I’m sure you have had an experience like this: You have fond memories of a place that you loved in your past. But you have been away from it for a while. You talk to a lot of people about how much you are looking forward to being there again. Your memory is filled with images and scents and conversations and feelings that you carefully remember and meditate on. It comes close to going there again and your expectations are heightened.
The day finally arrives and you get to the place of your dreams. But it is nothing like you remembered! Things have changed. Cherished moments can no longer materialize since the place is different. Sure, some things are in their proper place but the light is different, the sounds seem strange and you feel that sadness of loss. You can’t experience things the way you dreamed them. Everything is changed. You can’t go home again.
This Pandemic has had such farsighted and profound effects on the global community that going back to the way things were, to the ‘normal’ so to speak, is not possible. Everything has changed: our perceptions of reality, our view of who we are in the vast scheme of things, and most of all on the vulnerability and the transitory quality of our existence. I mean existence both as individuals and as a community.
So, it is important for us to try to understand these changes in perception and in reality, that have occurred and to begin to understand their implications.
At the very center of Christian Spirituality is a distinction between the earthly and the heavenly. We are exhorted in Scripture to be more concerned about the things that are above than the things of earth. This strikes the modern ears as absurd! Heaven and the things above seem just like pie in the sky. It smacks of the abdication of responsibility for the care of the earth and the here and now.
In the supposed readjustment that occurred as a consequence of the adaptation of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching to the action of the Church in real time (many argue whether or not the implementation of the Council’s teaching was beneficial or erroneous in some way) the ‘other worldly’ quality of the Church’s teaching (concern for things above) was lost. Many say that the concern of many young priests to bring back the old Latin Mass is an attempt to return to that other worldly concern.
I mention this tension because one of the things this Pandemic has been teaching us is that this world is fragile and, therefore, as Catholic Christians, we must readjust ourselves to a more solid concentration on our preparation for the eternal life for which we have been created. This is not our abiding city. We are all passing through. Any attempt to make this world the ultimate concern of our endeavors is like building our castle on sand. It will not last. This is the ultimate lesson of this pandemic. Focus on the future for which this earth is merely a preparation.
Along with this insight comes this sense of mutual solidarity in our essential vulnerability. This little bug has humbled us and has shown that all the scientific advancement as well as the growth of secular concerns (sometimes with the abandonment of Christ’s teaching) cannot mask (excuse the pun!) that we are here for only a brief time and that this is no abiding city, nor everlasting stay.
This helps us with the need for detachment from the concerns of this worldly prelude and the need for a proper reordering of our priorities so that we can both value creation as gift, but also reject worldly concerns on our journey to God’s Kingdom.
These thoughts are not easy to digest since they are not mirrored in any way in the popular culture around us. Death and talk of death have become the new obscenity. You hear on TV and on computer sites so much about sex that in previous times would never be uttered even in private. But when talking about someone’s death, we used to say “passing away”, but even that was judged as too harsh by our culture. So, someone just ‘passes’ like two ships in the night!
In the history of Christianity, there was even a welcoming of death. Think of St. Joseph who is invoked as the patron of a ‘happy death’. There cannot be a happy death in a godless world that does not believe in God or eternal life. Death is the ultimate absurdity and the final and ignominious end of our lives, rendering our existence as meaningless.
To confront this pandemic with a believer’s confident hope that even death may have its purpose is to say the least ‘counter-cultural’.
As Christians, we must never be sucked into that hopelessness. This is perhaps the ultimate lesson of this present earthly tribulation.