Saturday. No alarm. My wife and I sleep well into the morning. I take Lucy for a long walk through our neighborhood in the drizzling rain. I make a pledge not to look at my email, which I break within the hour. Sigh.
The gloomy weather encourages my nesting instinct. I retreat to the bedroom and (with Lucy beside me) I read Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation. I underline a step in the argument:
Eternal life. The term does not mean simply living without end, but the supreme intensification of the state of being alive in a perfect “living-doing” (whereas the conversion of action to its opposite signifies a diminution of life, and is therefore aptly called passio in both senses, that of passivity and that of suffering, whose final and ultimate form is death.
This distinction between fullness of life (“living-doing”) and passivity unto death helps me understand the spiritual unease of the present. In New York and elsewhere, we are working together to stem the spread of the virus. But it is a “passive” working, a cessation of activity.
Reporters speak of the shut-down city as “dead.” The metaphor is fitting. There is less “living-doing.” And the metaphor works the other way. People sometimes say of someone who has died, “His body shut down.” So it’s not all that surprising that the “shutting down” approach to public health is disconcerting. It is metaphysically aligned with death—the very enemy we are committed to resisting.
Of course, I fight the dominance of passio with calls to family and friends, work, reading, reflection, prayer, and more. But the undertow of diminished “living-doing”—even to the point of not gathering to worship—is real. A great fire, earthquake, or hurricane would call for collective action—indeed, heroic action. This crisis asks from most of us inaction.
Josef Pieper boils things down to essentials, and deep truths stated simply provide illumination. I can see, now, the tragic point of a joke going around in Israel. It runs something like this: Your grandfathers faced down the Nazis. Your fathers stood against the Arabs in war after war, paved roads, and drained swamps. You’re being asked to sit on your butts and watch Netflix. Do you think you can do this without screwing up?
Could be worse. I recall what a friend once told me decades ago. He had been pinned down alone on Mount McKinley for many days in a powerful storm. Going mad from the inaction and isolation, he maintained his sanity by carefully counting the number of ripstop squares in the nylon sides of his tent. Then he counted them again to make sure he had not miscounted the first time.
The drizzle has turned to light mist by the time my wife and I take Lucy for her early evening walk. Light dinner followed by Netflix (Groundhog Day). Yes, it seems we can do this without screwing up.
Sunday. Sunday’s clouds are low and heavy. The tops of the tall buildings in Midtown disappear into the light gray mist. Lying in bed, I can hear a jackhammer on 1st Avenue. The city is forever breaking down and being repaired. The systole and diastole of aging infrastructure.
In a Friday interview in preparation for the Sabbath, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to shut down rogue synagogues and churches that still hold public worship. He urged citizens who see illicit worship taking place to call the city’s 311 hotline. He promised that the calls “will be acted on immediately.”
A friend reports that the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh has ordered a complete shutdown with all churches locked “until further notice.” His pregnant wife continues to work in healthcare, doing her job to help others. Why, he wonders, can’t the Church do the same on the spiritual front? He writes: “I’m pretty shaken up by all this because I’ve tried to base my life and my family life on the foundation of the Catholic Church. But the first real crisis in our lifetimes and the Church literally shuts down and tells us we’re on our own. Where do we go from here?”
Many others have expressed similar feelings of abandonment by Mother Church. I write back: “I share your anguish. But keep in mind: 1) The atmosphere of emergency clouds everybody’s judgment, the bishops’ and ours. 2) The bishops are being stampeded by “best practices” advice from experts and lawyers. 3) The fearmongering is acute and in Catholic circles those deviating from the most extreme measures are targeted and accused of “killing the vulnerable.” 4) Many priests feel the suspension of their pastoral ministry as a grievous loss—they share our anguish. 5) St. Peter: ‘To whom shall we go?’”
At 11 a.m. I go to my neighborhood church across the street to pray. There are two homeless people sleeping in the pews, but I am otherwise alone. I read Jesus’s Farewell Discourse from the Gospel of John and meditate on some verses. “That your joy may be complete” (15:1). “The prince of the world is judged” (16:11). “I have overcome the world” (16:33). I read the prayers for the sick from the Book of Common Prayer. They take their form from the Psalms—rescue me, O Lord, so that I might praise your name. I adapt the format to my circumstances: “Preserve me in good health, Lord Jesus, that I might live in accord with your will.”
I call some old friends, then let a little work corrupt my Sabbath rest. An afternoon nap restores Sunday’s integrity. Around 5 p.m., a friend texts, letting me know about a Mass in one of the outer boroughs that evening. I head out. It’s a vast church with four people and a priest. He quietly celebrates the Mass as if alone, although he offers a short homily. The consecrated elements are not distributed. I’m struck by the spiritual power of being part of an in-the-flesh act of worship, however attenuated by the circumstances we’re in. My prayers are not more articulate or profound. My mind drifts and wanders. But I am carried up by the drama on the altar. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.