This writing simply suggests that, in addition to good medical information and advice about the pandemic, there is another, a spiritual or soul dimension to our response that also needs attention.
Put too simply, most of the commentary I’ve seen does not yet address the spiritual resources and practices we need as we move through this health crisis, words and ideas to help us endure its sufferings and experiences its opportunities.
As my contribution to that latter effort, I will below share just one of my mentor William Lynch’s teachings which I think might be helpful for us in the present. And then will add some wisdom from Dorothy Day.
But the main point of this writing is not Lynch’s or Day’s ideas, helpful though I hope they may be, but the need we all have to find spiritual resources or soul talk for living through these times. I suspect we can find such resource in many writers and saints who draw on the taproots of spiritual wisdom. I think of folks like Thomas Merton, of Therese of Lisieux whom Day wrote a book about, of Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr, of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi. And of Francis, both of them, and of the many other folks (living or deceased, famous or familial) who are for each of us icons of spiritual sanity.
A teaching from Lynch about vulnerability and solidarity, suffering and seeing
Let me begin with a magnificent passage from Lynch’s book Images of Hope (1965)
As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives:
We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally and physically well and all the ill…. The idea of the city of man will have to remain eternally open and flexible, ready to adjust itself to the new, to new races and above all to new illnesses. How many [of us] are up to building this kind of city remains to be seen.
Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity will always be excluded. They will pose as ideal cities, but will always exclude the Negro, the sick, the different.
Then Lynch adds a realistically ominous note:
These non-human cities offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful men and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.
Images of Hope is a book about “mental illness and hope,” and as Lynch notes wryly but accurately, “we are all at least a little bit ill.” And perhaps more than a little worried at this moment.
Here’s the gist of Lynch’s ideas about hope: it is a not what is often imagined as hope — some great leap to transcend the bad news or a hopeless situation. Such fantasy ideas about hope do little to really help us, often making things worse. Rather real hope is nurtured by help experienced in daily living. It is a matter of small steps, reaching out to the actual world (and not to some fantasy). And it is being helped out of our fears and helping others in the same way. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst clouds of gloom.
This sense of help is itself grounded in a recognition of human vulnerability and suffering. Our own suffering and need calls out to others. Seeing (and not avoiding) the others’ suffering calls out to us. This is how the inclusive and hopeful human city actually grows; how hope is brought forward by little and by little, but realistically and not in some fantasy.
Of course, we can and do respond to need and suffering by turning away, retreating into some fantasy of walled separation. And as Lynch says, we would be fools to underestimate the fascination of escape mechanisms for the fearful folks we all are (and in important senses must be).
Thus, in good Ignatian fashion, Lynch urges us to careful discernment about the spirits or passions aroused by the suffering we see and the fears we have – discerning between those which lead towards flight and further hopelessness, and those which open hearts and minds to real help and hope.
Let me put this another way. Lynch at one point says that he especially admires the East River in New York City, just several blocks from where he grew as a child. Why? Because the river flows ever into a greater world – slowly, with the rhythm of tides, but continually, “a symbol of a passage of human beings into a wider and wider world, into the making of a port and then an ocean.” Then he adds quite dramatically, “We need such a world. Of all things we need, we need a world.”
Elsewhere he adds a remarkable aphorism about that need for a world. Comparing them to the Gospel’s pearls of great price, he says we need both “a good taste of self and a good taste of the world.” And he stresses that these good tastes are inseparable or mutually reinforcing. You can’t have one without the other.
And from Saint Dorothy
As a reminder that this essay is not primarily about Lynch, but about other saints and sages who might help us with the spiritual, I end with a simple listing of some Dorothy Day’s teachings which strike me as important for this moment.
The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?
Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.
We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.
The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.
I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.
Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.
People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.
My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.
Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Please consider sharing your sources of spiritual wisdom with others, here on this site or among friends and colleagues where it may be of great help.