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New York Encounter, Day 1: 2020 - A Milestone in the Journey of Life?

by Lisa Lickona



I raise my eyes to the mountains, from whence comes my help?


The cry of Psalm 121, expressed in the searching, yet hopeful, tones of the chant of the Maronite Rite, opened the first event of New York Encounter 2021 Edition: When Reality Hits.


From this cry, the psalmist moves at once to a note of expectancy, the anticipation of an answer: My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.


Psalm 121 is intoned.

In his opening remarks at the Sheen Center in New York, Master of Ceremonies John Touhey echoed the psalmist’s insistent plea and certain profession: “During this year, which one of us did not ask this question?“ Seeking an answer, the Encounter decided to begin with a video witness by Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a land that has known almost constant unrest. “We are all needy,” Touhey noted. And in this neediness, we look toward “One man who claimed to be the true face of all reality.”


Having served thirty years in the Holy Land, Archbishop Pizzaballa has seen in this year a new level of suffering. Beyond the infections, which fortunately among Christians were not numerous, there was the great economic impact of the closing of the holy sites, the lockdowns, the cessation of daily life and worship. “Even in the worst intifada, we had a normal life,” he noted.


Yet, in the solitude and confusion, something “new and precious” emerged.


“It depends on us. We can go back to the previous life. . . . But from the personal point of view, we can learn a lesson or decide not to learn a lesson.”


According to the Archbishop, the pandemic broke us open: “In the world where we want to put aside suffering and disease and to identify life with beauty and happiness, this pandemic reminded us in a powerful and violent way that that suffering and disease are part of life, are not outside life. ”


And in front of this, an awareness of our need for community deepened. “We could not have gatherings. . . but we felt that we need community. Especially for us Christians, we cannot express our faith fully if not in community--the Eucharist, sacraments, and not the just the individual experience. . . . We experience the faith in community.”


“We need to think about how to rebuild community life in that hope,” he insisted. “We tend to identify optimism with hope. Optimism is to think that everything will be okay. Hope is to give a meaning, a purpose to what we are living.”


The Christian event, Pizzaballa explained, changes the way we live the expectancy of such hope. “Usually, we are waiting immediately for solutions, answers, for the family, work, the virus. We want the Messiah to solve these experiences. This was also the experience of Jesus. People wanted him to make miracles. . . . But Jesus came to save us from the deep disease, sin. . . . We cannot expect from God, from our faith relations, to solve our problems. The faith is to live with serenity, confidence, trust in God: not problems to be solved, but for company, someone to help us to face these situations.”


Living open to this Other is a daily task. “This presence that helps us to face the problems—you can perceive it in prayer first of all, the sacraments, the attitude of listening, . . . this attitude of expectancy, making you to be watchful, open.”


Yet such watchfulness is tempered by realism. “Here you cannot not be realistic. If you are not going to be realistic, the reality will enter into your life with violence and powerfully.” Indeed, in the wake of the pandemic, such violence is increasing. But, the Archbishop insists, “the solution against violence is from the heart. We have to conquer the heart. We have to keep in the heart the stubborn desire for peace and the encounter.”

Molly Morkoski plays Beethoven.

The tenacious attachment to hope of which the Archbishop spoke was echoed in the performance that followed of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 “The Farewell" by pianist Molly Morkoski on stage at the Sheen Center. Composer Christopher Vath introduced the piece and explained how Beethoven wrote the piece in 1809 from Vienna after his dear friend Rudolf fled the city in front of the invasion of the Napoleon army.


Performed with passion and precision by Morkoski, “The Farewell” tells a story in three movements. Beginning with the “uncertainty” and “sadness” of the forced evacuation of the city, it moves through a “mood of loss” and finally captures the joy of return, the “exuberance” of reunion.


Vath shared how Morkoski told him that performing this piece at the Encounter was an experience of the pandemic “in miniature.” After a year of playing without an audience, she had the opportunity to perform in, in front of real people—a moment for which she was deeply grateful.

In Beethoven, Vath concluded, we can find a remedy to our depression. We experience his own stubborn fight in front of his own human dramas: “With his big desires, he can pull you out of your small desires.”

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