The following is a continuation of the reflection on Faithful Living in the Time of Contagion by Professor Anne Carpenter of the Theology and Religious Studies Department of Saint Mary’s College, published on April 28, 2020. It is dedicated to her colleague, Brother Mark McVann, F.S.C., who passed away on May 3.
I have been asking myself what it is that I can do, what wisdom the Christian tradition that I know can give us in these frightening times. And it has occurred to me that I do not know what to say, nor how – exactly – Catholicism can be the morning star in the dark. “I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, from looking for my God” (Ps 69:4).
Would that I could say, “Look now: God is around the corner.” (As if God hid in corners?) Or that I could say, “It will be okay.” It is not okay; we are not okay; the world is not okay; and I am obligated not to make of faith an anesthetic lie. My task, instead, is to look at the Christian tradition for evidence of what it is that we might do, and how we might understand the context of that task.
Julian of Norwich, who was a near contemporary of Catherine of Siena in a different part of Europe, lived, as Catherine did, in a time of plague and bewildering suffering. For her part, Julian emphasizes the compassion of Christ, especially during his passion on the cross. “We do not suffer alone,” she says, “but with him, recognizing that we are grounded in him.”
Now these are odd ideas: that Christ’s suffering is a “passion,” and that Christ somehow grounds our own suffering. The first idea (passion), in Julian, takes up a double meaning: in one respect, suffering is a change endured or undergone (passio); in another, Christ’s suffering is undergone with a purpose firmly rooted in his intention toward (cum-passio) each human being. He is able to “stretch” his heart to encompass the world, and he is able to do so, at least as far as Julian is concerned, because he is God as well as man.
Drawing from a very old Christian tradition, Julian is quite explicit about Jesus’ divinity. We might say that, if Christ’s humanity is what gives him a heart that can ache and that gives him eyes that cry fearful tears (Mk 14:33-35), then it is his divinity that renders him able to act universally, which is to say, for the world. Thus, there are two things that bind us to one another and to Christ: our very humanity, which we all share, and the limitlessness of God-in-Christ, which he shares with us. In this double intimacy, then, Christ “grounds” our suffering with his own passion.
Which is what we must do: face the world, and commit ourselves to it, as God the Father committed the Son. Or, if that is too abstract, we have our neighbor, who needs us now more than ever: when what we must do is “nothing,” is staying home, or (and surely we have students and SMC employees in mind) risking ourselves in our necessary jobs. So also we must hold in our hearts our neighbors who are at risk.
I do not know that I, nor Catherine, nor Julian, have answers as such. But I do not know that that is what religions do: give answers. I do, at least, know that the Catholic tradition has shaped what the college was and is, that it lends to our community a texture. And I think that our religious tradition gives us a kind of direction by giving us a kind of demand, which is a demand to be brave enough to face our present with all that we have. Attentively, intelligently, reasonably, responsibly. (And no less.) We must, finally, be brave enough to face the hour of our crisis with God, the God who grounds us.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 81.
Photo captions: Brother Charles, Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons