Thursday, April 6, 2023

Walking the Paschal Way in 2023

The days have come in which we celebrate the greatest events—the most mysterious and most revealing events—in all the ages of this vast universe; the events that encompass and ultimately define all of the meaning of the cosmos, of human history, of every nation and people, and of the lives of each one of us. Of course, I mean the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, the Word made flesh, incarnate God, true God and true man, the Savior of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the One who has been “lifted up” and is drawing all things to Himself.

The Paschal Triduum comes at a difficult period of time for me personally and for the world, where many momentous human crises are unfolding. We remain on the edge of possibilities and perils, and we know very little of how they will ultimately turn out. 

I was born and grew up in a society in which the 19th-20th centuries’ titanic achievements of human power over the physical world were simply facts of daily life. In the 1960s an intense optimism prevailed in Anglo-American society about the apparently “limitless” capacities of the power of science to make humans the masters of the world, and that this power would be used to “make the world better.” I have lived my adult life to this day in an increasingly complex and troubled period of history, in which we have begun to realize the dangers of our power even as we continue to expand and develop its reach ever more deeply into our environment, our mobility, our modes of perception and the expectations they engender, and even the structure and functioning of our bodies.

We are also slowly discovering—in the face of many complications, failures, and disasters—that there are “limits” to our power, that it bears fruit only as an aspect of the journey of the lives of human persons on the road of the delicate and precious earth that has been given to us. We need patience and wisdom on this path; we need open hearts to embrace its hardships, and trust to discover the possibilities that we don’t “own,” but which nonetheless invite us to a collaboration that engages all of our reason, freedom, and enthusiasm—including our vast technological competence—in the marvelous adventure of being human. 

In fact, the world is a “sign” that points us toward something greater: a limitless goodness and meaning, a loving, all-encompassing and transcending fulfillment that we long for but cannot manufacture by our own power. Nevertheless, many of us try to grasp this fulfillment by our own power, to measure it, control it, hoard it to ourselves or our group as the basis for our claim to “superiority” over others. This presumption begets violence. And we see violence all around us in the world of 2023.

In my life, I have learned a few things about both the possibilities and the limits of the human power, particularly the power of medical science. There is no cure for previously untreated late-stage Lyme Disease, but there is—if not a “cure”—at least the possibility of doctors helping us to put together an idiosyncratic regimen of life (including several carefully monitored prescriptions medications) that has kept me more-or-less physically and mentally “stable” for many years—important years during which we have raised our children. I continue to endure various limitations from my chronic illness and its effects, which means that I’m not planning on running any marathons (or walking any walk-a-thons). 

I don’t know what it might mean in the future, but at present I can still amble about and I can still read, study, and “stay on top of” current events. And I can still write, though it is becoming a bit harder because it requires so much energy (and you never realize how much energy a task requires until your energy is depleted by incapacity or [and!🙄] the process of aging). I feel like I am enrolled in the long school of learning-to-let-go, and I’m very stubborn. There is something deeply ambivalent about my stubbornness, but it’s in some respects a good thing. I want to live intensely the life I have been given, to aim myself at its purpose, to focus on what matters—what has been entrusted to me—and to learn from the mistakes I will inevitably make.

There are times when I feel anxious or perplexed, and I wonder what role (if any) I still have as a force for good in the world, a constructive presence to people near and far. The ongoing explosive transformation of media technology is broadening the ways we become aware all over the face of the earth of one another’s particular identities, hopes, and problems. This can become distorted and disorienting, or shallow and disengaging, so that we are inclined to be cynical or contemptuous of the neighbor who lives so far from us, who appears so “alien” to us, who expresses different opinions that we can so easily lash out against. On the other hand, if we are willing to invest ourselves as human persons on the Internet, there may emerge new possibilities to learn about one another and help bear one another’s burdens. The light of Jesus can shine through the Internet in ways I never would have guessed if I hadn’t experienced them myself. Media technology generates an “environment” within which we interact, and even a kind of personal and interpersonal “space” that so many people—for better or for worse—“inhabit” for significant portions of their day (the late Pope Benedict XVI called it “the digital continent”). It is a space that needs our attention; a space where people can be found and served. But it cannot be the foundational place for the whole human person, the bodily person who dwells in a physical place and time, and who needs companionship and love primarily and immediately in that place where they breathe, hunger and thirst, live and die.

In my own circumstances, there are some basic facts that I must remember. First off—although it’s sometimes hard for me to believe (because of what remains of my depression and all my emotional immaturity)—I really do have value as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. Clearly, I matter to my family. What I do and what I suffer affects them, because relationships are real and when we try to pretend otherwise we do real harm to ourselves and those who have been entrusted to us. I thank God for my family, and I hope and pray that I can serve them, love them, and always be grateful for them.

There is another sphere of human relationships that we engage by our work. I hope my long, laborious studies will form my own mind and heart with a deeper understanding and compassion. In my reading I discover the expressions of so many voices that long to be heard. I want to engage them not merely as a means for gathering information, but first of all to listen to them. Listening is an elusive and difficult task that produces no immediate external, tangible “product.” Our turbulent, rushed, mass-consuming, “results”-oriented, hyperpartisanized society lacks the patience for listening. Still, there can be no dialogue, no true inter-relationship between persons, no real human solidarity in our world, no space for giving and receiving mercy to one another, without listening. I want to take advantage of the special opportunity that the circumstances of my life give me to continue to read seriously (since I can read even while lying in bed, and this aspect of my mind is still full of vitality). I want to read not in a distracted way, not just to “pass time,” but as a real work undertaken with awareness, attention, and discipline, making the effort to listen to the voices of people telling their stories of their joys and sorrows, and to make the “prayer” of their hearts in some sense my own. 

I also have active communications skills, and I hope that my writing and other expressive work serves at least the few people who read, see, or hear it. One reason I write is in order to share with others some understanding of the larger picture of the world in which we live. We must care about what’s happening in our world, and bring to it (in whatever ways we can) the resources of mercy. Often the “works of mercy” are hidden, but they are essential to the Christian vocation in the world. My hope is that we might begin to cultivate a kind of “empathy” (a “seeing-things-from-the-perspective-of-others”) that enables us to respond constructively to the blizzard of information and all the elements of interconnectedness that link us in unprecedented ways to human experiences, human suffering, and human violence all over the world. Through empathy we can discover concrete ways of being-together with greater solidarity and fraternal love.

It may seem easy enough to cultivate empathy for persons and peoples who are undergoing great trials (though it requires attention and persistence if empathy is to become something more than a brief shallow sentiment). But we also must not hold ourselves aloof from some form of empathy (based on the recognition of the wounded humanity we share) even for those who are involved in causing troubles and imposing afflictions on others. This does not mean that we should not struggle against the evil they do, but it means that we cannot fight against their evil without also fighting “for” their humanity, for their change-of-heart and their healing (which we all need, in various ways—which makes us all beggars before the mercy of Christ).

We are all human beings, human persons. We all matter to the One who was crucified for all of our sins and who rose from the dead for all of us, the One who wants all of us to live forever with him. The most difficult position of all, of course, is to actually love and to be willing to forgive those who cause direct harm to ourselves. We know how hard it is to forgive even small injuries inflicted upon us. It is a work of mercy that grows, that must be continually renewed in our hearts so as to fill all the spaces where bitterness and grudges can still be stirred up. Jesus enables us to embrace the willingness to forgive others within the grace and strength of His forgiveness offered to all of us from the Cross. He suffers with us, reveals the Father’s mercy, and empowers us to be merciful, to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”

There is so much suffering in the world, so much loneliness, so much ignorance of God’s infinite love. Those of us who have encountered the crucified and risen Christ—how can we not want to share the Gospel of His amazing love with everyone? We feel so inadequate, but if we entrust ourselves to His mercy and allow the Holy Spirit to enlarge our hearts, He will make us instruments of His mercy, according to His plan. He will enlighten our path in humble works of mercy that the world needs so desperately. He will teach us to pray, to beg for mercy for ourselves and for all those whose immense needs are crying out within our families, communities, nations, and everyone in this excessive, over-lit, noisy, burned-out, conflicted, exhausted world. He will enable us in our weakness and frailty to suffer-with those who suffer.