Although there are perhaps more timely subjects to tackle here this week, including the dueling, David vs. Goliath SCOTUS amici briefs on marriage, my thoughts largely return to more personal matters. I recently lost a 53-year-old friend to cancer—courtesy of a more pressing and ultimately fatal pulmonary embolism—and continue to learn of another family friend’s struggle with the same brutal cancer that ended my father’s earthly life 13 fast years ago. So as Winter turns to Spring, I am mindful of those for whom it is their last here among us fellow travelers.
Lent is about dying. For most of us, this amounts to a half-hearted dying to self. And yet there is a good soberness to Christian practice, a counter-balance–a remission perhaps even–for the fixation on fictions of “life” and entertainment that go on unabated around us, and often in us.
I’m still reading Thomas Merton’s fine autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. I find his description of the late 1930s and early 1940s particularly insightful, as he and the rest of the nation watched the temperature in Europe rise, with slow-brewing angst and trepidation. Merton, a mystic and penitent, described his sentiments upon receipt of orders to register for the draft:
…it was enough to remind me that I was not going to enjoy this pleasant and safe and stable life forever. Indeed, perhaps now that I had just begun to taste my security, it would be taken away again, and I would be cast back into the midst of violence and uncertainty and blasphemy and the play of anger and hatred and all passion, worse than ever before.
What he stated next, however, haunts me in a Lenten sort of way.
It would be the wages of my own twenty-five years: this war was what I had earned for myself and the world. I could hardly complain that I was being drawn into it.
Would that I could live that wisdom when I am tempted to feel sorry for myself or hostile toward others. My daughter and I were blessed to hear Cardinal Dolan offer a short homily about a year ago on magnanimity, an under-discussed and under-practiced virtue. Most of us don’t even know what it is. To be magnanimous means to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity toward others. I see it in Dolan, as I secretly hope his fellow cardinals perceive it in him as well. I see it far too infrequently in myself.
Merton captures this sense of magnanimity elsewhere, in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, where he palpably senses the intimate connection between love of others and his own growth in grace:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….We are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous….It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Shining like the sun. I’ve walked my own campus lately with this phrase in mind. It is a moving, bewildering phrase. I’m not there yet, but I am grateful for those who have, who do, and who will help show us how to do that. Some are long dead, some are dying, and some haven’t even been born yet. Such is the Church.
I have witnessed magnanimity, and more often heard of it, in our family friend who is dying. He won’t likely agree. (Indeed, my father felt similarly unworthy as his own mortal life’s end approached.)
Together with Merton, Dolan, my dad, my father-in-law, the Stumberg family, and plenty of others: they remind me that amid conflicts hot and cold, culture wars, family fueds, and our own internal battles, our call—our sole purpose in life—is to become more like Christ, to be generous, to radiate love and peace to those around us; to fight, but to fight fairly; to love, and not to hate; to listen more than talk; to bring order to chaos; to stand firm in hope, and yet to honor the dignity of persons when we do. I am hoping some of my observations of it rub off.
To DS: while your body wastes away, you are shining like the sun, because sanctity is not so readily fashioned in ease as in endurance, not so efficiently in tranquility as in suffering. You have let your light shine before men, and now it’s our turn to praise your Father in heaven for it.