Our society has had a near-death experience. Will we emerge from it ready to live fully?
The decontamination station was set up by the front door. It included a box of disposable surgical masks, blue hospital booties and a generously sized bottle of hand sanitizer. At home, my family and friends had learned to follow this ritual against contagion five years before Covid-19 made it the norm in households around the world.
Chemotherapy and radiation were destroying my cancer cells—as well as my immune system. Long before our now-too-familiar lockdowns, I spent the better part of a year in isolation with my family, venturing out only to medical appointments. I was grateful that my doctors had allowed visits from friends, students and the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who are my neighbors and brought me the gift of Communion. During their visits, the always plain-spoken Sister Maria Lai suggested I keep notes about what I was learning. As a practiced spiritual director, she encouraged me to live into the possibility that what was revealed through my illness might flower into spiritually valuable insights.
None of us were sure I would survive. Cancer is that way. But I did recover, thanks to access to quality medical care that is out of reach for the majority of our world. During my treatments, that awareness of my first-world privilege became a demanding companion that opened windows into other questions I had not tried to answer before. Today, five years from those tough days spent in the chemo ward, I wonder if the strange realities of quarantine, illness and catastrophic events hold clues for us all about our times. Once again, maybe this is a propitious time to talk about what we are learning from the moment we are living through.
Sister Maria is not the only one urging consideration of these larger questions. From the new film “Soul,” to “Coco” and “A Ghost Story” in 2017, to the complex films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick, and even to the classic and hope-filled “Groundhog Day,” the arts and popular culture have often invited audiences to contemplate their mortality. These films share the ultimate goal of awakening us to joyfully loving and abundant living.
As the screenwriter Ron Austin warns in his book In A New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts, most of us “don’t really know how to see or listen.” This inattentiveness keeps us from embracing others and entering the dynamics of personal and societal transformation. Mr. Austin argues that one of the most important functions of the arts, especially films, is to take us through experiences of vulnerability, brokenness and mortality and to lead us to the insights these reveal. In this, the arts can be a vital part of how we approach religion. As St. John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Artists” in 1999, “Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves,” and so “[f]aced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.” Thus, we who are alive are often not living at all. And those who face mortality with honesty have the potential within them to awaken to the wonder of life in truly revelatory ways.
It does not take much to see that mainstream American culture works incessantly at obscuring our mortality and the vulnerability of our societal constructions. We worship youthfulness and invest vast amounts of money in strategies that help us feign it. We closet away our sick and elderly in what we euphemistically call “homes.” We define normalcy as a state where every part of our body works flawlessly, leaving little room for anyone who needs our world to adapt to them and facilitate their being among us.
We who are alive are often not living at all.
We glamorize unattainable levels of what some of us unilaterally determine as physical perfection, shamelessly selling the possibility of desirability and wealth that come with it. In doing all this, we neuter the power of vulnerability, fragility and our need for each other, instead seeking an imagined autonomous individuality and the kind of dominance that will hold us accountable to no one. The implosion of our present society in the United States—which has exposed poverty, inequality, racism and violent nativism—is the logical consequence of our studied alienation from our own humanity. St. John Paul II was right: We don’t know ourselves at all.
Such bewildering resistance to attending to the fragility of existence represents the opposite of the insights about being human that are a natural part of the Christian story. We like to assert that God is teaching us—in God’s solidarity with all flesh in human history through the person of Jesus Christ—how it is that despite brokenness, life erupts in all its glory. But for many, many months, countless numbers of our fellow humans have been living through a Calvary of sorts.
Over two million have lost their lives in less than a year to something unexpected, unknown and unrelenting. However, and most incongruously, rather than opening ourselves up in compassion, many of us have done everything we can to avoid acknowledging our fragility, our dependence on each other and, most sinfully, our responsibility for one another. Religious traditions, the arts and the experiences of suffering human beings all invite us to realize something, yet it seems that we are hell-bent (and I do mean hell) on missing it. We have had a near-death experience of earth-shaking magnitude. Will we emerge from it awake and ready to live fully the abundant life Jesus came to bring with and for one another?
The list of events that have rained destruction on our world lately is long. We start with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, the revelations of manipulation, violation, cover-up and normalization of acts that destroyed the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community, our children. From there we take in the relentless victimization of women through domestic violence, systemic exclusion and the silent complicity of our entire culture. As our gaze widens even farther, we are forced to reckon with the racism that prevails in many white churches, pointed out movingly by Martin Luther King Jr. six decades ago as he addressed fellow clergy members from a jail cell in Birmingham.
In words that sound as if they were written today, he warns in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963 that instead of being allies against racism, too many congregations and their leaders “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” All of these painful experiences should have been enough to bring us to our knees in humility, lead us to acknowledge our brokenness and then raise us up in solidarity. But there was so much more to come.
All of these painful experiences should have been enough to bring us to our knees in humility.
A microscopic virus seemingly jumped from non-human communities into ours, using our bodies to spread death and disease to every hemisphere. The inadequacy of health care systems was exposed, economies crumbled and, as always, the vulnerable of the world paid the highest price.
And then there was Jan. 6, 2021, when the world’s self-proclaimed model democracy suffered a violent and deadly insurrection against its laws and lawmakers. Our country, which had lost much of its moral high ground with the election of Donald Trump and the years of lies he unleashed, now lived through the bloody results of electing so-called leaders for whom wielding unbridled personal power was the only goal.
And then there is climate change. Its effects are already catastrophic and caused in large part by our unrepentant greed.
This is not one hill of Calvary, it is many: humanity crucified and humanity doing the crucifying. This hill of suffering and death is at the center of our Christian story for a reason. When Christ could have been our model, we instead chose to become his executioners. When God came to show us how to love, we instead killed that love on a cross. Is not the same story playing out today? In the United States, many of us have felt safe and far from the kind of suffering many other humans across our planet live with every day. Privileged and powerful, we have refused asylum to the desperate, access to health care to the sick, healing regulations to our agonizing environment and food and housing to the poor.
We thought we were so powerful that we could set our own terms for reality.
We thought we were so powerful that we could set our own terms for reality. How is that working out for us? Has God perhaps done as Mary promised and “dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart” (Lk 1:51)? Can we take this moment of absolute vulnerability to imagine who we can be as a people? Coming close to death in so many ways, can we embrace a new life?
I have no predictions about when the coronavirus might be eradicated, or when our economies might recover. I cannot see ahead into what may happen to our glaciers and to other species, but I can say this about our own species: We have the potential within us to learn and to change. The Cross was not a way to expiate our sin; it was the emblem of our sin so we may never forget it, and with hearts broken and open sin no more.
Rediscovering the Magis
In my hospital chemo ward, I found out that faith cannot be predicated on things always going right. As Pedro Arrupe, S.J., learned in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II, faith grows expansively into unconditional love when it faces suffering with honesty. “Alone as I was,” wrote Father Arrupe, “I learned the knowledge of silence, of loneliness, of harsh and severe poverty; the interior conversation with the ‘guest of the soul’ who had never shown himself to be more ‘sweet’ than then.”
After cancer, I had to learn what it was to be alive after facing mortality, and the only way to do that was to live fully into the magis. James Martin, S.J., sums up this Latin term from St. Ignatius, so central to the Ignatian way of being in the world, as wanting “to do the more, the better, the greater for God. Not for ourselves.” St. Ignatius leads us to this insight as he encourages us to ask every day, “What more can I do for Christ?” If as a world we have come so close to death and yet still have the chance to pull ourselves back from the brink, how do we discover the magis and live by its demands? Let us add direction and purpose to our resolve, and let us give ourselves some magis-inspired goals.
Let us add direction and purpose to our resolve.
We must become an encountering people. The notion that an abundant life is one lived in encounter is a central teaching and hope of Pope Francis. The disasters of our time point us in this direction resolutely. As forced isolation turned us toward screens and away from each other, perhaps our new life can include fewer screens and an intentional seeking out of others in the flesh, in the sounds, smells, colors and feel of truly being alive. When we open our eyes to what is beyond us, we can experience heartache and be moved to action on climate change as glaciers melt. When we seek unvarnished truth that sees the suffering of others, we can be moved by our outrage to enact legislation to provide health care to the sick and to the immigrant a home.
Broken by division, as an encountering people we will want to know one another as together we dismantle racism. In this new lease on life we have been given, we must discover the truth of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s exhortation, that “to reach an understanding with one’s partner in a dialogue is not merely a matter of total self-expression and the successful assertion of one’s point of view, but a transformation into a communion, in which we do not remain what we were.” A people of encounter is a people always involved in the project of building lasting peace, where care for the other is demanded just because we have finally seen someone’s face.
We must become a kenotic people.There is a strangeness to the Greek term kenosis, which in the New Testament appears only in verbal form: kenóō, “to empty.” The concept of kenosis speaks of long ago, and it speaks of the otherness of Jesus, whose everyday acts were always countercultural. How often do we empty ourselves enough to allow the space to contemplate the fact that we are not made for ourselves and our own survival? In the solidarity of shared fragility, we can see ourselves decentered and all held together by the Spirit. When we try to undergo kenosis ourselves, it can help us discern the ultimate goal: to continue to love and work for a suffering creation, to do the work begun by Jesus as he envisioned God’s reign.
A people that is kenotic is always in the act of examining its motives.
Scholars tell us that St. Paul wrote his letter to the young church of Philippi that gives us the theology of kenosis while he was in prison, facing possible execution. Paul was jailed so many times that three different locations for his writing are possible, and yet (so paradoxically as to require us to pause) scholars also refer to this letter from prison as “the letter of joy.” In prison, Paul discovers that when we face our powerlessness and open our hearts fully to the Spirit, we become astonishingly free. In our wounded emptiness, we make room for grace. Before he puts forward his meditation on Jesus’ self-emptying, Paul exhorts the community: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
A people that is kenotic is always in the act of examining its motives, of removing all illusions of power, of becoming least—and rejoicing in being the servant to all in a life devoted to giving.
We must become a cosmic people.In the encyclical “Laudato Si’,”Pope Francis writes of the attitude of boundless and integral love toward the entire cosmos found in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Our contemporary Francesco describes how for his namesake, “each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists” (No. 11).
Pope Francis sees a direct connection between St. Francis’ way of living in the world as an ever-expanding love that breaks all boundaries and the saint’s “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (No. 11). Our cosmic kinship comes from seeing this relatedness and living into it. In describing ourselves as cosmic, we refuse to allow claims about the dominance of humanity over the rest of creation to absolutize what cannot be absolute, and to assert domination over a creation that is not ours but God’s. In seeing ourselves as a cosmic humanity, we are called to reach out constantly in search of an ever-widening circle of “us,” which includes not only the human race but all that God made and declared good (Gn 1:31).
We must become a people that values beauty. Finally, coming awake to our desire to be alive we come to its fullest representation: beauty. If we place being beautiful as a marker for the human race, this requires us to hold together the one and the many and to seek wholeness as a way to express our exuberance and fruitfulness. We become beautiful when we are abundant, not miserly, when we welcome difference rather than fear it, when we enjoy encounter and express ourselves in ever-widening circles of cosmic communion, becoming open and inviting to the whole world. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said “beauty will save the world” and St. John Paul II echoed him. What could that mean to a world that is experiencing unrelenting calamities?
Beauty—in its presence or its absence—is an ethical marker.
Beauty is not an idea; it is visible and felt; it engenders love within us and invites us to it. Similarly, the absence of beauty repels us—and is also a very efficient way for us to notice what is wrong and needs our attention.
Beauty—in its presence or its absence—is therefore an ethical marker, a pointer, an assurance of being on the right path or of having terribly failed. The year 2020 was, for many, one lacking beauty in almost every sense. Because of this experience, we know exactly what the absence of beauty looks and feels like in particular moments. We know what is wrong, missing, in need of healing. If we hold ourselves to the requirement of being beautiful, then exclusion, animus, bickering, blame and all other forms of ugliness quickly become obvious signs of abject failure. If we are to be beautiful, we must replace these with inclusivity, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
Beauty is not difficult to spot, but as the theologian Alex García-Rivera expressed it, “beauty must be loved to be known.” Beauty will call us to it in our very hearts and ask from us love to keep it alive. And when it is heartbreakingly absent—as during many of these moments that will inevitably continue to come—the heartbreak will call us to the type of radical transformation that welcomes beauty back, that allows us to see it when it is there, and that fills our hearts with love again.
Beauty is every moment when we make present the reign of God.
When we embrace these markers of transformation, we will be able to say that after we were broken, we rose again ready to live out the magis,Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.