‘A strange mixture of gravity and nonchalance’

I read Fr. George Rutler’s latest column/reflection in my inbox today, and it’s a great meditation in light not only of Lent, but also of the renewed concern with suffering and death that this virus is bringing to our consciousness:

In our exceptional times, the President has declared a national emergency. This is not unprecedented, and I have an oral tradition of my own family witnessing to the influenza epidemic of 1918, when my grandparents’ venerable parish rector survived the infection while ministering to the ill, but whose two daughters died. The causalities were much higher than now, with a much smaller global population.

We pray for our leaders, and the scientists enlisted to mitigate the spread of infection. We also deplore those who would exploit this crisis for political gain. Our Lord had the greatest contempt for demagogues. It is thankworthy that months ago, our government prudently imposed barriers on immigration from China, in spite of criticism from politicians who faulted that policy for what they called “xenophobia.”

In any generation, crises provoke a reaction to the fact of human mortality. In their anxiety, those unwilling to acknowledge that tend to decry catastrophes as if they were intrusions into the obvious circumstance that life is a fragile gift. So they become paranoid about disease, demographics, climate change and other metaphors for the simple reality of impermanence.

Death is nothing new. Until now, everyone has done it. Our Lord would speak of it with a strange mixture of gravity and nonchalance. It is prelude to a permanent realm of which every anatomical breath is an intimation by virtue of its impermanence. Anxiety ignores the promise that accompanies the warning: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Saint Charles Borromeo led a procession in prayer to mitigate the plague in Milan in 1576, caring for upwards of seventy thousand dying and starving people. Death meant nothing to him, save an opening to Paradise. For all his mystical intuitions, he also enjoyed playing billiards, and when asked what he would do if he had only fifteen minutes more to live, he responded, “Keep playing billiards.”

One of the Church’s youngest saints, Dominic Savio, told Saint John Bosco that if the Holy Angel blew his trumpet for the end of all things while he was on the playground, he would just keep on playing. That is how we should want to play each day of our lives, in a friendship with God that will not find Heaven unfamiliar. In 1857, fourteen-year-old Dominic’s last earthly words were: “Oh, what wonderful things I see!”

A saint is one who can stand at the eternal gates and say, “Hello. I am home.”

That a very Christian way to understand death, adopting “a strange mixture of gravity and nonchalance” about death as something natural to our fallen state and terrible in its consequence, and yet simultaneously unnatural in terms of God’s desire for us to share in eternal life.

If we lack the capacity to imagine that there can be such a thing as eternal life, that is simply a sign of how fundamentally death has warped our vision.

Regimes with brittle egos

The Chinese Communist regime continues its push against free press/reporters, with the regime expelling the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post in a back/forth with the United States over the presence of foreign reporters:

China banned all American nationals working in the country for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, as part of an escalating media war with the United States that follows restrictions placed by the Trump administration on Chinese media companies operating in the U.S., its foreign ministry announced Tuesday.

“The U.S. government has placed unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the U.S., purposely made things difficult for their normal reporting assignments, and subjected them to growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression,” the ministry said in a statement, published in English. …

The U.S. move in March came in the wake of a decision in late February by authorities in Beijing to revoke the press credentials and order the expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters in retaliation for a headline on an opinion column about the coronavirus outbreak that China said was racist. That Feb. 3 column was written by Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College. It argued that “Chinese authorities are still trying to conceal the true scale of the problem” of the virus that has now sickened more than 170,000 people and killed more than 7,000 worldwide. “China’s initial response to the crisis was less than impressive,” Mead wrote, an assessment that China has now accepted.

China’s move in February, in turn, came a day after the Trump administration said it would begin treating five major Chinese state-run media entities with U.S. operations – Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and Hai Tian Development – as foreign embassies. These media companies are now required to register their employees and U.S. property with the U.S. State Department. A similar U.S. Justice Department measure is in place for some Russian state-backed media working in the U.S. such as Russia Today, an English-language TV network. …

“The Chinese government’s decision is particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, when clear and reliable information about the international response to covid-19 is essential,” he said in a tweet.

Fascinating to watch the Chinese Communists co-opt the language of the woke activists by learning to denounce even mild criticism of the regime as “racist”. It’s possible that the global impact of this virus may take more lives and hit the global economy harder than something like the Chernobyl disaster. And China would have us believe that any criticism of their slowness in response or of their allies for parroting falsehoods through the WHO and others that everything would be fine, etc. is racist. Regimes like this are hurt more by laughter than argument, and laughter is precisely what Beijing deserves for its posturing through this crisis.

This is a regime that is allowing no international investigators into Wuhan, tolerates no serious investigative reporting from either domestic or international reporters, and calls an opinion column racist for noting its incompetence. Literally laughable, if it weren’t for the very real body count it continues to produce.

Reacting to ‘little deaths’

Great profile of Andreas Widmer, professor at The Catholic University of America, who is in quarantine at the university’s campus in Rome with his family:

Looking on the “bright side” or seeking the “silver lining” of something like a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is not naivete, but an exercise of one’s God-given will, said a U.S. professor locked down in Rome with his wife and son.

Andreas Widmer, a former member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard now teaching in the business school at The Catholic University of America in Washington, arrived in Rome with his family in early January to teach at the university’s Rome campus. It was also to be an extended time of rediscovering the city where he served in the guards from 1986 to 1988 and where he met his wife 32 years ago.

Now the Widmer family, a security guard and an Italian woman who works for the Australian Catholic University program on the same site as the CUA Rome campus are locked down together or, as he put it, have formed a small community.

Widmer, in a WhatsApp interview from just a few blocks away, told Catholic News Service, “We take too little advantage of our will, of our freedom in the sense that we are raising our fists against something we don’t control. And then we don’t do squat about what we actually control — yet that would make all the difference.”

The Rome campus is housed in a former convent and still includes a chapel. Before the lockdown and before all the students were sent home in early March, a priest from the Pontifical North American College would come to celebrate Mass.

“But the Eucharist is in the tabernacle so we can do morning and evening prayers down there,” Widmer said March 17. “Everything we need we have. It’s an extended retreat.”

Although Italy is on lockdown, people are allowed to leave their homes to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy and walk their dogs. The police can and do stop people on the streets to ask why they are out; they can give tickets to those without a valid reason for being on the street, although usually they just encourage them to hurry home.

The Widmers home-school their son, Elias, 15, “so his schedule has been exactly the same as it was before,” his father said. The big difference is that he no longer has 35 university students to interact with and sit with at dinner. But his home-school program includes online, interactive courses and he uses WhatsApp and Skype for calls with friends and family.

“I asked him the other day, ‘On a scale from one to 10, how worried are you?’ And he says zero.”

Widmer, who teaches entrepreneurship with a focus on Christian principles, especially the proper use of human will and freedom, said dealing with a lockdown is the perfect time to exercise God-given capacities for contributing to the common good and focusing on personal growth.

“No matter what, you can react, and you can make it beautiful,” he said. As his students were preparing to leave, he said he urged them to make their last days in Rome beautiful and to go home and make their 14-day quarantine beautiful as well.

“You can purposely, consciously do this,” he said. He and his family now “have this rhythm of going to visit the Lord in the Eucharist downstairs, you know, to make it beautiful.”

The students were told to go home just a week before their spring break was to begin. Almost all of them had plans to travel in Europe, he said. There were tears for upset plans and lost opportunities.

But, he said, he tried to explain to them how “life is, in a sense, a constant rehearsal for dying — not in a morbid way — but in a sense of losing something or ending something.”

“One day God is going to demand your life from you,” he said he told the students, “and you’re going to say — just like you’re here in Rome saying — ‘But I haven’t gone to Greece yet!’”

Deciding when life will end “is not up to us,” he said, but the way each person reacts to the “little deaths” in life is.

I practice I picked up last year, something that I try to remember every morning when I wake up, is to offer in prayer: “Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will.”

Civil order and the pandemic

A sobering report from William M. Arkin at Newsweek today on U.S. government contingency plans in the event that the pandemic were to get much worse:

Even as President Trump says he tested negative for coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic raises the fear that huge swaths of the executive branch or even Congress and the Supreme Court could also be disabled, forcing the implementation of “continuity of government” plans that include evacuating Washington and “devolving” leadership to second-tier officials in remote and quarantined locations. …

According to new documents and interviews with military experts, the various plans – codenamed Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac – are the underground laws to ensure government continuity. They are so secret that under these extraordinary plans, “devolution” could circumvent the normal Constitutional provisions for government succession, and military commanders could be placed in control around America. …

What happens, government expert Norman Ornstein asked last week, if so many members of Congress come down with the coronavirus that the legislature cannot meet or cannot muster a quorum? After 9/11, Ornstein and others, alarmed by how little Washington had prepared for such possibilities, created a bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission to examine precisely these and other possibilities.

It has been a two-decade long futile effort, Ornstein says, with Congress uninterested or unable to either pass new laws or create working procedures that would allow emergency and remote operations. The rest of the federal government equally is unprepared to operate if a pandemic were to hit the very people called upon to lead in an emergency. That is why for the first time, other than planning for the aftermath of a nuclear war, extraordinary procedures are being contemplated. …

When might the military’s “emergency authority” be needed? Traditionally, it’s thought of after a nuclear device goes off in an American city. But now, planners are looking at military response to urban violence as people seek protection and fight over food. And, according to one senior officer, in the contingency of the complete evacuation of Washington.

Under Defense department regulations, military commanders are authorized to take action on their own – in extraordinary circumstances – where “duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation.” The conditions include “large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances” involving “significant loss of life or wanton destruction of property.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff codified these rules in October 2018, reminding commanders that they could decide, on their own authority, to “engage temporarily” in military control in circumstances “where prior authorization by the President is impossible” or where local authorities “are unable to control the situation.” A new Trump-era Pentagon directive calls it “extreme situations.” In all cases, even where a military commander declares martial law, the directives say that civil rule has to be restored as soon as possible.

“In scenarios where one city or one region is devastated, that’s a pretty straightforward process,” the military planner told me. “But with coronavirus, where the effect is nationwide, we’re in territory we’ve never been in before.”

The piece is as much a history of American emergency planning over the past 70+ years since the start of the atomic age as it is a particular profile of planning in this moment.

Saint Patrick’s Day in quarantine

Kathryn Jean Lopez writes on celebrating “a different kind of Saint Patrick’s Day”:

It’s certainly a weird St. Patrick’s Day by our typical standards. But, on the other hand, it’s been stripped of the unessentials. …

A friend was talking to me about all that is going on, in the kind of astonishment that many are feeling. He pointed out that in the last Mass that he will probably be attending for weeks if not months on Sunday, the Gospel was about Jesus and the woman at the well. She’s thirsting. He’s thirsty. These are typical takeaways and have such added meaning right now. But what about this? Jesus says to her:

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

St. Patrick, meanwhile, was all about the Trinity, as his Lorica makes clear. Maybe some of the opportunity of these days for Christians is to discover just what the Trinity means for our lives, and how we love one another — and everyone we encounter.

‘Meaning is given to us’

Tim DeChristopher and Wendell Berry sat down for a conversation last summer that’s available from Orion Magazine. I’m excerpting portions of that conversation below to give a shorter sense of it, but it’s worth reading in its fullness:

WB: In 1965, my friend Gurney Norman gave me my first look at a strip-mining operation. That’s nearly fifty-five years ago, isn’t it? So there I stood on the mountain behind Hardburly, Kentucky, and I saw the bulldozer go in on a wooded mountainside, and throw loose the whole surface of the world. I found that hard to bear. That brought me to something like defeat. How could a human being do that? How could anybody take a machine and destroy the world with it?

As often in my life, I got a book just when I needed it. A friend sent me Georges Bernanos’s Last Essays from the years just after World War II. What disturbed him was not the military humiliation of his country, of France. And he was not appeased or heartened by the Allied victory. What most impressed him, and deeply, deeply disturbed him, was the emergence out of that war of what he called “machine civilization.” He anticipated that the machine would make humankind over in its image.

TD: This is what Bill [McKibben]’s talking about in Falter — we have reached a new level of that.

WB: We’re always at a new level of that. Hitler and Hiroshima reached a new level of that. If humankind can make a weapon, a machine that can destroy not only all the other machines, but us too — I don’t see how climate change can ante up any higher than that.

TD: The level of machine control of human beings now is not bigger than that, it’s not a bigger, more catastrophic, explosive end, but it’s more insidious in so many ways. We’re not just blowing things apart; we’re changing our own DNA in a way that makes human existence meaningless.

WB: I don’t think humans have any power over meaning. Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.

TD: I don’t agree with that. We make meaning all the time.

WB: The ability of humans even to discover meaning is very limited. They counterfeit meaning all the time. …

TD: What is localism’s answer to refugees? To those whose homeland is not livable anymore? Whether that place is underwater, has turned to desert, was destroyed by American imperialism and our desire for more resources?

WB: You’ve won this argument. The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable. You got all the cards. You got the statistics, the science, the projections on your side. But then we’re still just sitting here with our hands hanging down, not doing anything.

One of the characteristics of the machine civilization is determinism. You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you there’s nothing you can do, it’s inevitable. You can’t make an organization to refute that; you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to cleanse that mess out of your heart. Among our own people, the only communities who’ve done that have been the Amish. Their communities have survived. We were living very much like them when I was a boy here… This county here was full of self-employed people, full of people who were living without bosses. There were a lot more people going to church here then than now, and I’m sure they were all hearing, from time to time, Jesus’s two laws: love God and love your neighbor. And the difference between us and the Amish is that they took that law as an economic imperative. If you love your neighbor, you can’t replace your neighbor with a machine. And that so far has worked for them. But the key to it is love. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to like your neighbor.  It means that you know what the commitment to love requires of you, and you’re going to keep the commitment. …

WB: … I got a letter from a woman, she talked about self-creation and autonomy. She wanted to know why her relative gave up his job and went home to help his dad farm. I suggested that they might have loved each other. That they might have loved their ranch. But then I said, “You were born into dependence and you’re going to die in it.”

TD: There’s been such a cultural trend that that father who said, Come home, I need you — to even say that is an expression of failure. To need other people is increasingly defined as failure, when that’s the fabric that holds us together. It’s such a gift for that son, to be needed.

Leaving Longlea

The silent retreat has ended and I’m heading back to Washington after a few great days in what had been a new part of Virginia to me. It’s overcast, chilly, and damp as we head back to the city and to the prospect that the virus will shut down most or all of daily life for some period of time. Already heading into this weekend, many things were being canceled. For that reason, I’m doubly glad this retreat went ahead as planned as something like a gift for whatever’s to come.

Cal Newport writes on Plato’s Phaedrus and wisdom for pandemics:

One of the more profound representations of the soul in the Western Canon is the Chariot Allegory from Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue

“[T]he charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character.”

As elaborated by the character of Socrates in the dialogue, the charioteer represents our soul’s reasoned pursuit to cultivate a worthy life. This task requires the charioteer to allow the noble steed, representing our moral intuitions, to lead the way, while preventing its ignoble partner, representing our base instincts, from drawing the soul off course. …

There is, I propose, a simple two-part solution to this state of affairs.

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

More Longlea scenes

A lot of time for prayer, spiritual reflection, and silent fraternity. I don’t have many words to share here in these days, but I can share some scenes from this time.

Fr. Jesus Urteaga’s “Bright and Cheerful Homes” is worth picking up. Here’s the description:

The undertaking I want to speak to you about is an enormous one: rearing your family. I am much more concerned about your home than about whatever bad or dangerous atmosphere you may find in the street. I am much more worried about the way of life your children will learn in your home, following your example, seeing you live your life, than I am about anything they may learn from the faithlessness and faults of other people. Here is a really important question: Are you giving them that “something”—and it is a very great something—that they must have if they are to live truly Christian lives?

And you can download it here.

At Longlea

I’m at Longlea Conference Center near Culpeper, Virginia for a retreat. We started last night and will continue through Sunday. It’s my first silent retreat. I’m glad to be here.

It’s beautiful out, for March especially. I’m spending stretches of the afternoon in the garden reading Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary.

COVID-19 and ‘sensible and human things’

President Trump delivered an Oval Office address last night on the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the nation. I’m sure there will be more in the days and weeks to come. Since last writing on this last week, it seems as if most major corporations have shifted their workforce to a posture of either encouraged or mandatory remote work. We met at Americans United for Life late last week and determined to go remote as of this past Monday and I think we’ve maintained a better institutional stride because we acted early than some places I’m seeing that are just starting to come to grips with the potential impact of this virus.

I’m leaving Washington tonight for a retreat in rural Virginia, about 90 minutes west of the city. I’ll be there through Sunday late afternoon and am looking forward to making this retreat—my first in five (too many!) years—and being away from the city and the news. I’ll plan to continue working from Georgetown when I get back depending on how the virus develops.


Apropos of the psychic trauma this Wuhan pandemic is inflicting, here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis from 1948 that’s been making the rounds:

On Living in an Atomic Age

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors: anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made, and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.