What we’re doing now and what we’ll do later

E. J. Hutchinson writes on “learning in quarantine,” reflecting on his post-September 11th experience and C.S. Lewis’s 1939 Learning in War-Time address:

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, 2015. 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?

Palm Sunday during pandemic

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 stepped 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.

And today I joined Fr. Charles Trullols via YouTube stream for his noon Palm Sunday Mass:

It’s a beautiful day out, hitting 70 degrees probably, so I’m heading out for a run.

Into a perfect state

I spent today with Michael Pakaluk’s latest book, “The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark“. Perfect for Holy Week and Easter, and a rich and fresh way to encounter Christ through Peter.

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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.”

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday.

Rose Park in springtime

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.

Potomac pandemic run

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.

Spanish Flu and solidarity

A century ago the Spanish Flu tore through the United States and the world for three years, an influenza that infected one of every four people on earth and killed at least 17 million human beings, but probably millions more.

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:

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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.

‘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?

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).

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.

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“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

‘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.”