‘What we set our eyes on’

It’s spring in Washington and flowers are starting to bloom. Though few are out to enjoy them in this season of quarantine.

Karen Swallow Prior and Jen Pollock Michel dialogue on autonomy and true freedom in an eight minute conversation on “why freedom needs boundaries”. Worth watching/listening:

Karen Swallow Prior begins the conversation by reminding us that there really is no thing as autonomy. We are born into communities, times, and places, and everything that makes up who we are comes from others. In other words, our particularities come from somewhere outside ourselves. As Christians we understand that God determines the things that make up the individual self.

Jen Pollock Michel points that it can be burdensome to believe in yourself. Humans tend to be unreliable and fail everyday. But Christianity helps us face the truth about ourselves: there’s good that I don’t do and evil that I do, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, and if our only ethic is to believe in ourselves, we’re left in a truly hopeless position. We need other people!

Karen agrees, adding that we not only need other people, but that meaning and purpose come from beyond the human realm.

Jen mentions the book Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, which chronicles the stories of people who at the end of their lives discover that finding meaning outside of themselves leads to a more joyful and full life. This is true, Karen adds, not only at the end but in every other stage of life. All throughout life we are changing and growing, but to believe in ourselves means to believe in something different in every stage of life.

It’s ironic, Jen notes, that we think believing in yourself is the way to freedom when it reality it only leads to slavery. Freedom always tends towards flourishing when we have our boundaries, because those boundaries are established for our good. We often think of obedience as negative boundaries, but they are actually meant to free us.

Finally, Karen concludes that our development never happens in a vacuum. We always cultivate our desires based on who or what we set our eyes on.

‘Within easy walking distance’

Alan Watts writes in his book, “In My Own Way: An Autobiography:”

Two things amaze me. One is that American bureaucracies cannot tolerate those minor pockets of irregularity that are essential to a free people—little areas where building codes and bluenose laws do not apply, and where adventurous young men and women can try to live without money, and without the routines of offices and factories. The other is the failure of the affluent bourgeoisie to realize that such pockets are a huge economic asset, that the bohemian community is, so to speak, a sort of cultural manure for the perennial fertilization of zones which will, because of their presence, become particularly attractive and valuable. One of the curses of Western industrial culture is the proliferation of “nice residential areas” where no shops or small businesses are permitted, and which require, as their counterparts, business districts for unrelieved commerce, to which one must commute for several miles to ply one’s trade or buy groceries—there to find parking impossible and, in transit, to clog the air with unnecessary gasoline fumes. These “nice residential areas” establish an aesthetic standard of the good life which—though millions buy it—is for me a dreary wasteland in which people are trying to divorce pleasure and leisure from work, so that the pleasure becomes vapid and the work drudgery. Unless I am to live far out in the country, give me a place where a grocery, a laundry, a smithy, and a pub are within easy walking distance.

We need to return to an older “aesthetic standard of the good life” that our ancestors might have recognized. And not recognized in a purely nostalgic sense, but recognized as a properly timeless standard of the good life—as in, an experience of daily life anchored in the good, the true, and the beautiful in big and little ways.

‘Whatever the place of death in you is’

In the Gospel today we hear of Jesus raising the dead man, Lazarus. Since churches remain closed due to the virus, this Mass was spiritual communion today:

Bishop Barron’s homily is beautiful today, I think one of the best I’ve heard from him. It speaks of Christ’s power over death and the divisiveness of the logos, the ultimate life-giving spirit, toward death and toward the illusion of finality that death casts for us given our limited vision: “Our friend Lazarus [dead four days] is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”

Here’s Bishop Barron, at about the 23 minute mark:

“Reconstruct the scene. And now here’s Jesus now addressing you by name, and saying: Come out! Come out! Whatever the place of death in you is, however you’re wrapped up and bound, Jesus is saying: come out. And finally, anticipate the moment when you’ll hear that great voice calling you from death into life. How do we know it? Because he is the resurrection and the life.”

As our lives have been changed by this virus and by quarantine, we have a chance maybe to come to see ourselves more clearly because we have a chance to see ourselves in the light of those closest to us and who are spending so much time with us. Do they like what they’re finding when they see us? Do we like what we’re finding in our own hearts? What are the places of death and preoccupation in my own heart?

Imagining a Spanish Flu-level pandemic

Catherine Glenn Foster, President & CEO of Americans United for Life, wrote yesterday on the need for a more proactive White House pandemic response:

America has the best health-care system in the world, but as we brace for COVID-19’s ongoing effects, we’re faced with the stark reality that we almost certainly will need even more bold and decisive national action to save lives. We have approximately 45,000 beds in intensive care units across America and about 160,000 ventilators — essential goods for saving lives, but not nearly enough if the scale of the pandemic grows to mirror or exceed our international peers. …

A 2005 federal government report anticipated that in the event of a pandemic similar to the Spanish flu a century ago, the United States would need as many as 740,000 ventilators to treat all patients. Our beds in intensive care units, as well as many of the ventilators we do have, are already often in use.

Even if we escape the worst of COVID-19, America may well require tens or even hundreds of thousands more ventilators than we have at present. We need bold and decisive action beyond economic reassurances in this time of national uncertainty and shutdown. President Trump recently instructed governors to obtain their own ventilators, which is heartening. But the president must do all he can to ensure these life-saving devices are available. …

I applaud Trump for his courageous choice to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to mitigate shortages of vital medical equipment such as ventilators. This important step allows us to mitigate medical supply chain disruptions.

To have a real impact, Trump must in addition use his executive power to mandate the rapid production of ventilators by major corporations, which should redirect their production capacities to respond directly to the current crisis. Some corporations are already doing this, but there is no greater pro-life imperative in this moment than an effective national response to COVID-19.

Trump’s bold action is welcomed bipartisanship after 57 members of Congress, all progressive Democrats, urged him to invoke DPA powers. The next steps are perhaps even more important, however, for mitigating potential shortages. I urge the president to set specific and measurable goals for the production of critical medical supplies.

Hours after Catherine’s op-ed appeared yesterday, President Trump did, in fact, use his executive power under the Defense Production Act specifically to mandate ventilator production.

We can’t know how things will turn out, but it’s better to prepare for the worst while working for the best possible outcome. And to whatever extent these temporary manufacturing mandates (and the conversations around the implications of government wielding this sort of power) can spur a necessary conversation on the need to restore a greater and permanent American manufacturing capacity, then all the better.

Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi blessing

Today at 1pm Eastern I watched Pope Francis’s incredible Urbi et Orbi blessing, his public blessing of the whole world in this time of pandemic, suffering, and death. A few scenes below, along with Vatican Media’s YouTube stream. Here are Pope Francis’s blessing and remarks.

And here is an excerpt from Pope Francis:

Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.

The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side. The Lord asks us from his cross to rediscover the life that awaits us, to look towards those who look to us, to strengthen, recognize and foster the grace that lives within us. Let us not quench the wavering flame (cf. Is 42:3) that never falters, and let us allow hope to be rekindled.

Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time…

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).

Lessons from the exceptions

Unlike with Spanish Flu a century ago or Hong Kong Flu in the 1950s, today we’re receiving constant and more or less real time information about the pandemic we’re experiencing. But how much of the information we’re receiving is valuable? How much of it is true? One of the things that’s incredibly difficult, despite our information glut or because of it, is to figure out is just how much of a threat this virus really is.

“I’m 26. Coronavirus Sent Me to the Hospital,” writes Fiona Lowenstein:

I’m 26. I don’t have any prior autoimmune or respiratory conditions. I work out six times a week, and abstain from cigarettes. I thought my role in the current health crisis would be as an ally to the elderly and compromised. Then, I was hospitalized for Covid-19. …

While I was shocked at the development of my symptoms and my ultimate hospitalization, the doctors and nurses were not at all surprised. After I was admitted, I was told that there was a 30-year-old in the next room who was also otherwise healthy, but who had also experienced serious trouble breathing. The hospital staff told me that more and more patients my age were showing up at the E.R. I am thankful to my partner for calling the hospital when my breathing worsened, and to the doctor who insisted we come in. As soon as I received an oxygen tube, I began to feel slight relief. I was lucky to get to the hospital early in the crisis, and receive very attentive care. …

Millennials, if you can’t be good allies, at least stay home to protect yourselves. Our invulnerability to this disease is a myth — one I have experienced firsthand. Countries in Europe and Asia are reporting younger and younger patients. The New York Times reported this week that nearly 40 percent of hospitalized Covid patients in the U.S. are under 54 years old. What’s worse is that when medical professionals have been forced to make choices about who lives and who dies, our generation is often chosen to receive treatment. So not only are we risking our own health, our presence in hospitals diminishes the care other groups may receive.

Hospitalizations for younger people seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Testimonies like this are helpful, but the broader point seems to have remained constant, which is that the risk for younger people (say those 45 and younger) is more about the older loved ones you might compromise as an asymptomatic carrier.

Tanner’s Annunciation

Today’s the Feast of the Annunciation. I’ve had a postcard-sized version of this depiction of the Annunciation in my kitchen for a year or so, since first picking it up at the University of Mary when I was finishing my bioethics coursework. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) painted the original work.


“A Prayer for Generosity” appears on the reverse of the University of Mary postcard I have, and reads in part:

O Gracious God of Our Lives, grant us the generosity and courage of Mary at the Annunciation. So turn our hearts toward you that we would hear the call of your Son, Jesus, and respond to the gift of our vocation. Protect and deliver us from selfishness and fear so we can receive abundantly the grace to give our lives away in love. We ask you this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Along with it, here is something that my friend, Fr. Chris Walsh, shared today:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love,
And do what you would do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with you I have one will,
To live and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
My soul with grace refine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with your fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So I shall never die,
But live with you the perfect life
In your eternity.

Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889

‘Really worth a new Great Depression?’

Ari Schulman asks something we’re all asking: “What’s the plan?”:

How long is this going to last? As terrible as a pandemic would be, is averting it really worth a new Great Depression? What is the endgame?

As a pandemic loomed, the country moved in remarkably short order from shrug to shutdown. Understandably, some are already questioning the wisdom of this move, noting how little information we’re acting on and the devastation the shutdown is already wreaking on the economy. The New York Times grants shutdown skepticism the frisson of “taboo.”

Much of this skepticism still misunderstands just how devastating the pandemic would be — not only in lives lost but in damage to the economy. The skeptics are wrong in the near term. For now, we have no other choice. But they are right that this cure cannot be tolerated for long. And they are right too that there is no consensus on when the shutdown will have achieved its aim, or on when the benefits will no longer outweigh the costs. …

The shutdown is not a plan; it is a hasty but necessary retreat. Its purpose must be to shrink cases, and ramp up our infrastructure, enough to switch to more targeted suppression measures.

We already have a gold standard for fighting epidemics: early identification of symptomatic patients, contact tracing, isolation of those infected and exposed, and widespread random sampling of the population to detect new outbreaks among unidentified contacts. Only by identifying and isolating the sick can the healthy get back to work.

The crucial lesson is that we need not endure mass closure for the duration of the pandemic. We are only stuck doing it now because we were caught with our defenses down, failing to implement the normal methods early enough.

This is not a hypothetical point: South Korea managed to control its outbreak without ever resorting to mass closures. It did so through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. Not only were people with symptoms tested and quarantined, but authorities went through considerable effort to track down people who may have been in contact with the sick and test them as well.

We may need to borrow methods from South Korea, Israel, and Singapore, which have accepted a level of surveillance that is incompatible with the “old normal” of American life, but which may need to be tolerated for a year or two if we are to lift the shutdown. It is urgent for our national leadership to offer a clear vision of what the “new normal” of post-shutdown life will look like, how we will balance its requirements against civil liberties, and how we will achieve it as quickly as possible. …

As we near the end of the shutdown’s first week, public resolve seems firm. But without a clear vision from our leadership, the problem is not so distant as a shutdown lasting a year and half, but a backlash arriving much sooner. Conversely, we can endure the pain and hardship of this phase for much longer if we all know how it will end.

[But t]he problem in the near term is not whether the plan for victory is too costly. It is whether we have a plan at all. The chief priority of our leadership must be to offer us this vision before the end of the shutdown period they have defined — a week from now — arrives.

I can’t imagine Americans tolerating the sort of surveillance state that other nations have adopted, partly because China is the greatest example of the 21st century technological surveillance state and theirs is not an example liberty-minded nations would seek to emulate. At the same time, if we have no national strategy for returning to normal while at the same time we quarantine and shut down the economy, it’s possible we’re adopting a “worst of both worlds” approach to this pandemic—where we get none of the positive benefits of aggressive mitigation and all of the costs of economic self-destruction.

‘We are masters of our actions’

We’re quarantining, we’re self-isolating, and some of us are in a straight up lockdown due to the virus. No better time to work on our habits—to consider the actions were choosing and what sort of person we’re choosing to become. Fr. Thomas Petri offers a great introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas’s thought on this:

Focus your attention on this for a few minutes, and think about it in relation to your own habits—especially in this time. That’s what I’m doing.

“We are masters of our actions.”

Laetare Sunday and the waking of the dead

It’s the first Sunday since public Masses were suspended due to the virus. A friend shared herself singing “The Old Churchyard” to mark this Laetare Sunday. Laetare means “rejoicing.” As Lent looks towards Easter and we face the grim reality of this virus’s killings and disruptions, our cause for rejoicing is Christ’s resurrection and the prospect of the sunshine bursting to wake up the dead:

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard
I so well know those paths ‘neath the soft green sward
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard

But were I at rest ‘neath yonder tree
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our Savior has lain and conquered the gloom

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard