Post 58: A SACRED TIME, A FEARFUL TIME, A HOPEFUL TIME

This week I am sharing some much needed encouraging words from two sources.  The first source is a remarkable blog by one Kitty O’Meara, The Daily Round, who posted a poem entitled “In the Time of Pandemic” in mid March. In just two short weeks, her poem has been translated into several languages; put to music in England and Spain and shared widely on the internet.  I agree with one of her readers who called it “a beautiful vision for moving us through this time.”

The second source was last Friday’s New York Times (March 27) which printed a full page of poems describing these days as “Sacred Time, a Fearful Time, a Hopeful Time.”  I chose ones that I felt were especially comforting and encouraging.

In the Time of Pandemic

And the people stayed home.

And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.

And listened more deeply.

Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed.

And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

~ Kitty O”Meara

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

~ Lynn Unger

Lockdown

My heart on lockdown
Is it broken
sad
is it beating

It races in empathy
for those in need

It dreams nightmares
with news so grim

It longs for leadership
from the greatest generation
which it doubts
will be witnessed again

Neighborhoods alive
with life in the burbs
during daylight hours
rarely seen

But with schools closed
and work suspended
life has slowed
no longer driven

Beat on my heart
it is not over
Beat, beat, breathe

~ Susan Pike

A Blessing for Staying Inside

May you find happiness in the small spaces.
Joy in the staying put.
No highways. No office buildings. No crowded subways.

May you find peace in your own kitchen.
May your four walls feel like a sanctuary.
A haven from a noisy world.

May you take pleasure in a bad pun, a bowl of popcorn.
Laughing with the people closest to you.
Patting the grateful dog. The clever cat.

May you discover the delight of writing letters
on paper. In baking cookies.
In the birds visiting your early spring garden.

May you find yourself fully in the present moment.
Where all of life is happening right now.
And worries about the future don’t exist.

May you invent ways to help people who need you.
Because times like this were made to remind us
that we are all the same.

Even as you wrap yourself in a blanket of solitude,
may you discover the secrets of the universe
from your spot on the couch.

And… may you be so well loved that that others
will rejoice when you are finally able to run into
their arms again.

~ Joyce Bartlett

Is This the End

As this dark cloud spreads over the land
We run about bemoaning the disappearance of the Sun.
We dither and argue about what to do
While we fear the end.
Is this how the Earth will rise up against our transgressions?

Yet all I can think about
Is my son working in the NYU emergency room:
On the front lines of chaos.
I am afraid
But don’t want to cloud his concentration.

I am old and can stay at home.
I have had a good life.
But I mourn the
Loss of the future.
May that not come to pass.

My parents lived through the same fears.
They lived through five wars and one Great Depression.
How could they survive?
But they did for their children.

I am hopeful that reason returns.
That we can once again conquer all challenges.
That we can do that as one nation, one people.

~ Thomas Dourmashkin, MD

A Poem of Hope

Here where all seems lost
We witness selfless actions from
Brave doctors and nurses, grocery store cashiers, truck drivers, police and others

Spring feels close and trees bring
Hope of new beginnings where once
Bare limbs reminded us of Winters past

Nature reminds us all must pass and new life springs forth when all seems lost

~ Jane

Post 57: Stillness Can Serve a Constructive Purpose: Mindfulness

What can anyone say that has not already been said about the perilous times we are all passing through? What can be said that encourages us – to find or at least seek a silver lining? I am sure that we will find some eventually. We must offer each other hope – the realistic hope – that this pandemic will pass. In the meantime, I will share some useful ideas that may help us deal with the challenges of the moments at hand. On Monday of this week, Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson suggests that the occasional stillness we experience in our homes can “serve a constructive purpose.”

When Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” he clearly didn’t foresee the coronavirus. But one complication of the virus, and the social distancing necessary to slow its spread, is a nation where quiet rooms are more common. With the obvious exception of rooms that also confine toddlers, many Americans are experiencing a strange stillness in places where their lives were once lived loudly.

This quiet can feel oppressive, so we turn to Netflix, podcasts, cable news and other diverting stimulation. In the absence of a real schedule, the days tend to run into each other, marked only by the celestial cycle of coronavirus taskforce briefings. We set our watches by the rise of Tony Fauci in the east.

To many of us, the space between ticks of the clock seems especially long. Silence is often a place where fears gather, and the current crisis offers endless opportunities for worry. There are worries about the health of elderly loved ones, about the personal consequences of a flash-frozen economy, about the disruption of important plans and family milestones, about overwhelmed health systems. And there is the recurring and justified fear caused by unstable, incompetent national leadership.

The most enterprising among us interrupt our anxiety with telework (when our jobs allow), with long, socially distanced walks and with Zoom chats among friends and relatives. But this still leaves a lot of time on our hands. And the question naturally arises: Can the quiet serve some constructive purpose? Not the kind of purpose found in reorganizing your spice rack, but in living a better life. Can the silence also bring some contentment, serenity and peace?

Here I can only speak from experience and respond with a hearty: Maybe. Occasionally. Partially.

There are techniques that turn the idle mind away from worry and toward something better. I was once a skeptic about meditation and mindfulness, until I faced the forced quiet of a hospital ward. In addition to an unresolved past and an uncertain future, there is a solid present that is possible to (briefly) visit. The mind is like a whirling hamster wheel of worry and ambition. Stopping it for just a moment to focus on the moment — on the hidden beauty of just being — is a healthy act. It feels like the reset that results from interrupting a circuit. It is a common enough experience for many who meditate and many who pray, but it resists description without seeming esoteric — like I am seeming now.

This has little to do with religion and much, I expect, with the way the mind works. There is refuge in inhabiting — even for a few moments — a calm, grateful, embodied present. And it would improve our lives if we lived there more often.

At its best, mindfulness can separate us from our weakness and worry, and permit a more objective view of our life and its blessings. And we need something similar as a society. We are facing an unprecedented threat, but facing it together, with medical advances beyond the dreams of previous eras. We can continue large chunks of our lives in virtual ways. We can be present to one another through extraordinary technologies. These are reasons for gratitude.

And religion is not entirely irrelevant to such matters. In many traditions, God is accessible, not just in congregations and buildings, but in stillness.

There is a wonderful, simple poem by Philip Booth about teaching his daughter to float in the ocean that concludes: “As you float now, where I held you/ and let go, remember when fear/cramps your heart what I told you:/ lie gently and wide to the light-year/ stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.”

This is what most religions promise in times of fear — not immediate deliverance, but the hope that suffering and failure are not final. This does not release anyone from worry and heavy responsibility. But it does promise that worry and responsibility don’t need to consume us. It promises that a voice of reassurance can speak out of the silence. It promises that the stillness of a pounding heart can be replaced by the stillness of a wise trust.

In our nation’s long, involuntary lent, fear abounds. We should oppose it with all we have, for as long as we can. But when we come to the end of our strength and lie back, the universe will hold us.

Post 56: Reflections on the Need for Social Connection

As you all know by now, I’ve tried to make these weekly postings upbeat, something that is especially difficult in these days of the coronavirus. One positive thing we all enjoy is access to television and to the print journalists who provide thoughtful commentaries on how the virus has impacted our lives. Three commentaries in The New York Times this week were especially meaningful to me because they underscored our deepest need for social connection. May one “upbeat” result of our present situation be that we will appreciate even more the chance to fill time and space with one another when the present crisis has passed.

Michael Kimmelman wrote on March 17th:

***

Traditionally, we seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.

But the coronavirus undermines our most basic ideas about community and, in particular, urban life. Historians tell us that cities emerged thousands of years ago for economic and industrial reasons — technological leaps produced a surplus of agricultural goods, which meant not everyone had to keep working the land.

Still, cities also grew, less tangibly, out of deeply human social and spiritual needs. The very notion of streets, shared housing and public spaces stemmed from and fostered a kind of collective affirmation, a sense that people are all in this together.

Pandemics prey on this relentlessly. They are anti-urban. They exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. For many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy.

Frank Bruni wrote on March 17th:

***

At the very moment when many of us hunger most for the reassurance of company and the solace of community, we’re hustled into isolation. At the very moment when we most desperately crave distraction, many of our favorite means of release are off limits.

It’s not just concerts and sporting events that are verboten or canceled. It’s not just restaurant meals, birthday parties, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs. It’s not just action flicks at the multiplex, which can no longer fling superheroes at us when superheroes are just what we need.

To follow President Trump’s latest, newly responsible counsel is to avoid any gathering of more than 10 people. That rules out, say, a children’s soccer match. That forbids church. Americans who pray are no doubt doing that more and harder than ever, but not among the stained-glass symbols of God, in the comforting clutch of friends and neighbors, with the balm of a pastor, rabbi or imam close at hand.

No, we’re advised or, depending on the ZIP code, commanded to worship like we dine and do all else at this juncture — alone, or as close to alone as we can manage. It’s called social distancing, and if an odder, uglier phase has ever been coined, I can’t think of it.

“Social distancing” is another oxymoron, because how is distancing ever social? To pull together, we must stay apart. It’s an epidemiological necessity. It’s also a kick in the gut.

***

“Staying home,” “working from home” and “holing up” have sweet, nurturing rings when they’re voluntary and exceptional. But when the seclusion is compulsory and spans an unspecified progression of days, it’s a lonely, claustrophobic and crazy-making condition. It’s not heaven but hell.

Michelle Goldberg wrote on March 16th:

There is a lot to mourn right now. Many thousands of people all over the world are mourning dead loved ones. People are mourning lost jobs, lost savings, lost security. Senior citizens in locked-down nursing homes are mourning the loss of visitors. I’m lucky; I’m just mourning the city.

To live in a city like New York, where I’ve spent most of my adult life, is to trade private space for public space. It’s to depend on interdependence. I don’t have a dining room, but I’ve been able to eat in thousands of restaurants. I have no storage space, but everything I needed was at the bodega. I don’t have a home office, but I could work at coffee shops.

Now those supports are gone. The coronavirus disaster is going to devastate communities all over the country, even if many in red America don’t realize it yet. But it poses particular challenges for urbanites, and not just because the disease spreads more easily where people are packed close together.

Historically, cities have made it easier for people to live alone without experiencing constant loneliness. “For single women, with or without children, cities offer domestic infrastructure,” my friend Rebecca Traister wrote in her book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.” “The city itself becomes a kind of partner, providing for single women the kind of services that women have, for generations, provided men.”

***

Now the ground beneath our feet is crumbling again, but many of us are stuck in at least semi-isolation. Togetherness, once a balm, has become a threat. This mass withdrawal is like social chemotherapy, damaging the fabric of our communal life while trying to save it.

***    

Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture. But for now it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Post 55: Spring Is Coming but Winter Has Its Charms

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer of The New York Times. She is a gifted and knowledgeable observer of nature. She reminds us each year of the end of winter and the coming of spring. On February 24, 2020, she wrote:

One day when the relentless rains let up for a bit, I went to the park an hour before sunset to walk on the muddy trails and take a break from the bad news. The woods were as lovely as they ever are after a rain: the creeks full of rushing water, the gray bark of the fallen trees slick with moss. Above the trail, the limbs of the living trees creaked in the rising wind, the kind of sound that makes your heart ache for reasons too far beyond words to explain. Though the forest understory is already beginning to green up, weeks too soon, the towhees scratching for insects stirring in what’s left of last fall’s leaves were not in any way sorry about the early arrival of spring.

As darkness began to gather in earnest, I turned to head back the way I’d come. A few hundred yards on, my eyes caught on a tree I hadn’t noticed when I was walking in the other direction. About seven feet up the trunk was a knothole, a place where a limb had long ago broken off and let water in to rot the wood. Perhaps a woodpecker had helped to deepen it, too, and given the water more purchase over time. The hole was small, a dark grotto in the thickly grooved bark of the stalwart oak, a hiding place that reached far into the mass of that old tree, and the failing light deepened its darkness. Who knows how many miniature woodland creatures have crept into its crevice over the years to nest, to shelter from the wind and rain, to hide from predators — or to wait for prey.

But a creature lurking inside it is not what singled this knothole out among the hundreds, even thousands, I had passed on the path as night came on. What caught my eye was a cluster of tiny seedlings colored the bright new green of springtime, so bright it seemed to glow in the gloaming. The tender plants were growing in the loam inside the knothole. Far above the ground, a hole made by decay in a living tree had become a cold frame, a natural greenhouse that lets in light and keeps out frost. Life in death in life.

Last year, only a few days into the new year Renkl announced that “spring is coming.” The New York Times (Jan. 4, 2019)

Winter is not generally a season that inspires a sense of hope. Short gray days are followed by long dark nights, with no intervening sense that time is passing, that progress of any kind is being made. The other seasons are observably different from one day to the next — new flowers blooming in springtime, baby birds fledging in summer, leaves turning new shades of color all fall — but in winter the world is fast asleep. Silent. Still.

Except it’s not. My own ritual for New Year’s Day is to walk around my neighborhood, looking for signs of spring. They’re always there, perfectly clear to anyone who’s looking.

Buds have set on the cascading canes of the forsythia bush, on the limbs of the saucer magnolia and the flowering crab apple. On the branches of the crepe myrtle, tight leaf buds are clinging beside the husks of last summer’s berries. Even the towering sugar maple trees in my yard are covered with tiny leaf buds waiting for warmth to wake them. “Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost observed, but strictly speaking, nature’s first green is brown — the tiny brown buds at the ends of the twigs I pass beneath all winter, hardly noticing.

Renkl’s beautiful words were countered by a letter to The New York Times (Jan. 11, 2019) by one Ellen Shire, with whom I agreed.

What a pity that Ms. Renkl, like so many others, appears to go through winter wishing for the next season rather than mostly enjoying the season that’s here.

Spring has its beauty, but so does winter. Holidays aside, the air is crisp and invigorating; even in a big city there is a certain sense of quietness that descends; silent walks in the uncrowded parks give one a sense of peace; branches interlace in a choreography that is hidden by foliage in spring and summer; how wonderful to leave a theater or just take a stroll on a long, starry night.

And best of all is the special silver light of winter; the dramatic and ever-changing sky; the deepening colors of the rivers; cardinals etched against the snow.

Spring will have its day, but winter’s beauty is upon us. Enjoy!

All winter long I have been asking myself, what is so awful about winter? After all, there are theater shows and concerts to attend, a chance or two to ski and many to play indoor tennis. There are dinners with friends and meals by the fire, the climax of the NFL season, college basketball, the chance to watch PGA golf played in sunnier climes. There is the opportunity to learn from the Danes and practice ‘Hygge’- “organizing your home like a favorite woolen sweater minus the itchy collar.” And for those who are religious, there are the words of the British Poet, John Birch:

We need a winter in our lives / a time of rest, a time to stand still / a time to reacquaint ourselves / with the faith in which we live. / Its only then that we can draw strength / from the One in whom we  are rooted / take time to grow and rise through the darkness / into the warm glow of your springtime…

 

Blog Post 54: Timothy Egan’s Pilgrimage Part II

Last week I brought my reader’s attention to Timothy Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity, an account of his 1200-mile journey along the Via Francigena (V.F.) from Canterbury to Rome. His book provides information on just about every awful thing done in the name of the Christian faith over the past 2,000 years. It also contains stories that are touching, humorous and inspirational. Today I share a few, written in Egan’s delightful prose.

Walking with Daughter, Sophie

In the Italian village of Saint Oyen, Egan is joined by his daughter Sophie. As she walks ahead of him at a slightly faster pace, he reflects on the essence of the love a father has for a daughter.

I’m a bit slow to this pony’s pace, and happy for her to blaze the way. In the splendor of an alpine morning, with yesterday’s storm a mere vapor trail in the faraway sky, I behold the image of my child toddling off to play on the front lawn, her diaper swishing below her. Then I see a little girl in a kindergarten musical, playing a penguin while trying to hide her broken arm in a cast, an impression that fades to a fresh-minted college graduate, tassel flipped triumphantly to the side, black gown rippling in a breeze. You think you’re done then. You think you’ve lost all influence. You hope that the best of what you tried to give is imprinted for life and the worst long forgotten. But you’re not done- you’re a father and she’s the human you helped to bring into this world, always. Is there a parent who greets a child after a long absence and doesn’t see time compressed, your life and hers? I need only to catch a glimpse of the braid of her hair ahead of me on the Via Francigena to remember the two-foot girl giddy to climb Mount Daddy, me pulling her up from the knees to the chest and shoulders.

Walking With Wife, Joni

It’s my Jewish wife who encouraged me to see the pope the first time we were in Rome, years ago. I wanted to go for a run. It’s my Jewish wife from Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh who urged me to take this pilgrimage. …It’s my Jewish wife who reminded me, when my views of the Vatican were at low ebb, that Pope Francis went to Auschwitz, spending a day there in silent prayer.

***

At the day’s end, Joni looks flushed. She sits on a chair in our room inside the family-run agriturismo in a valley at the base of Vetrallla. She stares at me blank-faced. She doesn’t unstrap her pack.

“You O.K.?” 

 “I can’t move.”

***

Ron Sims told me one other thing before I left: a pilgrimage, he said, is doing something you don’t think you can do: which Joni proves tonight. Dinner at the farmhouse, cooked by the mother and served by her daughter, is pasta arrabbiata and a pork loin buried under funghi and oil from the olive trees we passed this morning. Its heaven.

“Since when do you eat pork?”

“Since walking twenty miles in a day.”

EST!- EST!!- EST!!!

We toast to Joni’s arrival, to being together again, to the wonders of the V.F., and to the Laughing Germans. We’re drinking Est! Est!! Est!!! It’s a vino bianco, the house wine in this little trattoria run by a couple and their grown son. When we lived in Italy, one floor above a moan who made Chianti out of his four-hundred-year-old villa, I learned that nothing is worse than a wine without a story. The story of Est! Est!! Est!!! begins in the year 1107, with a German bishop making a pilgrimage to Rome, hoping to see the pope and get a promotion to cardinal. This man, Johann Fugger, was a bon vivant, Fastaffian in the telling, who made sure he always ate and drank well on his journey. To ensure that he was getting the best of the countryside, he sent his servant, Martin, ahead with instructions to mark “Est” on the door of an inn with good vino. It was shorthand for the Latin word ‘vinum est bonum’ — the wine is good. In Montefiascone, the servant was so taken with the quality of a white wine that he scribbled Est! Est!! Est!!! on the door. When the bishop arrived and settled in to sample his servant’s discovery, he was overwhelmed; until that moment, he’d never tasted the perfect expression of a grape. He ended his pilgrimage then and there and spent the rest of his life in Montefiascone. He prematurely died, from drinking Est to excess. And every August, the townspeople stage a parade to Bishop Fugger’s tombstone and splash his favorite drink on the grave.

In A Blizzard With Saint Bernard Dogs

Egan took refuge from a blizzard in the Saint Bernard Hospice in the alps, where he had meaningful conversations with fellow pilgrims. But he was impressed as much as anything, by being in the company of Saint Bernard dogs.

The dogs have the run of this pass, staying in a well-tended kennel, each a museum devoted to their service. They’ve been bred for size and temperance of cold, and along the way, they picked up personality traits that make them a delight to be around. They’re comically huge, weighing as much as I do, 170 pounds, with a tongue that looks like a pink sirloin steak, if meat could drool. Their equally huge paws act like snowshoes, allowing them to romp through a drift. They’re smart, sensitive, and sociable. They hate to be alone or to miss out on a party. They’re low maintenance, aside from prodigious food requirements. They don’t like hot weather or confined spaces. Over the years, Saint Bernards have rescued more than twenty-five hundred people, using their exceptional sense of smell to find lost souls in the snow. As selfless and likable as they are, they lead relatively short lives, eight to ten years. They no longer carry casks of brandy around their necks—it’s doubtful they ever did. Nor are they used anymore for rescues, most of which are done by helicopter. The dogs are just too heavy. In that sense, the Saint Bernards of Great Saint Bernard are living relics. 

In The Presence of Pope Francis

Early in the pilgrimage, Egan carefully pens a letter to Pope Francis requesting an audience. This did not happen. However, he was able to obtain tickets to an open-air Mass.

The Holy Father settles into a chair and offers a greeting to pilgrims in many languages. The wind nearly knocks off his skullcap. He speaks softly, mostly in comfortable Italian cadence, occasionally using his hands. My mind drifts, for the day is so glorious, but a few of his words land on me as a tap on the shoulder. “Never yield to negativity.” And “Keep your eyes open to the beauty all around you.” And “If you are sitting, get up and go. If boredom paralyzes you, fill your life with good works.” And finally, this, repeating something he has said many times: “You must always forgive.” Forgive? He’s been meeting regularly with victims of sexual abuse, asking us to judge him by his actions, as his church works its way through reconciliation with “the greatest desolation, “as he calls it. On impulse, I offer up my absolution to the faith for the crimes against my family, riding a Roman breeze. I’m swayed by the words of someone I’d read about one night on the V.F., that man who chose to forgive as a way to free himself from the chain that bound him to his tormentor. I can’t speak for my brother.

Post 53: Timothy Egan’s, A Pilgrimage to Eternity; From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith

Since March 1 of last year, I have made a Friday afternoon posting without major exception. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my blogs and share them with others. I feel I have more to share, so I plan to continue into a second year.

My original plan was to start the second year with something frivolous and funny (we have been rather serious lately); but that will have to wait.  Rather I want to post today the first of two blogs focused on Timothy Egan’s recently published Pilgrimage to Eternity, a book I enjoyed listening to during my travels to the Cape.

Egan is a bi-weekly columnist for The New York Times and winner of a National Book Award for a previous work of non- fiction.  “Pilgrimage” has been listed as one of the “best books of 2019.”  The review, by Matthew Thomas – author of the novel We Are Not Ourselves, appeared in the Times on December 8. It is an excellent description of the riches of Egan’s narrative.  Next week I will share some of my favorite moments and quotes from the book.

From Matthew Thomas’ Review:

If you’re looking for something to believe in, you could do worse than Timothy Egan’s particular blend of intelligence and empathy. In his ninth book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,” this self-described “lapsed but listening” Irish Catholic makes the 1,200-mile journey from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena “on foot, on two wheels, four wheels, or train — so long as I stay on the ground,” as he attempts to decide what he believes.

Egan was educated by Jesuits and is a “skeptic by profession.” He says he has arrived at a point in life where he is “no longer comfortable in the squishy middle” and so he undertakes this journey willing to be led to deeper belief. He writes, “Until atheism can tell a story, it will always have trouble packing a house.”

Egan pithily sums up the current state of Christianity in Europe: “Where the rules of the spiritual here and hereafter were shaped over centuries of bloodshed, it’s all a shrug.” And why not a shrug, some might ask, when God seems to ignore the plight of the suffering: “You can see why people shun a supposedly benevolent creator who presided over the slaughter of the Wars of Religion, the African slave trade, the butchery of the Great War, Stalin’s mass executions, genocide in Germany and Uganda and Cambodia.”

Egan keeps many people in mind as he walks: his sister-in-law (who was dying of Stage IV cancer); his wife; his children; his brother, whose faith was ruined by a predatory priest. He reserves special fondness for Pope Francis, who “washes the feet of prisoners and the poor, shares meals with the homeless and refugees.”

But this isn’t just a book about religion: It’s also one about family. Egan is visited in his travels by his son, his daughter and, finally, for the last leg, his wife. He writes of how the two of them tried to expose their children to the basics of major religions and then “let the free market of ideas settle the debate as they thought it through.” Now full-fledged adults, Egan’s children have “a reasonable person’s skepticism toward the supernatural claims of religion.” Egan expresses some misgivings about his own flexibility as a parent, wanting his children “not to foreclose on the idea that a great faith, though flawed, can contain great truths.”

….

 “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is also a stunningly comprehensive history of both Christianity and Western Europe. It’s all here: from St. Maurice, “believed to be ‘the first black saint’” (wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr.), and the 1,500-year-long uninterrupted prayer at the abbey named for him; to the 1518 Treaty of London forever outlawing war between Christians (it lasted “barely two years”); to Mencken on Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” In fact, there’s so much history that the plot can sometimes feel like an excuse to get the background in, though one hardly complains; Egan is so well informed, he starts to seem like the world’s greatest tour guide. You follow along as much to hear him talk as to see the sights. It feels as if there’s nothing he hasn’t digested for the reader, and his extraordinary reliability is reminiscent of that of the monks he describes so evocatively throughout the book.

Egan also turns a critical eye on those who treat refugees poorly. For instance, he describes how the police in St.-Omer, France, “fired tear gas at volunteers” who were distributing food and clothing to refugees. Representatives of Secours Catholique, the charity behind the effort, pleaded, “Didn’t Christ say we have an obligation to help ‘the least of these brothers of mine’?” The authorities’ response: Such assistance would only encourage the refugees to stay. Egan writes, “A religion whose leaders once called on followers to wage savage war against faraway cities held by people of a different religion now fights to feed and protect forsaken members of that same faith from those same faraway cities.”

After traveling through England, France and Switzerland, bedraggled and untouched by strangers, Egan finally receives a hug from a woman in Italy. She is no longer a Catholic — but she still asks Egan to say a prayer for her when he sees Francis. “I like this pope,” she says.

The woman would never know if Egan failed to utter that prayer, but he keeps his promise at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course he does, you think at the end of this marvelous account. Reading it, you feel yourself in the presence of goodness — the kind you might simply have to decide to believe in.

 

 

Post 52: Father Ted and Me

The course of my friendship with Father Hesburgh runs some 60 years from when I was a student at Notre Dame to my last visit with him seven months before he died. I am no exception. Father Ted was close to many families and supporters of Notre Dame and many persons with whom he worked in the interests of civil rights, international peace, and social justice. Still, I think my story is unique. Father took many opportunities to call me and Faith to get together for Mass or share meals with friends.

I have already recounted one joint experience in helping start the Peace Corps in Chile. It was Father Ted who told Shriver the slightly embellished story of my work in the mountains of Chile, which ended up in a speech by President Kennedy and landed me my 15 minutes of fame.

Here I share a few other highlights of our relationship:

Confronting the Curia

In November 1963, Father Ted asked if I could join him at Idelwild Airport (not yet renamed “JFK”) while waiting for a plane to Rome. He had been summoned by the Roman Curia. As the recently-elected president of the International Federation of Catholic Colleges, he had taken steps to revitalize this largely inactive and ineffective organization. His changes did not go well with a cardinal and an archbishop who oversaw all seminaries and Catholic colleges.

A few days later Father and I met again at the airport.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“It was typical of the Curia,” he said. “They sat me down and told me all the bad things I had done and then they tried to shove a compromise down my throat.” The federation would be controlled by a six-person panel, including a Monsignor McDonald, then president of Catholic University in the U.S. and the person Father Ted had defeated in his election.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told them that I had been elected, not Monsignor McDonald, and then I walked out of the room and came home.”

Father ultimately won the battle by appealing directly to his friend, Pope Paul VI, and months later received a letter of apology from the offending archbishop.

Taking on Twentieth Century Fox

In the spring of 1964, Father invited me to join him again at the airport to observe a meeting he was conducting with Judge David Peck, a former New York State judge, now in private practice. The subject was Notre Dame’s legal efforts to stop the release of a movie entitled “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.” The film starred Shirley MacLaine and Peter Ustinov and contained a tawdry scene showing Notre Dame football players being feted the night before a game by belly dancers and harem girls. To show you how dumb the film was, Notre Dame lost the game with Shirley MacLaine scoring the winning touchdown!

I listened to Judge Peck explain to Father Ted all the reasons why his lawsuit would fail. He took it all in and then authorized Peck’s law firm to proceed anyway. After some initial success, New York’s High Court of Appeals allowed Twentieth Century Fox to release the film, but not before Father Hesburgh did everything he could to protect the reputation of the university.

Taking on Pinochet

In 1976,  Chile was suffering under the repressive Pinochet government and Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, Archbishop of Santiago, had asked Father’s assistance in obtaining funds for his human rights work. Father asked if I could help him obtain support for the Cardinal’s efforts, especially those aimed at finding work for academics who were being forced to leave Chile under the circumstances.

Our sights soon focused on a large trust fund at the Inter-American Development Bank, controlled by the United States government, which was about to provide $8 million to the Pinochet government. Our lobbying efforts managed to put a hold on these funds for three years. Pinochet was furious. We learned that on at least one occasion (a dinner at the Pen and Pencil restaurant in New York City) we had been under surveillance by Chile’s dreaded secret police. A right-wing newspaper in Chile, La Segunda, railed against the “priest and left-wing businessman” (the only time I have been referred to as left-wing) who were trying to “funnel funds to Pinochet’s opposition.” We were finally able to do that. The $8 million went to the Inter-American Foundation which went on to provide some $4.6 million to human rights and social development programs supported by Cardinal Silva.

A Mass in the Garden

In May of 1977, Father came to DC to receive an honorary degree from the Georgetown University law school (as of 2013, he held the world’s record for the most honorary degrees: 150). Before the graduation exercises, he said Mass in my garden in Georgetown. What was most significant about that day was that Faith came to the Mass, and we had our first date that evening. After the Mass, I accompanied Father to the graduation where he was honored along with Coretta Scott King and Mother Teresa.

A Video Tribute to Sarge

Bill Josephson was Sarge Shriver’s legal counsel at the Peace Corps, law partner, and devoted friend. Bill is Senior Advisor to the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute, a trust set up  with a $10 million appropriation from the Congress to honor Sargent Shriver’s memory. In early 2014, Bill asked me if Father Ted could deliver a talk in Chicago on “the spirituality of Sargent Shriver.” I called Melanie, Father’s assistant, to arrange this; but she said that Father Ted was no longer well enough to travel. I then offered to produce a video of Father Ted speaking about Sarge’s commitment to his faith, as a gift from me to the Institute.

I interviewed him on June 25, 2014. It was one of the last interviews he ever did. He spoke not just about Sarge’s faith, but about the Peace Corps volunteers he knew in Chile, and his trip to Chicago for a civil rights rally with Martin Luther King (admitting to exceeding the speed limit to get there!) The video is available at this link.

When the half-hour interview ended, we chatted in his office in the Hesburgh Library overlooking the campus and the golden dome. Father sat with his feet on his desk, smoking one of his favorite cigars and said, “Tom, tell me more about the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute.”

I told him about the good work the Institute does and about the $10 million appropriation. Then he turned to me, ever the Notre Dame fundraiser, and said, “Can we get some of that money?”