Under lockdown, has the whole world become a monastery?

Under lockdown, has the whole world become a monastery?

A view of St.Peter's Basilica during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, streamed by the Vatican television due to restrictions to contain the Covid-19 virus, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP.)

Dominican Father Paul Murray is one of English-language Catholicism’s most prominent contemporary theologians and poets, and he reflects on the spiritual significance and fall out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part interview with Dominican Father Paul Murray. Part one can be found here.

ROME – Dominican Father Paul Murray is one of English-language Catholicism’s most prominent contemporary theologians and poets. Born in Northern Ireland in 1947, he joined the Irish Dominican Province in 1966 and was ordained in 1973.

Murray has published five collections of poetry, including Scars: Essays, Poems, and Meditations on Affliction, and most recently, Stones and Stars in 2013, in addition to numerous books and essays on theology. He teaches the literature of the mystical tradition at Rome’s Dominican-run University of St. Thomas Aquinas, universally known as the “Angelicum.”

Crux recently reached out to Murray via email to talk about the spiritual significance and fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The following are Murray’s responses.

Crux: For people today who are feeling deprived not only of the immediate grace of the Eucharist, but also of contact with friends and family and with fellow workers, is there any particular reading you would recommend?

Murray: Yes, there is one text which comes to mind, a remarkable prose-poem by the Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Finding himself, on one occasion, out in China’s Ordos Desert where he was unable to celebrate Mass, Father Pierre sat down and composed a work entitled The Mass on the World. It contains radiant lines such as the following:

Since once again, Lord, I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar … I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it I will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world … I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity, those who surround me and support me though I do not know them … I know we cannot forestall, still less dictate to you, even the smallest of your actions; from you alone comes all initiative – and this applies in the first place to my prayer … Do you now, therefore, speaking through my lips, pronounce over this earthly travail your twofold efficacious word … Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day, say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again the commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my blood.

De Chardin may or may not be a great scientist or a great theologian but he was, on the evidence of this meditation alone, a remarkable poet. Even Jacques Maritain, who was passionately opposed to the Teilhardian vision, could speak of The Mass on the World as “the great text of Teilhard.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, referring in July 2009 to St Paul’s vision of the world itself becoming a living worship, remarked: “This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. Let us pray to the Lord to help us [all the baptized] to become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves.”

How does forced solitude affect the spiritual life? For a tradition such as Catholicism that places so much emphasis on community, what might the long-term fall out of all this be?

In Christian history, apart from the story of Christ’s solitary experience in the desert, and that of John the Baptist, the first reported incident of self-isolation is when the disciples out of fear gathered together “with the doors locked” (John 20:19). They were together, yes, but cut off from the rest of the world.

That sense of isolation is further indicated in Acts when we read of how the disciples were once again together, this time “in the upper room.” What is at once worthy of note is that, at this time. they did not allow their hearts to become frozen with fear, something which might very easily have happened.

Isolation can, as you know, all too easily breed fear or breed anger or breed feelings of bitterness and despair. What made the difference for the disciples, what transformed their experience completely, is that “together with some women, and with Mary the mother of Jesus, they devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1: 14).

Prayer, we are told again and again in the great spiritual tradition, is what can transform a dark and unhappy experience – something that may well feel like a curse – into an experience of profound inner transformation, a beginning sense of peace, and even, after some time, of unexpected joy and blessing. And this is something which – astonishingly – holds true, whether the solitude which is experienced is something forced upon us or something chosen.

All that being said, in the history of the Church, in the history of the world, no one has ever witnessed what we now find ourselves experiencing: forced solitude, forced isolation as a global phenomenon. Almost impossible, therefore, to know what the long-term fall out will be. Our identity as a community of believers, will it in some measure be undermined by the sustained loss of contact with the visible, sacramental character of Catholic life and liturgy? Or will that very isolation itself quicken in our minds and hearts a new hunger for what we have, perhaps, over the years, taken for granted, or have been prepared to live and to understand at a merely superficial level?

I am no prophet, but I have absolutely no doubt that if, in our days, God is permitting the entire world to be shut out from all its own ordinary bright and busy activity – and if the world, as we used to know it, has begun in this new state of isolation to look almost like a monastery – then when finally the threat of the virus has gone, the world, and the Church at the heart of the world, chastened and humbled by this unique experience, will be greatly renewed, greatly transformed, and in ways we can hardly imagine.

You’re a poet as well as a theologian … has this situation stirred any poetic instincts?

I’m not at all sure that the Muse is going to befriend me at this time. To my cost I’ve come to realize that she can behave very much like an abandoned cat. And, in recent years, if the truth be known, I’ve busied myself far too much with writing prose!

But, speaking of poetry in general, I’ve no doubt that, at this testing time, when writers will almost certainly discover they have more pains and sorrows to cope with than distractions, their new, enforced solitude will breed new forms of creativity. “Afflictions,” Henry Vaughan reminds us, “turn our blood to ink.”

But what, it might be asked, is the point of poetry at a time of affliction? Is it not the case that, when confronted by someone in great affliction, our words – all our words – seem to die in our throat? And why, in any case, should a poet or an artist expect that their words or their music will bring any kind of help or consolation to those men and women living through a truly dark time?

Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman from Holland, although she knew that she was about to be taken to a concentration camp, and to a certain death, found time to acknowledge in her diary – it was the final entry – the enormous debt which she owed to creative writers and artists. She wrote: “Far too easily we shrug off the spiritual heritage of poets and artists, saying to ourselves: What use is that sort of thing to us now?” And she went on: “In turbulent and debilitating times we can and should turn to the poets for support and a ready response to our bewildered questions.”

Needless to say, art and poetry cannot offer anything approaching a rational answer to the questions which are rising in our hearts, especially at a time of great distress. So, what then is the nature of the support, if any, which they can offer?

Allow me to give one example, taken not from the life and work of a poet, but from the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven’s close friend, Dorothea von Ertmann, first lost one of her small children, then another, and then another, until all her small children were dead. Beethoven at first found no words to say to her.

But, finally, he went to her house, and when he had seated himself at the piano, he turned and said: “Let us converse in music.” And he played for over an hour. Later, Dorothea remarked to a friend: “He said everything to me, and also finally brought me consolation.”

No small part of that consolation, I would say, is that Dorothea’s anguish, her experience of loss, was named. It was given a voice. That is one of the things which art and poetry can achieve. And it is also, of course, a significant part of the consolation which we find in reading God’s Word.

It is no accident that so much of Scripture – so many of the books in the Bible – assume the form of poetry. Instead of communicating the Word through clear and distinct ideas, God sometimes prefers to speak through parables, short stories, and poems. Witness, for example, the Psalms, the Book of the Apocalypse, and the Book of Job. God, it is true, often comes to us in the guise of a teacher, and with a word of challenge.

When, however, we find ourselves in affliction, is it not the case that God comes to us in a humbler way, the way Ludwig van Beethoven came to his grieving friend? Is it not the case that, in and through the living Word, God sits down with us, as it were, and through inspired poems, parables, and stories, speaks to our heart?

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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