Like everyone else, I am trying to absorb the historical moment in which we stand and to take some measure of it. There are times when I am reminded of high and low points of the Civil Rights movement, the struggles for justice and peace in the 1960s and early 1970s (from Vietnam to the early stirrings of liberationist movements), and, more globally, of the upheavals in Europe and China in 1989, and, in 1994, the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
Still, this is a unique moment—one peculiar to where we find ourselves as a nation among nations in 2020, when social media and communications have elevated our common humanity and demoted the many ways we have traditionally partitioned society and our “common” life, our life together. We are at a point, it seems, where we have come to realize anew that in order to function as we have been functioning, we have been sipping a tonic of lies.
Yet this seems to be a moment when a critical mass of people want to clear away the tangle of lies and to start anew, with a clean slate, and a commitment to truth—to what must and can be possible for us. At its best, this is a time when the young will see visions, and the old dream dreams (Acts 2:17). At its worst, we risk the pitfalls of self-delusion and the judgmentalism of having been newly “woke.”
Each of us wants to act; we want to see how this story ends (or at least how it arcs in the medium-term), and we want to participate in the making of the story. We want to become ever more engaged with life, to help make it happen. Here is where frustration can set in, where some must be content to be the old men whose “action” consists in dreaming, in saying the dreams with a creaking voice, in encouraging others to act, to bring visions into reality: to live in a hope where the promise of history blossoms forth, where our part of the story is made complete.
This is that time of year when we breathlessly await the spectacle of Mr. Cactus Head. As you can see, he is working on producing more of his otherworldly blossoms, and in the not-too-distant future. You might also observe that over the winter he grew a nose! Keep peeled to this page for further developments.
As you may know, I have been living with cancer for almost three years now. Recently I decided to embark upon hospice. This morning I found myself writing the following to a young person who had written me, and then I thought that this much of what I wrote is perhaps worth sharing with you:
Yes, I’ve prayerfully moved into hospice, and it has been just the right decision. It was the fruit of a real discernment, one that has left me with an overall and fairly deep peace. I do hope that some of my beloved friends who are understandably torn up over this could experience the peace that I have known since making the decision. It hasn’t been pain free; of course not. The cancer advances and where it will take me I do not know. But I do know that I am in good and loving and caring hands, and that they are God’s hands reaching into my life, carrying me into unimaginable Love.
I leave you with my hope that the road on which you’ve embarked will lead you to many good things, captured, I think, so well in this poem by Kavafy, which I attach here.
BY C. P. CAVAFY
TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Someone passed on to me this poem by Mary Oliver, “I Happened to Be Standing.” Perhaps you know it; I didn’t. But it speaks to me these days as I watch birds and squirrels outside my study window and try to turn these odd days into a kind of extended retreat, soaking in and treasuring the miracles of nature popping up all around us. We probably all need this kind of escape these days—an escape into a beautiful reality that surrounds us.
I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition?
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm.
I don’t know why. And yet, why not?
I won’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought of the wren’s singing, what could this be
If it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
April 19, 2020
When I was a boy, the first Sunday after Easter was known as “Low Sunday.” The previous Sunday had marked the greatest feast in the Christian year, in the Christian faith, and thus, anything following it had to be anticlimactic. Or so the thinking seemed to go. Yet, the Gospel was the same, John’s story about the doubting Thomas, and like today, Easter extended from Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost.
This year in particular, the moniker “Low” might seem appropriate enough. Easter itself felt “low” due to the shelter-in-place orders most everyone has all been faithfully observing. In fact, things are so low at this point in the Covid-19 catastrophe, that what we celebrate on Easter and in this season might get lost in the overall sense of panic that has beset many of us. For we were celebrating—remembering—the fact that in Jesus, God acted in and through suffering and death to conquer it and bring about a new creation. and that this new creation is the foundation of our hope: That even in the midst of the worst suffering, and in the face of death itself, God’s grace is constantly on offer.
It is tempting to attribute this Easter faith to a Christianized version of a myth of eternal return, or a theological gloss on the obvious wonder of new life springing forth from winter’s hardened earth and appearance of death. But that is not what this is about, lovely as those images are, and even helpful in inspiring a sense of possibility, a future. For the death that was conquered in the Resurrection of Jesus was a real, bodily death. And that body was itself an outward expression of the fact that God had entered fully into the human condition in Jesus (that other feast we celebrate in December, the Incarnation). What the Incarnation tells us is that our human natures are made for this union with God, accomplished fully in Jesus, and analogously accomplished in us through a lifetime of grace ever abounding. Aquinas reminds us that the finality of a human life is in union with God, and that that human life includes the body. Of course, we are not speaking of a union of a physical body with God—an absurdity—but of the whole of our persons, symbolized by the body, in God. What makes Christian faith in the Resurrection a real thing—what anchors it—is not the sheer will to believe. It is, rather, that there is something to be discovered in this embodied existence, where Christ dwelt, with all its suffering, with the ineluctability of death: that God is found there; God resides there. And that the human, human nature, is entrée into the full reality of God. The conditions for union with God, completion in God, are set even before we are aware of that fact—or even if we are never made aware of it. But those with the gift of faith are aware of this fact, and that makes all the difference as we face death. When Jesus quite often counsels his disciples to “fear not,” he is pointing to a profoundly challenging dimension of this faith, of believing: that we can let go of our fears, even in the midst of the most terrifying suffering, because God is radically present in the realities we inhabit and is there to lead us through all of this harrowing directly into a more intense union with himself.
But, accepting that is not an easy thing. In today’s Gospel, Thomas is reaching for that kind of faith. He wants to touch the wounds of Christ, not for empirical evidence of the Resurrection in a modern scientific sense, but in order to connect the Jesus he sees with the fact that Jesus is, as John reminds us at the start of his Gospel, the Word made flesh. It is this very Word-made-flesh that has now been raised from the dead. Thomas wants the complete experience of this fact—a somatic experience of the completeness of God’s work in Jesus as God’s promise for him. And his response is not one of a modern sceptic (I now have evidence, and so I’ll give it some credence); it is rather one of worship, of adoration, before the manifestation of the power of God’s love: “My Lord and my God!” For before this fact, this unity between Incarnation and Resurrection, there is a unity between our own embodied existence and God’s desire for us, his constant self-offer. We are made for this unity, this glory—for Resurrection understood as the finality of our embodied existence, the completion of our human natures in God.
All that said, the suffering and death we are witnessing and will continue to witness in the Covid-19 pandemic are overpoweringly real. They admit of no sugar-coating. But no death admits of sugar-coating, especially when it is tinged with human sinfulness, as in warfare or violence. But even here we are challenged, as Thomas was, to find the reality of God—in the suffering and dying, in their bodies breaking down, in the overwhelming fatigue and frustration of generous health-care workers, in researchers looking for answers, and even in the dark recalcitrance of some “leaders” in the face of truth. If we are suffering ourselves in some real physical way, especially when it involves pain, this can make the challenge even greater. We are not disposed toward the search. We simply want to retreat, to escape. As well we might and sometimes should. But none of that empties the Resurrection of its meaning; in fact, what we are witnessing and many undergoing only reinforces it. We are now focused on our embodied lives, lives shared across artificial boundaries, and finding among ourselves a common set of hopes and ideals. Like Thomas, we want to touch others where they have been most grievously wounded. We are seeking to overcome fear, and to face the darkness in which we stand, especially through gestures of love. Some of us believe that in so doing we are walking the pathways of hope, of entry into a new creation—a new order for the human race. Or that we are at least rediscovering the patterns that are possible but too easily forgotten when we also lose sight of the full meaning of our shared embodied existence, of the transcendence of the human spirit reaching toward God, and of God’s reaching toward us in the very heart of the sufferings (and joys) that we undergo.
When Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco died almost three years ago, he left behind many papers and books. Tucked among them was this one hand-written fragment:
Where shall I find the Messiah?
At the gate of the City, Elijah replied.
How shall I recognize him?
He sits among the lepers.
Among the lepers! What is he doing there?
He changes their bandages, Elijah answered. He changes them one by one.
* * *
At a time when frontline medical workers are the priests of our time, tending directly to the sick and the plague-stricken, this simple fragment hit me with special force. Let’s pray for all of these generous, brave, good people at this time.
What follows is based on a homily I gave on March 2. The Gospel was Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. I chose to focus on the words, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” what is God’s will? Perhaps it is simply another way of trying to express God’s deep desire for us, for our good, and through us, the good of others. In this prayer we ask for a congruence between our own desires and those of God: a harmony of wills, of desiring.
A beautiful thought, but not always easy. For it seems that God’s desire for our good, and even our desire for God’s desire, does not always result in consolation. Just the opposite. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he faces the suffering that will lead to his death: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” The ways of God as they play out in this mortal coil can be fraught, especially as we are asked to yield what is most precious, all that we have lived for and loved, all the love we have received, all that makes us ourselves: to hand it all over. The real test of these words, “thy will be done,” is how ready we are to face death, the relinquishment of all that we love.
I am afraid that this is where we will encounter our own deep resistance to God. For in the distance there stands the Cross, an emblem of death. As we grow closer to the Cross through age and suffering, it looms ever larger. We know that we have to go there ourselves one day. Our resistance to it is impossible to overcome by our own will; the only recourse is surrender, even through tears, to the sufficiency of God’s love and grace: “not my will, but yours be done.” There is something of the “Suscipe” in this prayer. The “Suscipe,” or prayer of God’s receiving, comes at the end of the Spiritual Exercises::
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
This prayer is almost incomprehensible or at best naïve if viewed as some heroic act of self-sacrifice. But it begins to make sense when seen as a reverential opening of ourselves to the uncontrollable power of divine love, inviting God to take from us, little by little—as if we were sharing—all that we are; and to receive it, to receive us. This is the other side of the agony in the garden, or where that agony leads: to an encounter with God that brings an end to agony—the God who invites us to enter into a season of ultimate intimacy. “Take, receive.” And thus, in love:, “O God, not my will, but yours be done,” “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Spring begins today. Long awaited!
Here a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Last night the PBS Newshour ran an interview with cellist Yo Yo Ma, who spoke of the consoling effect of music at times like these that we are all facing together. What really struck me in the interview was the self-description he gave of his own calling:
“When I was 19, I had a teacher who said, Yo-Yo, you haven’t found your voice.
“And I said, OK. And so I kept looking for my voice. And I think my voice is in finding the needs of others and then representing them. And that’s — and so, everywhere I go, it’s always about finding what people are thinking, feeling, how they think about themselves in the world.
“And if I can find something that they need, and if I can actually offer a little bit of something that is comforting, then that’s how I would define my job.”
It’s hard to imagine a better outlook now, or at any time. Here is the interview, in case you missed it: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/yo-yo-ma-on-encouraging-songs-of-comfort-amid-global-crisis