When the World Turns Upside Down
"We must act. . . with a whisper on our breath: 'He must be here, too.'"
Prompted by the realization that my time in CLU is now effectively over and our community is being dramatically altered (at least in a physical sense), I wanted to share my thoughts. Much like at School of Community, where we have been shown again and again that critically examining our circumstances and how we respond to them is immensely helpful to all of us, my hope is that this letter can also be an aid to you; not that I have something profound to say, but that we can remind each other to live in the way that this charism has shown us, even in confusing or isolating environments.
First, I look at a letter that Fr. Carrón wrote to a Milan newspaper two weeks ago. I was struck most by Carrón’s hope; not for a swift and painless resolution to this pandemic, but that these times offer great opportunity.
How many times have we asked ourselves “Why is it so hard to recognize the drama, the ‘dogged insistence’, of the Infinite in my life?” Now, in the face of a virus that has canceled our classes, broken up our community, isolated us from the sacraments, and clouded our future, the drama is apparent, even overwhelming. And so where do we turn in this moment? When a crisis “forces us to return to questions” and we are so aware of our need for meaning, where do we find it? It must be the same answer that we have always been searching for. It must be Christ.
This is the challenge we all have to face. At this time, in which nothingness is rampant, our recognition of Christ and “yes” to Him, including in the isolation each of us might be forced to maintain, is already our contribution to the salvation of every man and woman today, before any legitimate attempts to accompany one another, which should be pursued within the allowed limits. Nothing is more urgent than that self-awareness.
These circumstances remind me of a point that G.K. Chesterton makes in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi. He postulates that St. Francis, in one of his strange dreams, saw the city of Assisi upside down.
It need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.
I think that this is my response to Carrón’s question, “what saves us from nothingness?” In these times it seems that the world has managed to turn upside down on its own. The things that have seemed the most stable and permanent, whether it’s going to class, or being able to receive the sacraments daily, or summer plans, or even the health of our families and friends, now seem to be incredibly fragile. Because of this, it seems more and more perilous to place our trust in them. And so where do we place our trust? What can stand the test of time? Our hearts know the answer to these questions.
If we manage to keep our eyes open in front of reality, then these heightened circumstances become an incredible gift. What arose out of St. Francis’ dream? An incredible recognition of man’s utter dependence on God. This recognition, and the adventure of existence that springs from it, leads always to gratitude. It is this gratitude, married to Giussani’s wager that reality is always good for me, that I believe is our way forward in these dizzying times.
And so practically, how do we live this attitude, this self-awareness? It clearly isn’t panic and hysterical over-reaction, but it also must not be recklessness and willful ignorance of what we are being directed to do. Quarantine, social distancing – these things are not fun, and they seem to run counter to our nature and our desire, especially in this charism. But we must act primarily with this self-awareness and dependence, with a whisper on our breath: “He must be here too.”
It seems as if we are living in a parable. If we think about what we’ve read in School of Community recently, then what does this mean? What are the signs that are being revealed to us in this circumstances? Perhaps a simpler question is why did Christ speak in parables? “I speak in parables so that their freedom--what they have already decided in their hearts--might emerge” (Religious Sense, 123).
Friends, I leave you with this question: What have you decided about the reality that we find ourselves in now? Perhaps your answer will make all the difference.
Will, Letter to CLU