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Last Things

By David Mills | May 2020
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

As I write, the bishop of Pittsburgh has removed all the sacraments from the people and closed all the churches in the diocese due to the coronavirus pandemic. I understand the reasons, though it seems an overreaction. The diocese hasn’t tried to do anything creative and said little to comfort its people. If a lot of Catholics die in this diocese without the last rites and a funeral Mass, and without the presence of their priests, people are going to remember.

In my September column, I wrote about the “dones,” the older Christians who’ve given up on their churches and often on Christianity. They may still love Jesus in some way, but they’ve said goodbye to any institutional form of religion. They give up for a lot of reasons, none good. One of the more understandable is the feeling of disengagement people naturally feel as they age.

After the virus, there will be even more “dones” among Catholics than I predicted. If the priests aren’t going to be there for you, or there at the point of death for someone you love, why bother coming back?

Readers interested in my thoughts on the Diocese of Pittsburgh will find some of them in the April 6 issue of The Catholic Herald (available online). As I write there, commitment depends not just on faith but on a web of relations, friendships, habits, and trust. Many laymen seem to have lost the last. I’m not sure how many will return, once the habit is broken.

It is true, and important to remember when the virus dominates our lives, that life goes on. It is also important to remember that for many, life goes on getting worse.

Some people trying to comfort and reassure offer versions of “This too shall pass, and life will be good again.” The first half is true, but the second half denies the suffering of those for whom life will not be good again just because the virus passes. Among many others like this, I know two men (one older, one younger) whose wives have terminal cancer, whose main concern is not the virus. Except that the virus might well kill their wives, especially if the hospitals here adopt the policy others elsewhere have of not trying to save the lives of people with terminal cancer.

Mattias Caro, editor of Ethika Politika, writes, “Coffee with mass this morning and not receiving the true Presence of Christ? So. This. Is. What. Sunday. Feels. Like. For. A. Protestant. When’s potluck brunch?”

The heavy metal door at the Ukrainian Catholic church seemed weighted to close hard. It’s in the next town down the river and we go there sometimes for the Divine Liturgy on Saturday. It’s said very restfully and meditatively, and the pastor preaches convicting yet comforting homilies.

In front of me as we left was an old man with a gimpy leg and an old-fashioned wood cane with the hook at the top and the heavy rubber tip on the bottom. He had trouble pushing open the weirdly heavy door. I reached over his shoulder to push it open.

“Let me do this,” he said, but not sounding annoyed or defensive. He had to lean into the door to push it open and then keep leaning while balancing on his good leg so he could step down onto the sidewalk. “I got it,” he said, but not with satisfaction, and looking away from me. He couldn’t hold the door, though, and looking away from the church, let it drop back so I had to catch it.

He just walked away, rocking from his good leg to the cane. I admired the way he said, “Let me do this.”

Exasperating. A friend posted a picture on Facebook of a long traffic jam of people waiting to get to a foodbank in a city south of Pittsburgh. A commenter wrote that she didn’t understand this because she sees lots of poor people with iPhones and other “unnecessary things.”

I responded by asking her if she really did not understand how poor people might be poor. And how many poor people there are. And that a cell phone is a necessity for people trying to get or keep low-end jobs with demanding bosses.

Of course we all see some things and don’t see other things. But the Scriptures themselves and the entirety of Church teaching enjoin the sympathetic reading of the life of the poor. As with everything, you have to see before you can judge or correct. You have to see them as you would have others see you.

This isn’t a teaching derived from a complicated exegesis of the Scriptures or a subtle argument from the natural law. You don’t have to accept it on authority, or work out the long string of reasoning for yourself. It’s the thing Christianity says on its face.

We need what I’ve called the “rhetorical preferential option for the poor,” a phrase I used in Ethika Politika a few years ago, writing in response to someone who blithely invoked “creative destruction” as a good.

Those who easily invoke the idea are themselves never among the creatively destroyed. It’s their way to make invisible those who suffer from their favored policies.

As I wrote then, the “preferential option for the poor” refers to the Church’s insistence that the poor go first in the distribution of goods, defined broadly to include not only the physical necessities of life but rights like religious freedom and economic opportunity.

The poor should go first in the distribution of the good of attention. Any sustained statement about economic theory should relate that theory to the poor. If an idea is praised for creating wealth, it should be interrogated for its effect on the vulnerable. One should not speak as if real people were not involved, as if general improvement were not bought at a great cost to some.

Religiously conservative Christians tend to think moralistically, meaning a-economically. For example, they talk about the effects of the virus in entirely moral terms. They speak as if people were only moral agents and not beings embedded in a world that directs and restricts their choices.

Old people should have had more children, divorced people should have stayed married, married people should be having more children, people should live closer to their families, women should not have aborted their children, people should make employment decisions based on family and community, and so on. People I know, quite charitable and empathetic people, still talk about the breakdown of the family as if it were only a moral failing, a choice freely made, and the people now suffering in the crisis, like lonely old people having to fend for themselves, made their own bed and now have to lie in it, and tough luck.

The idea that the economic system encourages the breakup of all binding relationships to create more usable and manipulable workers they don’t see at all. That, for example, the extended family broke down in part because people have to move far away for their jobs. Because large companies, aided by neo-liberal ideology, operate by mechanical calculations of profit, shareholder value, and fiduciary responsibility, without concern for the good of human persons and human communities.

Chesterton, one of Catholic conservatives’ great heroes, saw this very clearly, in What’s Wrong with the World, among other places. Though a man of the Left, he was, in this, the true conservative.

Being socially distanced (I’m writing at the end of March) must make some people see their need for greater inner resources. And a different disposition toward the world. Not as a place that provides entertainment but a thing that entertains in itself.

Boredom is like pain: a warning that something is hurt and needs to be healed. Boredom tells us we don’t enjoy the very interesting world as much as we could, and should.

Pascal saw this, in one of the most famous of his pensées: “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction. But for that we should be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death.”

Chesterton saw this too. “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person,” he wrote at the opening of his essay on Kipling in his early book Heretics. It appeared just before Orthodoxy and is nearly as good. You probably won’t recognize most of the people he examines, but you will know their descendants today.

He went on: “When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.”

“As a mother I tried to do as my mother did: when one of the kids says ‘I’m bored’ I tell him or her that it’s their responsibility to not be bored; that boredom is a failure of imagination and attention to the world and to others,” writes my friend Rebecca Pettigrew. A theologian by training, she’s a mother by experience. She tried to raise children “with all the lights on.”

She trained hers to pay attention to others and the world, especially nature. “We learned to look for and name flowers and birds and searched the world with expectation, for critters, fairies, and revelations. We contemplated the beauty of Creation and experienced and shared awe over the complexity and vastness of the universe. We learned to pray, in thanksgiving for the gift of our lives and our loved ones and in praise of the God who loves us unto death.”

She laments the damage we cause by giving our work as parents to technology and other babysitters. “If we treat them [children] — as do our schools these days — as passive vessels into which we dump information and through which data is processed and regurgitated, we will be left with extremely bored people. The parent is important in the process of awakening the child to his or her own imagination, moral agency, religiosity, and intelligence.”

It seemed an extreme reaction, even with some people calling for hospitals to let the very sick die of the coronavirus. My friend posted a news story with the line, “Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. Another eight were told to self-immolate.”

I thought at first it was a very ineptly used metaphor. The word was actually “self-isolate.”

This happens to me fairly often. The misreadings come, I hope, from observing a lot quickly when my mind fills in the details it didn’t quite get.

Like the title of The Spectator weekly mailing, “Tory Scum.” That seemed an unusual judgment for a Tory magazine, but the editors are writers, and writers tend to have a low view of politicians, ambitious politicians especially, and they are also unusually contrarian, even for writers. So I thought the issue promised the pleasure (being a writer myself and having the same feeling about politicians) of seeing politicians taken down. It didn’t. The title was “Tory Scrum.”

Then there was the edifying misreading of the title of a Crux article. “Benedict is demanding celibacy from the media, not from Francis,” it declared. The word was, alas, “defending.”

Rereading takes the joy out of these things.

And then there are the funny typos and miswordings. A very conservative Facebook friend wrote, after declaring that one can’t be homosexual and Christian: “The people who are homosexual are free to be and I will love them. But, they must repeat the practice.”

A friend wrote me about an article I wrote on the Guardian Angels: “I believe there are things that go on behind the vile, we normally are not privy to see.”

One of my readers, chiding me for writing too complicated an article, explained: “Your audience would benefit from starting at a baser level.”

And one of my own. I wrote an Orthodox friend who’s widely read and has a lot of books: “Whenever this is all over: If you have good Catholics to give away, give them to me and I’ll give them to the Sacred Heart bookshop. They live on donations.”

The woman in the motorized handicapped cart had parked across the pickup window. I’d gone down the hill to get my wife’s medicine from the grocery store pharmacy. I stopped at the end of the line marked off by ribbon barriers.

“Sir,” someone said in a respectful voice from the front of the line. I looked up, and a man at least my age said, “I’m just waiting for my meds.” He stood there looking at me, and having nothing to say, I stood there looking at him. Then he moved away, to let me go to the front of the line. It made no difference, because he still got to the counter ahead of me, but he was trying to do something helpful.

The old woman in the cart had her head slung to the left, away from me, apparently holding her phone between her head and shoulder, and kept talking in cryptic short sentences. She straightened her head. She didn’t have a phone but was talking to her daughter, who was standing behind a cart about ten feet behind her.

Why they were talking this way was not clear. The daughter finally came up and threw some bags into her mother’s cart. “I got you vegetables,” she said. “They’re on sale for a dollar. They’re steam-in-a-bag.”

“I don’t like steam-in-a-bag,” her mother said, decisively and unhappily.

“You don’t have to steam them, Mama,” her daughter said, in a patient voice edging toward annoyance, as her mother listlessly picked up a bag and tossed it back down.

Her mother said, in the same patient-edging-toward-annoyance voice, “You get ten ounces, not sixteen.” I understood, and admired. You get sixteen ounces in the boil-in-a-pot bags, a not inconsiderable sixty percent more, and also on sale for a dollar.

I got a few groceries, because once you’re out, you might as well get things you need, and on the way passed the two women, who had pulled up to the endcap refrigerator with the sale vegetables. They seemed to be swapping out the steam-in-a-bags for boil-in-a-pots.

I got into the line with a real person checking you out because this grocery store would gladly lay off people if they could get their customers to use the self-checkout lines. After I put my bags in the cart, I moved back to use the ATM (it’s by the belt, away from the cashier), just as the mother pulled into line, and I had to twist over the front of her cart to pay for my groceries.

“I’m in your way,” she said. I told her she wasn’t, and she really wasn’t, just as she dropped a loofah she was putting on the belt. I squatted down to pick it up.

“Thank you, sir,” she said in a very quiet voice, and then looked up at me and broke into a huge smile.

 

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