When I started the habit of daily writing, it was as much a commitment to “put pen to paper” or “think out loud” about what I was reading or encountering as anything else. We read, see, hear, etc. so much every day that ends up as ephemera, even if it’s good and true and timeless. Not everything (probably not most) of what I’ve posted here over the past five years has evergreen value, but it forms a record of what I’ve been thinking through, working on, etc. that I’m glad to have.
I had been thinking about ending this daily practice of posting for a few months, but the decision to “pause” for an extended period of time solidified last month during my retreat at Longlea.
We are once again in a similar situation, but this time the enemy is even more viscerally one of flesh and blood: the sour grapes of a virus that has set the world’s teeth on edge. My institution, like many others, has suspended its in-person classes. And the question can easily arise: Why bother learning? People are dying. More people are going to die. Reading a book seems to be at best a ridiculous self-indulgence, at worst a repudiation of trying at least to do something useful.
On that score, what Lewis had to say in 1939—mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus, and all the rest of it—has something to say to us now. For he had to face the same question. Given Hitler, given Mussolini, given all of it, why go to school? How can one justify it? “Is it not like fiddling,” Lewis asks, “while Rome burns?” The way in which he responds to this question is at once incisive and illuminating.
The first thing he does is to set the war, and the way it might make one radically rethink his priorities, against a deeper, broader, and more cosmic backdrop. That is to say, the drama of life occurs in the midst not only of temporal concerns like war or disease, but also of eternal ones, namely heaven and hell. Everyone is on his way to one or the other. Thus “every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.” The last enemy is not one of flesh and blood.
This is not to say that the war is completely unimportant, but rather that it is not–cannot be–the most important thing. Lewis is not attempting to be callous or to perform what is known on Twitter as a “Jesus juke.” His point is that “[i]f human culture can stand up to that [i.e. the question of one’s eternal destiny], it can stand up to anything.” If we think that culture and learning are important even when taking the last things and eternity into account, then they are a fortiori important when taking earthly calamity into account.
After all, war and disease do not create death where there was no death before. We were already mortal. What they do instead is “simply [to] aggravate the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” And if we waited to “search for knowledge” until we had solved the problem of death, “the search would never have begun.”
When we think about death, we realize that “[l]ife has never been normal.” …
It is a difficulty that this all sometimes must occur under the shadow of catastrophe. This makes us anxious, and that is not surprising. But Lewis counsels that you “not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament is more abnormal than it really is.” To return to an earlier point, conditions will never be ideal, and “[i]f we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.” But the truth is that “[t]he only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”
Consider this moment in time through the lens of striving for virtue, striving for excellence. Does this time make that striving harder, more difficult? Does it dispel some of the fog of the everyday and help you see more clearly what the essential things in this life are? To pursue virtue, to pursue excellence is to thrive in the midst of the unfavorable conditions of the everyday, and what these unusual days can help prepare us for is precisely that: our eventual return to the everyday and the unfavorable—even if more mundane-seeming conditions that come with the territory of that life.
And what are saints except those who have lived heroic lives of virtue, who have encountered God, amidst the ordinary and extraordinary in every generation? I’m thinking of John Paul II, who went home to God on April 2nd, 2005. I remember listening to the tolling of the bells of Rome through Fr. Roderick Vonhögen’s Catholic Insider podcast, through his distinctive “soundseeing” episodes of that time where he simply walked the streets of Vatican City and let who knows how many of us feel closer to the only Holy Father that many of us had ever known. Jason Evert writes in his book Saint John Paul the Great:
In the final months of his life, his face was swollen from cortisone (he had Parkinson’s). His aides stood at his side to wipe drool from his mouth as he attempted to address massive audiences.
The man who for decades masterfully used inflections and dramatic intonations to stir the hearts of his listeners could now only slur his words. But John Paul didn’t want anyone to look away in embarrassment. He wanted them to see him, for their own benefit. The man who taught the world how to live was now teaching them how to die.
Lying in his bed, he asked that the Gospel of John be read aloud. His last words were (in Polish) Pizwolcie mi odejc do domu Ojca—Let me go to the house of the Father.
He once said: “Just when night engulfs us, we must think about the dawn coming, we must believe that every morning the Church is revived through her saints. Not because they have conquered the world, but because they allowed Christ to conquer them.”
What are we doing now and what are we going to do later? Are we going to let ourselves reflect in this time and let it change our lives after this time in our life is over?
Are we going to recognize that these questions apply to every day of our lives?
Yesterday I walked to Saint Stephen Martyr for confession. Spring is emerging in its fullness in Georgetown, so the walk there was beautiful. I also saw my first Biden yard sign.
It was the first time I’ve set foot in a church since the pandemic closures, since I got back from my Longlea retreat three or so weeks ago. As I sat in the empty church after confession, it was reassuring to hear the organist still practicing—knowing Easter will come shortly whether we’re together in person or not.
Like Romano Guardini’s “The Lord”, there’s a closeness and an immediacy with Christ through the book. There’s a fresh renewed sense of what friendship with this person of Christ should look like and might feel like. Here’s Pakaluk in an early commentary in the book:
“People intuitively sense that where God is, their happiness is. Take this together with Jesus’ having clearly displayed that he could heal everyone and remove every evil and infirmity if he so willed, and it was natural that his appearance was seen as a harbinger of some kind of radical translation of the whole world into a perfect state.”
Washington feels largely emptied out since self-distancing and quarantine/lockdown really came into place in mid-March. And since Mayor Bowser’s formal stay-at-home order, the feeling of emptiness has increased somewhat. I still get out to go for runs, and public exercise is allowable along with other reasons to be out like heading for groceries, etc.
Americans in the millions have lost their jobs over the past few weeks, and unemployment claims are expected to continue to grow by the millions. Depending on how long this lasts, it’s possible we could be looking at Great Depression-level unemployment numbers.
In light of that, I’m especially thankful to still be working. And I’m grateful to be in Washington in this time and to still be able to head into the office periodically to pick up essential correspondence and do what needs to be done in person.
The sings of spring are all around and the days are growing increasingly beautiful. It’s tough to want to be indoors, even as we recognize that this self-distancing is prudent and necessary to contain the spread of the virus and “flatten the curve” of demand on our doctors and hospital staffs. Hopefully we can turn the corner soon, and figure out how to restore work to those who have lost it in the weeks and months to come.
I’ve been letting too many of the days under quarantine go by from waking to sleeping without meaningfully getting outdoors. As our typical routines have evaporated, the simple interludes in our day that we end up taking for granted or complain about turn out to be key bookends that give structure to our days: our commute, stepping our for coffee or lunch, taking a walk during an afternoon call, heading to an evening dinner or event, heading to noon Mass, etc.
All of that has effectively disappeared, and so now we have to do it intentionally. Today I decided to get out during lunchtime and got in a nice ~5.5 mile run along the Potomac. And tonight I’m meeting a colleague in Arlington for a good walk and conversation.
Simple things are also essential things and it’s good not to take them for granted, but to engage each of them as a gift.
As we debate the right prudential balance between the harms posed by the health crisis on the one hand and the economic crisis on another, it’s helpful to look back and get a sense of how things were done in the past. An aspect of the debate has been what we should classify as “essential” versus “non-essential” businesses, associations, and purposes. Basically, what must we keep open out of necessity and what should be closed in order to diminish the spread of the virus.
It’s been a legitimate frustration for many that some states are classifying abortion and Planned Parenthood as “essential” on the one hand, and that the Catholic bishops across the country have stopped public Masses—and that some governors are not only labeling churches as “non-essential”, but that Bill de Blasio recently threatened “permanent” closure of any religious institutions in New York that decide to convene for worship. We have to be careful to avoid using a bureaucratic vocabulary and avoid the false “essential” versus “non-essential” binary which obscures more than it reveals.
When it comes to the closures of churches, Bishop Regis Canevin shows that even a century ago it was understood as prudent to close churches for a limited time:
The Department of Public Health throughout the country are taking unusual precautions to prevent the further spread of influenza which is already epidemic in a number of places. In some districts of Western Pennsylvania churches and schools are closed and all public meetings are forbidden. It is indeed a great hardship for Catholics to be deprived of the opportunity to assemble for Mass and other divine services in their churches; but when, in the judgment of the civil authorities, whose duty it is to safeguard public health, it becomes necessary to close churches and schools and take other strong precautions against epidemics of virulent disease, the only rule for pastors and people is to co-operate with the civil authorities of their district, obey the laws, and comply with regulations that are enacted for the common good.
In the city of Pittsburgh, churches are not to be open for public services; no congregation or group of persons is allowed to assemble in them. Public meetings are prohibited.
Regis Canevin, Bishop of Pittsburgh
What is essential in a time like this is sacrifice, humility, and a willingness to suffer in any number of ways—even if that simply means suffering alongside those who are physically ill from the virus, or economically devastated from the economic crisis that this virus is causing, or who are suffering in other ways at this time.
This is what solidarity is about: standing alongside one another, asking God for the graces necessary to live well through this time, and persevering in a spirit of hope and service to those in our lives who may be vulnerable in all sorts of ways.
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.
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.
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?