In a large group of people, it is easy to get lost, think your own thoughts, find like-minded thinkers or feelers, and generally plow your own furrow or hitch your wagon to someone else’s horse. In a convent, the new arrivals look at the older Sisters and make their own decision to accept these people as family, and admittedly the older Sisters also decide if this whipper-snapper is tame enough to learn the convent’s ways. So far this is no different from choosing a college dorm or a place of work or even a life mate in normal circumstances, and it all depends on an individual’s ability to see insightfully.
My purpose here is to explore what wisdom we can glean with God’s grace in this dark time of pandemic and social distancing. Sometimes asking questions, even when we do not know the answers, at least begins the process of hope, prayer, and creativity. Will this time of social desert teach us to value the interaction with others so that we become kinder in gratitude for our fellow human beings? Will it teach us to make time to be at home with God? Will we reorder our priorities because we have no choice so that we discover the joys of being less the consumer and more the benefactor to the less fortunate? Will we return to a quiet board or card game to relax with friends and value the precious moments with loved ones, thankful to be alive? This is my prayer. I have no answers, only the fruit of years of reading theology.
Recently I have been reading about Blaise Pascal’s theology. Many would say he is a strange mentor for these times, but stretching my mind in a direction I wouldn’t normally go certainly fits with the times filled with so many other abnormal things. Much of Pascal’s mature theological fragments and insight came in his later years when he was in continual pain from severe chronic headaches that eventually took his life. He made an unusual distinction between mathematical logic and geometric insight that incorporated the unique human gift of intuition or the ability to incorporate facts into a new vista. He was also aware that we have to be careful with that kind of distinction because it is so easy to deceive ourselves into believing our “whole” picture may really be just a jigsaw puzzle with crucial pieces missing.
To strengthen geometric insight’s grasp of truth Pascal recognized a second level of seeing which could be likened in a modern context to a photographer focusing a wide view camera lens on a bigger picture, but with the older Greek idea of theoria where one makes an intuitive leap to a higher unknown plane of knowledge. This was his definition of contemplation. One example of this is watching kindergarten-age children looking at the surface of a pond. They could see the leaves floating on its surface, but not the fish and tadpoles on the bottom, until an adult patiently points them out or the fish move and catch their eyes.
The prayer of contemplation is like that sometimes, when God chooses to give us new insights. At the right moment in our development the grace of God gives us the ability to make that leap of faith with him to a new level of understanding. It happens every day in small or great things for those who look for the opportunities and are willing to take the risk of jumping into the unknown. A monastery or convent is built around those opportunities, but so is social distancing-in-place in coronatide. After two months of “business-not-as-usual” we are beginning to realize life will be permanently different when the virus is finally controlled or eradicated, and only God knows how. Will six feet apart be the newly acceptable conversational distance? Will surgical masks be the new fashion statement? But seriously, this is a wonderful opportunity to seek once more the personal relationship that Jesus taught and we read in Scripture. What wisdom about ourselves will we learn through our experiences now?
As we pray and see other people lose loved ones close to them, our sense of vulnerability escalates, knowing this could happen to us. Humility tells me that only a higher power will be able to keep us safe, though we should still be careful. Even with all the careful hygiene in the world, I and/or my loved ones may contract this disease. Safety is not the ultimate wisdom. There have been many plagues in the world’s history. The answer comes at the end of St. Augustine’s The City of God. “There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.”
For a Christian, “being in Christ” encompasses all that we fear losing — friends, family, wealth, happiness, peace and on and on — and we have it all in life. Life is changed, not ended.
In the last few years of Pascal’s short life (d.1662 at age 39), he realized a third intuitive leap, where he, like Augustine, saw theology as the bridge between a finite, creaturely grasp of truth and eternal, absolute Truth. The human understanding of absolute Truth on earth can only be built by divine grace. Here we see the depth of the cross of Christ leading us to the day of Resurrection. Note that Pascal was not a monk. He was a member of the French upper class in the midst of much religious turmoil between multiple factions within the Catholic establishment, Huguenot Reformers, and a rising elite of agnostic scientists.
My personal prayer has evolved into a simple plea to our Lord and our God that this time of virtual Church gatherings will not so distract us from seeking God alone. May our time in prayer and study of God’s Word lead us to new heights of love and belief in a personal God and Redeemer who died, breathing his Spirit upon his Church, begun with Mary and John at the foot of the Cross.
Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.