“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I think it’s fair to say we all had different expectations for 2020 than global pandemic. Quarantine and pandemic are new experiences for everyone and we are equally faced with an unknown future. We also share the experience of loss– postponed weddings and vacations; cancelled graduation ceremonies; loss of the normalcy of daily life, loss of jobs and financial security; and hardest of all, loss of life.
Back in January, while visiting family in California, I indulged in the rare opportunity of reading an entire book in one week. The book was Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? A Personal Story (2018). I was familiar with some of her scholarship, but knew nothing about her personal life. Why Religion? helps connect her scholarship in early Christianity to her own personal religious pursuits and experiences. Above all what looms large in her story is the devastating loss of her son and husband within the same year: one from an incurable illness at age five and the other from a hiking accident. How does one survive such loss? How does someone believe in a higher power after experiencing grief to this extent? Such questions were at the forefront of my mind as I read her story. Pagels didn’t provide easy answers; instead, she underscored the mysterious and uncertain nature of all of our lives.
During the pandemic, a conversation that Pagels recalled with her belated husband increases in significance.
Once, when he saw me in anguish after we received our child’s crushing diagnosis, he said something I often recall: “Everyone’s life has something like this in it.” Angry, I snapped back; “No, not this–not a child with a terminal illness!” “No,” he said, “not this, but something like this.”
Pagels later came to agree and observed that the shared experience of loss had unique potential to connect people.
For most of my life, the kinds of Christianity I encountered had emphasized certainty and had little space for doubt or the unknown. At seminary, though, while studying medieval Christianity, I learned about a kind of theology that put the emphasis more on what we do not know about God rather than what we do know (often called negative theology, apophaticism, or the via negativa). The British “Inkling” Charles Williams, for instance, described this kind of theology with the maxim “This also is Thou; neither is this Though.” Because of the utter transcendence of God, everything posited should be qualified with a negation. Theologies such as this also normally describe the divine presence through the metaphors such as “cloud” or “darkness.” Theologies that help us name and account for what we do not know or understand seem especially pertinent now.
It is Good Friday and Easter Sunday is usually a day of hope. The resurrection is the longed for climax. But, it is difficult to celebrate right now and hope seems hard to come by. Maybe it would help to remember that tragedy, uncertainty, and fear also surround Easter (see also Shelly Rambo’s recent “COVID-19 and the hell of Holy Saturday“). Faced with the unknowns of the present moment, I see knew things as I read the gospel accounts. I am reminded of the tragedy and uncertainty that surrounded the death of Jesus. Likewise, the resurrection accounts and the appearances of Jesus were also full of fear, doubt, and uncertainty. The words “Do not be afraid” and “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds” take on new meaning. I see the fear, bewilderment, and doubt of the apostles. None of them seem confident of the future.
Another story that sticks out to me at the present moment is when Jesus saw a woman grieving over the death of her son and had compassion on her. He saw her and went out of his way to help her. We are faced with the incredible opportunity and difficulty to simply see other people during this time of crisis. When faced with fear we tend to navel gaze. Instead, Jesus taught his followers over and over again to see other people, especially those who were suffering – a mother who had just lost a son.
This season of uncertainty has forced me to look at what is directly in front of me. I see my neighbors walking more than usual. I see the gift of my son and my husband. We are forced to stop and begin to notice the world around us again. I am reminded of the writings of Annie Dillard and her unique ability to simply pay attention. Dillard might also have a few things to teach us about staying home and waiting for “life to return to normal.”
We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
We are all experiencing loss, fear, uncertainty. And yet, as we pause and face the unknown we also have an unprecedented opportunity to see one another. As Simone Weil reminds us “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”