And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best. (Saint Thomas More to his daughter Margaret, from the Tower of London)
If there is one thing Passiontide tells us, it’s that God brings good out of evil, and out of the greatest evil – the murder of the Christ, as Pope John Paul put it in Salvifici Doloris God-made-Man – God brings the greatest good, our eternal salvation. Behold, I make all things new….
The world has by and large lost sight of this good news, for so many consider nothing but the confining confines of this world alone. Just as Pius XII declared in 1946, in the wake of the horrors of World War II, that the greatest sin of this century was the loss of the sense of sin, so too, obversely, we may say that one of the greatest tragedies of our age is a corresponding loss of the sense of good, that is, our true good, and not all the tinsel and baubles that surround us in this passing pilgrimage.
Thomas More had many accolades, lands, wealth, power, privilege, as Chancellor, the second in the kingdom, next to the king, and the king’s confidante and trusted adviser – all dross, to the mind of More, who valued far more his wife, his children, his home at Chelsea, and he would be quite content. But even these were taken away, when More could not in good conscience sign Henry’s Oath of Supremacy, making him Head of the Church in England, usurping the rightful, spiritual and supreme authority of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ (which title he still holds, regardless of what you have heard of Pope Francis’ footnoting).
Thomas More claimed he was not the stuff of which martyrs were made, even though he gave his head for his Faith. Deus providebit, and fulfills what human weakness may not. In this crisis, thus far, many of us have demonstrated that, far from the resolute martyrs, we are not the stuff of which even More was made. Some of our pleasures and distractions have been taken from us, and even the consolation of the Holy Mass and the sacraments. It may benefit us, pondering in our isolation, as did Thomas in his dank cell in the Tower (hoping our homes are a trifle more comfortable), whether this time of detachment may bring out much good.
So here, dear reader, is a brief list of things we may learn, or have already learned, to appreciate more than we might have:
Silence: Yes, le grand silence, as the Carthusians might put it, along with Robert Cardinal Sarah. Or even Will Smith in the 2007 film I am Legend (itself based on the 1971 film, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, in turn based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, I am Legend, so what goes around, comes around), the last man on earth, after a plague magnitudes worse than the current flu pandemic over which the world has shut down, declares, ‘The world is quieter now. If you listen, you can hear God’s voice’. And so it is, dear reader, if you have ears to hear, and can get to a place, in your restlessness, that is quieter than usual. It is in the ‘still, small voice’ that the prophet heard the Lord.
Reflection: Staying still, both interiorly and exteriorly, allows us, as Garrigou-Lagrange put it in his masterpiece, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, to make an examination of conscience, which so many never seem to do, always moving, plugged in, distracted, anything but look inside – and know – thyself.
Family life: Ah, yes, a re-appreciation, or an appreciation for the first time, of family life, of living with our kith and kin. Of course, Saint Philip Neri once said vita communis mortificatio maxima, the life in common is the greatest mortification. Yet it can also be the greatest joy, fulfillment, opportunity for growing in virtue. As Aristotle said, only a beast or a god can live alone. So, for those readers who do live alone, be sure to reach out, and as the old Bell commercial used to have it, and touch someone.
Homeschooling: As one author put it, younger children are now, perforce with all the daycares closed, home with their mothers, as is fitting. And, more than that, with the schools also barred shut, the children are either playing World of Warcraft all day, or, one would hope, being homeschooled. Here’s hoping the bloated public system suffers the demise it so richly deserves.
Reading: Indeed, the age of the book is not done for, but alive and well, and one hopes that we are all taking advantage of these down days to read a bit more, to pick up that novel, biography, history or cultural commentary you’ve always pondered perusing.
Music: I am a fan of making one’s own music, if at all practical and possible, getting together around a piano, with perhaps a violin or guitar, or even the best instrument of all, the human voice. Sing, learn a song or two or three.
Hobbies: These are your oyster, from sketching to woodwork, to poetry or fitness, delve in, more than you might have, when life was ‘normal’.
The love of one’s own locale: For those of you not yet under house arrest in this police-state universal lockdown – let’s call it for what it is, and not a ‘quarantine’ of the sick and vulnerable, which any sane policy would follow. If you can get out and about, discover the beauty of the area around you. As Chesterton wrote in one of his essays, we so often travel the world – which may now be a bygone era – and forget what wonders might find in our own backyard. In one real sense, the whole universe is contained in a rose.
Our own oft-neglected spiritual life: Learning to pray, to be with and present to God, to realize more fully what things are really all about, and that they’re not about this transient life.
And, now, on the flip side, just a few things we might learn to de-appreciate (or is that de-preciate?)
This transient life: Yes, we’re all going to die someday, and all the saints had a vivid sense of memento mori, one we are being asked, by force of circumstances, to cultivate more deeply. Life is good, but only a penultimate good, as John Paul II reminds us. The ultimate good is heaven, and we should all long to get there. Then again, if you don’t believe in heaven, or hell, or anything much but this life, why wouldn’t you burn the world down, or at least lock it down until it all crumbles, to eke out a bit more time to eat, drink and be merry?
Professional Sports: I know this is controversial, and some guys really love their sports, but the bloated, boondoggle enterprise it had all become needs a scaling down, a humbling, a re-appropriation of its place in the universe, along with scale of values and time commitment. Turn all the stadiums into hospitals, if push comes to shove.
Gym memberships: I know these places, with their mirrors, their sweaty machines, the hamster-esque treadmills, the skin-hugging yoga pants and leggings, may be necessary for some, who live in desultory, unsafe cities – which may become more so after this crise – or in places covered snow and ice and temperatures approaching absolute zero for eight months of the year. But, if you are able, get outside to exercise, in God’s good sunshine, fresh air, and pummel thy body against the reality of this world, its solid earth, its crisp clean water, its hills and vales and trails.
And while we’re on the topic, cities: If you don’t have to live in one, then why? Perhaps the recent crisis, with fistfights over toilet paper, lockdowns and lineups, has made many realize, why not the country, the slower life, again, the fresh air and sunshine, which cannot be emphasized enough?
Mediocre Liturgies: Here’s hoping the priest and laity return with renewed vigour for what the Mass really is – a sacrifice offered to God the Father – and that it needs not ‘the people’ to make it effective. Hence, facing ad orientem is really the only way to go.
A capitulating church: What is one to say? To keep liquor stores open – not that I’m complaining, mind you – and to shutter the churches entirely? No baptisms, no weddings, no viaticum, no Last Rites? Not even in simplified, distance-friendly form? I heard they have even shut down confessions in many dioceses, and I heard thought of doing so even where I am. The softness and secularity, even the paternalism and clericalism, of the ecclesia moderna is being made manifest, as are so many other things. Is the Church’s main concern the ‘safety’ of her members, as one high-level ecclesiastic put it? If so, it is news to this writer – and more on that in a later post. All I can say, for now, is where do we find grace in this time of need, but in the sacraments? Saint Peter’s rhetorical lament, where else do we go, O Lord, has now become all too real. Reflect, if you will, upon these words by Douglas Farrow. We may hope a stronger, more resolute and purified Church – perhaps a remnant, of sorts – may emerge from this.
Noise and distraction: See silence and reflection above. These are their evil anti-matter twins.
Anyway, these are just some thoughts that came to mind, on what good has come from this slowing down of the world, and of our lives. One might call it a divine kick in the pants. If God has to use a virus, whatever its origins, then so be it.
But while we may draw what good we might, we should also remember the ill and the dead, who need our prayers. But even here, we may hope that good comes from this suffering, and that heaven gains many souls, which is God’s primary end game, the only sport worth winning.