to search for what ultimately gives meaning to one’s life is to embrace the sometimes complex beauty of poetry alongside the usually difficult phenomenon of freedom. To seek after what is good also means confronting the ever-present reality of sin. In order to experience surprising and unbridled awe in the face of something unbelievably beautiful, it means we must also face the sadness that creeps in when such beauty eludes us. Because it’s in that struggle that humanity flourishes and falls and is authentically free.

This is why the one who is authentically human is not in search of a utopia, but a Presence that directs our gaze towards what we really desire.

Msgr. Luigi Giussani says this (my italicized emphasis):

Utopia uses as its method of expression speech, projects, and the anxious search for instruments and organizational forms. Presence has as its method of expression an operative friendship, gestures revealing a different way of being a protagonist, one that enters everything, making use of everything (school desks, studies, the attempt at university reform, etc.)–gestures that are, above all, gestures of real humanity, i.e., of charity. (Full text here)

Our brave new world is not one defined by the limits of human ingenuity, but it is one that is generated anew each day by a Presence who calls us by name and exalts every ounce of goodness He has placed within us. This is our reason to get up every morning. This is our invitation to a brave new world!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

A Functional Life

Yesterday I started reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. A friend
The Cathedral of Auckland
related to me the not-so-fun fact that Huxley died on the same day as C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy: November 22, 1963. The novel, which I’ve barely begun is dystopian, similar in feel to Orwell’s 1984. It’s the focus on function that I find terribly disturbing, perhaps because we’ve adopted a bit of this mentality ourselves.

In fact, being on sabbatical has challenged this aspect of priesthood in a good least so far it’s good! It’s tempting to view priesthood as purely functional: as filling a role in the Church as Sacramental functionaries, doling out the Sacraments to the hungry faithful. I don’t doubt the need for that service, but surely it’s not sufficient to establish an identity as priest. If that were the case I suppose I would be less of a priest for administering fewer Sacraments during this time of sabbatical. 

It’s been an occasion for me to ask: so what is a priest at rest? What is a priest in the silence? What is a priest during free time? What is a priest not constantly on the move with a fully-filled calendar? The easy answer would be a priest. But after living in a culture where function defines dignity and where ability connotes value, it’s almost as though we say it with a cheeky wink and nod. And I believe this is the case because we as a culture have chosen to focus on our ability rather than on the choice of God. I am not a priest because I willed myself a priest; I am a priest because God chose me. And my dignity comes not from my ability to do priestly things, but it comes from the fact that God chose me. It is God’s work; the expression of my dignity comes as a response to that work.

The measure of dignity is not our capacity or our activity, but it is God’s election: It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you to go and bear fruit that will remain (Jn 15:16). There is nothing for me to prove (I think this is the hardest bit of truth to grasp) because it was not for my goodness that I was chosen, but it was by God’s choice according to the measure of His mercy.

In the end, we belong to God. That is our dignity and our destiny. It is the starting point for every act of charity and every human effort. We belong to Him. There’s rest to be found in that fact.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Desiring Freedom

The greatest violence is not achieved through blood, but through destroying what is most essentially human. I finished reading today The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Honestly, I picked it up because I find myself as the quiet American wandering the streets of New Zealand! It’s a novel set in Vietnam just before the United States was drawn into the war. That context provides all the necessary violence and crudeness of war, which Greene himself experienced as a correspondent there in the early 50s. 

Yet, in the midst of that storm of confused human wreckage, the reader’s attention is drawn to a story of love (though perhaps that’s a degradation of the term) that two men have for a Vietnamese woman named Phuong. Pyle with his ideological naïveté and Fowler swamped by cynicism awkwardly vie for the attention of this woman even as the bombs fall and grenades wreak havoc around them. Though I’m no literary critic, Phuong seems to be Vietnam itself: shelled by ideology and abused by the bloodlust of power. In the end, all she wants is freedom: for someone to take her to a place where she can walk the street without fearing for her life.

It makes me wonder about the effects of ideology; it makes me question my own temptations to cynicism and how it impacts those around me. If you have a bit of time, I might suggest watching this presentation from the New York Encounter, the event that began this time of sabbatical. You can find it here. It illustrates well how sincere dialogue can break through ideology and how a shared humanity can stand tall in the face of cynicism. It’s not just for us: it’s for those we love who are simply looking for someone to show them the face of freedom.