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

‘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.

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.

Proactive school closures and pandemics

As the COVID-19 virus dominates the news this week, many American colleges and universities are sending students home for either a few weeks or for the remainder of the semester. Science offers perspective on why this works:

Proactive school closures—closing schools before there’s a case there—have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults—parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home.

There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.

As with so many other aspects of this unplanned social experiment, it will be interesting to see what long term impact these closures/shifts to online instruction have on education from kindergarten through to colleges and universities. It’s not quite homeschooling, but it’s the closest many Americans might come to ever considering viable alternatives to our largely broken government schools models of instruction, and the secondary functions of dual earner lifestyle/daycare support that they tend to provide.

Natural beauty in the full vitality of youth

“How does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?” Glenn Arbery asks Wordworth’s question from Tintern Abbey:

Wordsworth looks to nature itself as a teacher; at Wyoming Catholic, we speak of nature as “God’s first book.” The powers implicit in natural forms impress themselves upon the imagination, and Wordsworth reflects, at the age of 28, on what this influence feels like in his own life:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

His original experience of Tintern Abbey—like the first, “magical” view of a particular mountain scene that one of the juniors described in class this week—passed without deliberate effort into his memory, and the memory has been responsible for “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that revive him and give him restored hope in his hours of weariness. But the effect does not stop there. He thinks that this gift of nature has made him morally better than he might have been. Why? Because the pleasure he took in such beauty has worked against meanness or envy and disposed him to “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Call these experiences, if you will, the natural underpinnings of charity.

How does nature—and more specifically, natural beauty—move within us and move us after we encounter it? A great life could be built simply by considering this question and attempting to answer it in the place one chooses to live, the sort of home one chooses to craft, and the sort of marriage and family one fosters.

The backwards law

After work yesterday I took the Metro with two colleagues home from Farragut West to Rosslyn, mainly so we could continue a conversation we had started and partly because I’m tired of my walk home along M Street. Heading to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge gave me this:

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How great are the great things in our lives that we don’t need to pursue but simply recognize and enjoy.  Alan Watts wrote about this and Mark Manson riffs on it:

Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.

Realize that you need to forgive someone

Bishop Robert Barron’s Lenten Gospel Reflection for today is very meaningful to me in this season. I’m heading to the Catholic Information Center for Mass today.

Matthew 5:20-26

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus commands us to be reconciled with one another. I want to say something about the role of forgiveness in repairing our broken relationships.

When you are at worship and realize that you need to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and do it. Go get reconciled, then come back. It’s like a rule of physics. There is something hidden in the deep mystery of God, and I can’t fully explicate it. Somehow, if there is a lack of forgiveness in you, it blocks the movement of God in you. Perhaps it’s simply because God is love, and so whatever is opposed to love in us blocks the flow of God’s power and God’s life.

One reason we do not forgive is that we feel that some injustice has been done to us, and we resent it. A good cure for this feeling is to kneel before the cross of Jesus. What do you see there? The innocent Son of God nailed to the cross—the ultimate injustice. What does he do? He forgives his persecutors. Meditate on that, and your sense of being treated unjustly will fade away.

Reflect: Is there a lack of forgiveness in you somewhere? Kneel before the cross of Jesus often during Lent and see what happens.

Adopting an appreciative attitude

Daniel Chambliss in The Mundanity of Excellence, which I came across through James Clear’s newsletter:

At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport that the ‘C’ swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30 A.M. practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.

Alongside attitude, Chambliss identifies discipline and technique as key factors of excellence.

Protect Women Protect Life Rally

I spent this morning in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for the “Protect Women Protect Life Rally” in support of Louisiana’s “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act”. Americans United for Life joined with Live Action, Alliance Defending Freedom, Students for Life, and Louisiana Right to Life and others to put this rally together.

As we were rallying outside, the U.S. Supreme Court was in session and hearing oral arguments concerning Louisiana’s law. We expect a ruling to be handed down in June.

 

Worship of initiatives

I was at Mass in the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle sometime last year when the pastor spoke for a few minutes about the need to contribute to a fundraising appeal. The needs of the Cathedral were not conveyed in terms of strengthening the community of faithful or, particularly, the missionary imperative of the Gospel. Instead, the fundraising need was put in terms of the vast number of “programs” that the Cathedral serves as home for—and how these programs would be hurt if the appeal’s goals were not met.

On Feb. 27th, Pope Francis warned that “worship of initiatives” risks “replacing the essential” and “risks becoming the yardstick of communion”:

In his speech, Francis outlined the different reasons why priests may become “embittered” in their ministry, noting that his observations came from many conversations with priests and are not only his opinion.

Today, he said, there seems to be a “general atmosphere” of “widespread mediocrity” – and not only in the priesthood.

“The fact remains that much bitterness in the life of a priest” is rooted in the omissions of his bishop, Francis said in a footnote of the speech.

Priests risk losing their ministry as pastors, their role as teachers of the faith, he said, as they become “suffocated” by management problems and personnel emergencies.

But, he added, “who is the catechist of that permanent disciple who is the priest? The bishop of course!”

Francis said it could be argued that priests do not usually want to be educated by bishops, but even if this is true, “it is not a good reason” for bishops to give up the “munus docendi.”

“The holy people of God have the right to have priests who teach them to believe; and deacons and priests have the right to have a bishop who teaches them in turn to believe and hope in the One Master, the Way, the Truth and the Life, who inflames their faith,” he said.

The pope also said that, as a priest, he would want his bishop to help him believe, not just make him happy, and lamented that often bishops end up only attending to their priests in times of crisis, and not making the time to listen to them outside of emergencies.