I love history, but I have a strong imagination and struggle with the tragedies involved in history. I want to read the “interesting stuff”, but I don’t want to read about people suffering and dying and I definitely don’t want to read about cataclysmic numbers that magnify the personal tragedy to unimaginable imagery. As a teenager I can remember going to the encyclopedia to try to find a time and place that was interesting, but without the grave suffering of wars, famines, and so forth. In the moment I wanted to write a fictional story that would not be overshadowed by the fear of what would happen to my characters after the story closed. As I desperately searched about it slowly dawned on me that there just really wasn’t a time. It took several more decades of life for me to really own up to the reality that suffering is simply part of the human condition.
For the most part suffering is isolating and terrifying. In moments of suffering, if we are not suffused in embarrassment, we reach out to others and ask for prayers. This is a good thing! But, even then, it seems that the lives of others go on while we suffer over here ‘off screen’. But when the whole world is hit with a cataclysmic moment, it is clear that we would much rather have that momentary isolating suffering. Does that diminish the pain of a family who loses a dearly beloved member? Absolutely not. But the one who suffers knows just how truly painful these moments are and would not wish this suffering and anguish upon another. September 11th was my first watershed moment when the suffering of a multitude hit me. I was relatively unscathed. In the moment I did not know very many in the areas affected and most of the stories that came back to me were of those who “saw the plane fly overhead” or “had a friend who did not board that flight” or “was in another part of the Pentagon”. In all honesty, those last two still give me chills almost twenty years later. But on the day, and in the days that followed, what I saw was a frightened nation that turned to God and to each other. I have to this day still never seen churches so packed as on the days of that week; I have never heard so many and so direct public recommendations to turn to God and to prayer; or seen so many strangers just reach out and hug one another. The pain and the fear in those days were palpable and, in many ways, that moment changed our lives. What lived on in my memory, however, were the stories of the families of the victims. They are haunting memories, “if only I had turned over and said good-bye before he left for work”; “if only I had taken that phone call”. Or, for better or worse, those last live-by-cell-phone-goodbyes as someone you love dearly goes to certain death in a plane or burning building. These moments told and retold, sometimes in their humanity, sometimes for political effect, informed a generation.
But moments fade. As a teacher, for at least a decade I had referenced September 11th in a variety of teaching moments. And then one day it hit me that my students did not know what I was talking about and I had to elaborate before they could grasp and place the proper event. And then I reached a moment when it was an event before their memory at all. I could more easily reference Pearl Harbor or Antietam than September 11th, even when talking to the younger siblings of students who had shared these painful moments with me. As the years passed, I had to adjust my “moment of tragedy” to something the current student could grasp, and it brought home what my adolescent encyclopedic foray had shown, that the world moves from tragedy to tragedy. I could reference Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami that struck Indonesia, or the earthquake in Haiti, or the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that struck Japan. The list goes on, the prayers go on, the pain goes on. And this does not even touch upon man-made suffering and the moments of war that strike up here and there about the globe, or the less visible—unless politically palatable—moments of local terrorism that engulf certain communities incessantly. But even these are remarkably present if we stop to reflect—I had dear friends in the Ukraine to bring home a child they were adopting, right as Russia was invading.
So here today, as we face this moment of tragedy that may turn into months or even years of consequence, if not outright tragedy, we are facing our human condition. We are going to suffer. That is the human fate—that is the fruit of the sin of Adam. We can teach this to our children ad nauseam and then we are called to face the moment. Yep, time to suffer. But suddenly, despite all our past experience, and all our global awareness, we don’t want to suffer; we don’t want our children or our parents to suffer. It is unfair. Yes, it is! It is as unfair as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. It is as unfair as famines and plagues. It is as unfair as slavery, holocausts, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. Yes, these are brutal and unfair. These are all the fruit of sin.
Does that make it easy? No. Does that change reality? No. And it is in God’s mercy that it does not. This takes an adult mind to grasp. Even tonight my children were struggling with an Old Testament story in which children died! How could God let the children die?! What had they done?! All I could do was reassure them that God would never send an individual soul to torment unjustly. God knows each individual’s culpability and so these children would mostly likely—in in their innocence—be welcomed into heaven. It is hard to explain to children that children will suffer in times of tragedy no matter the disposition of the adults around. But here we are in a world facing the most uncertain times of my life and perhaps even of my parents’ generation, though not, I think in all fairness, of the generation that handled WWII and the opening of the Cold War.
What is hard in the moment—at least today in the United States—is the pitting of two evils. Over the last few weeks I have watched many dear friends struggle to navigate first the pain of limitation to the sacraments and then to most ordinary life events. In the moment both of these are hard, but they are made harder by an uncertain end date. When again will we be able to attend Mass in person, when will we be able to receive holy communion? When again will those ordinary events—sports, music, social—resume? While the first is undeniably more grievous, as parents we actually juggle both. When and at what cost? Almost everyone knows someone—perhaps themselves—who is being hit economically by these social limitations. And everyone will feel the effect in a matter of months, if not mere weeks. Over the last few weeks we watched—oddly and passively—by the sidelines as one element after another of our daily lives fell. Some will fall and return. Others are likely to fall forever. What will college education look like in the future? How will doctors visits be conducted? How will theaters resume if studios turn to direct streaming?
While many of us juggle disruptions to elements of our daily lives—from the essential sacraments to the frivolous moments of entertainment—many others are juggling a disruption to their entire livelihood. A disrupted grocery routine seems like nothing when compared with watching a dearly beloved friend’s small business suffer and die. Or watching the livelihood of a wage-earner disappear. Or hearing about one friend after another have a family member suffer and die. And this is the tragedy of our present moment. Do we look at the economic or the medical impact? Do we even have a choice any longer? If ever? Back in December this was a weird headline. Today this is altering ever second of our lives faster than we can comprehend. Even those who plan ahead can not plan ahead fast enough to keep up with the changes. And what will be the impact? And how can one even measure that impact? Do we talk about an acceptable number of deaths? A percent we are okay with? An age group we are okay moving to palliative care? Do we talk about a number of business that must fail? A number of families who can move below the poverty line? A number of workers who can be laid off? A number in a stimulus package that hands out a check in the present while wiping out an epic portion of lifesavings in the future?
In the moment—but regarding both the moment and the future—we are seeing medical professionals and economic experts face off. Most of us fall into neither camp, and even those medical or economic experts that I know are keenly aware that they are not privy to all the details, and thus are speaking from the sidelines. This is not to say that their judgement or our own is not of value. It is, in fact, what we have. We are intellectual beings. We are called to look at the facts at our disposal and to make judgments. We are called to be critical of the decisions made on our behalf and, in some measure, to speak up if, as far as we can see, these are faulty decisions. We have every right to demand that the facts that justify these decisions be laid out in front of us. We have every right to demand that those who call the shots have in fact determined the short and the long-term consequences both medical and economical. This is only reasonable.
What makes it hard is that most of the information at our disposal is woefully incomplete or entirely one-sided. It is easy to build fantastic castles in the sand of what might have been if X or Y decision had never been made. It is easy to map out medical protocols that ignore the economic impact. Or to lay out the economic consequences without regard to the medical toll. I have yet to read a single article that fairly and fully considers both sides in an informed fashion. This is not to say that such things do not exist or even to suggest that the powers that be are not doing just that. But it is to say that most people spouting opinions are looking at only one side—their side, while denigrating the opposite position as completely untenable. And, as in so many “civil” wars, does anyone want to be right at the costs bandied about in these articles. Do millions of deaths, or millions of jobs lost, make either position more palatable?
Our lives are going to change forever, and not just the equivalent of more stringent airport regulations prompting us to gladly remove our shoes and walk barefoot through invasive screening systems while total strangers pawn through our luggage. No, we are looking at changes that pit the death of a significant percent of our population, even if primarily the elderly, against the devastation of our local and national, if not global economy. Life will not be the same when all of this subsides. Can we survive the loss of a certain percent of our grandparents—that wisdom and influence snuffed out in a few short weeks? Can we stomach the moral consequences of saying our grandparents can and should accept the risk of contracting a fatal disease so that the rest of us can go on with our lives? Do we even have the choice any longer, or is that an illusion of control that faded faster than we thought? Are we okay isolating ourselves in smaller and smaller units, thereby radically altering the fabric and function of our society? How do we juggle the individual good alongside the common good, especially when the protection of the individual seems to come at the catastrophic expense of the common good?
These are harsh questions. They have to be answered by the powers that be and they have to be answered in such detail as to satisfy everyone of us who must live with the consequences. But every time I read an article or even a short social media post riddled with typos, I am interrupted by the needs of a child and, while I may not often graciously accept these interruptions, they remind me of what matters most. What am I doing right now! This is actually all that I control. What do I do right here? Right now? And for all our tragedy and fear, we are living in a remarkable moment. All over the world parents have been sent home and children have been sent home and been asked—on an epic scale—to interact with each other! Not for a few hours, or a few days, but for a few weeks, if not a few months. Not on a fun-filled, distracting vacation, but in their ordinary homes while living out their ordinary lives. And why? So that as a town, a county, a state, a nation, and a world, we can determine the best way to protect the lives of the most vulnerable! Could you have told me a few months ago that the entire world would be asked to return to family units and determine the best way to protect the lives of the elderly, I would have said this was the stuff of science fiction or some strange hybrid utopian-dystopian fantasy. And yet, this is our lives! The internet regales us with articles on how to best amuse and distract our children while putting in productive workdays. Public school educators discuss the benefits of just having children read books and play board games because it is too hard to craft individualized school curricula schedules! Parents all over the world are hashing out the merits or lack thereof of internet-based education, whether it is worth uploading papers for online grading, just how much school-from-home work can and should be done, when summer break should start, and how much review is already built in from year to year. If it were not balanced alongside very real costs in human lives and human livelihoods, I would laugh. But I am incredibly grateful that alongside the suffering I can not commute, this is the price I am being asked to pay. For me it is nothing beyond my ordinary daily routine and livelihood. But even for those for whom this is a challenge and a cross — trust me, I know just how hard these days really are! — it could be so much worse. We are being asked to sacrifice and prioritize for things that we actually care about.
But there is a second tragedy—or sacrifice—of an equally dystopian flavor. In the space of a few weeks, most public worship—the globe round—has been shut down. This is far more chilling than cute and cuddly Pinterest pages of childhood crafts and is something we usually associate with repressive anti-religious regimes. Less than a year ago I was grappling with my youngest child while kneeling on cracked linoleum amidst rows of folding chairs while Mass was said on a makeshift altar because the pews within our very humble church were being refurbished. It was a moment of real grace for me as, despite the very unglamorous setting or far from ideal behavior of my child, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the mere access to the Mass. I had read enough modern history to envision our world changing such that my children and I might actually face this cross. Little did I think it would come so quickly or in such a guise. And it did come quickly. One Sunday we were debating the dilemma of communion in the hand, the very next we were carefully spacing ourselves in the pew and soaking our surroundings with hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes, and the following Sunday we were watching the Mass remotely. But herein lies a very important point as we confront this new moment of suffering.
While we may have been deprived of physical access to the sacraments—that is, we can no longer physically stand in the presence of the priest while Mass is celebrated or consume the physical host—unlike the past, we have not actually been deprived of the sacraments themselves. When oppressive regimes crack down on religious worship, they close the churches and end the celebration of the sacraments. But this is not what we are enduring, and it is an important distinction. The Mass is being celebrated day in and day out around our country and the world by every priest in every church. There are no fewer Masses being said today than last month in our country. It is just that they are being said by solitary priests in front of empty pews. And the faithful are—by and large—at home offering their hearts and prayers remotely. The pain of this separation of priest and faithful, the pain of not being physically present at the Mass, the pain of not receiving the physical body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ are very real, and we will all rejoice when this is ended. But there is a moment of grace here. Much like the grace being asked of all of us as we go home and reunite with our children in daily life, there is a grace of reflection regarding the sacraments. We are being giving a chance to make a spiritual communion day after day. We are being asked to make the effort to follow along the Mass remotely. We are being asked or at least encouraged to make acts of perfect contrition. These are not easy, but they are actually always available to us and should hopefully foster in us an even greater appreciation for the sacraments themselves.
God brings good out of evil. Often, we cannot see that until the tragedy is over and we have moved on. But in a time like this where we have no easy end point in sight and where the physical and economic suffering is likely to last for a long time, it is important to see the good being brought out of evil right now. It is good to recognize, without diminishing the attendant financial hardship, that we are being asked as a nation to re-evaluate our priorities and re-center our lives on what really matters most. But there is another good here that is easily overlooked. For the last few years our nation has been torn apart by a staggering polarization. The vitriol has escalated to a shocking extreme, and this has become so normal to us that we can hardly recognize the placid tones of the past. We have felt, and perhaps are, like a nation torn apart and on the brink of war. But, as with almost all disasters, we have seen the remarkable good within man rise to the surface. Across our nation (and world), people are rising up and on large or small scales reaching out to do the right thing. We need to rejoice in every one of these, from the man who gets groceries for an elderly neighbor, to the priests risking infection to bring the sacraments to the dying, to large and small businesses alike voluntarily repurposing their factories to provide the medical and protective equipment needed right now. These are small stories and it is easy to be cynical, but these are great moments! These are heroes and the kind that each one of us can imitate. What can I do right now! What can I do with what I have in front of me right now in order to do the right thing for my children, my families, my neighbors, and my communities.
As we adapt to this ever changing new normal and continue to ask the hard questions of our leaders, from the local to the national level, we can at least be grateful that we are with our families and that the Mass carries on. The uncertainty that faces us is scary, and, in confronting it, we need to return to the old adage that we must work as if everything depends upon us and pray as if everything depends upon God. But we must not overlook the blessings. We are home with family and the eternal sacrifice of the Mass endures.