Walking the streets of lower Manhattan for the first time in a long time, I was talking with a friend a few days ago. Over the course of 20 blocks or so, I would occasionally play with my face mask, to get a little extra air. Not take it off, not pull it down, but pull it outward. I suspect that when I did that, I may have exposed my nose. The point of this story is that a woman coming toward us, but still quite far away, started screaming at me. At first, I had no idea what was going on. When we were at the point when she was closer, looking at me, and pointing — well, I’m only so slow.
I apologized. Profusely even. She had this almost primordial yelp that had to be about much more than me playing with a mask. “You think this is a joke!” she wailed. She added that she recently had had surgery. I shouldn’t have played with my mask — I know what’s going on, and I’m aware of people’s vulnerabilities and sensitivities. On the other hand, that outburst that continued as she walked past us had to be about way more than my infraction. My friend and I had been talking at some point in our walk about the obvious deepening darkness in the city. “This is life without God,” he observed after the screaming incident.
Obviously neither of us had any idea what this woman believes, but this is what we’re drowning in: the consequences of widespread unbelief. I find myself wanting to apologize to the people I don’t even know who can’t conceal their miseries. If Christians weren’t often so busy with internal conflicts and corruption, we’d be making God’s love unmistakably clear.
I was recently talking with the pastor of a church in the most dangerous section of Washington, D.C. As he described the children of St. Thomas More Academy there and what they have to walk past on the way home from school, I couldn’t help but see them as monstrances. In a monstrance, Catholics will adore the Body of Christ in His Eucharistic presence. These children show that same transformative light. While I pray for their protection, I pray that miracles happen as they pass by, that addicts will be liberated, that wounds will be healed.
I share this because there’s a lot of dismissing of “thoughts and prayers” in our culture. And I certainly agree: A sentiment in a tweet or a press release doesn’t do much for the world. It’s close to meaningless if it isn’t accompanied by some real pleading with God. I recently saw the HBO series with Jude Law as the pope, in which he declares, “God, we have to talk!” He gets on his knees, expands his arms, and gives his prayer everything that is in him and then some. You know the Scripture about the Holy Spirit taking over? That’s what some real prayer is about. God gets us there if we give Him time.
At the same time as my encounter on the city street, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican released a document, “Samaritanus Bonus, on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life.” I am taken by — drawn in by — so many passages, including this one:
Especially in hospitals and clinics committed to Christian values, it is vital to create space for relationships built on the recognition of the fragility and vulnerability of the sick person. Weakness makes us conscious of our dependence on God and invites us to respond with the respect due to our neighbor. Every individual who cares for the sick . . . has the moral responsibility to apprehend the fundamental and inalienable good that is the human person. They should adhere to the highest standards of self-respect and respect for others by embracing, safeguarding and promoting human life until natural death. At work here is a contemplative gaze that beholds in one’s own existence and that of others a unique and unrepeatable wonder, received and welcomed as a gift. This is the gaze of the one who does not pretend to take possession of the reality of life but welcomes it as it is, with its difficulties and sufferings, and, guided by faith, finds in illness the readiness to abandon oneself to the Lord of life who is manifest therein.
Imagine if we always looked at one another like that? And let weakness be an entryway for God?
News stories on the document focused on the guidance that priests can’t be giving the sacraments to people in the hopes that God will bless their assisted suicide. And while it is helpful pushback against a trend of legalizing and utilizing doctor-assisted suicide (and all the non-doctor-assisted suicide that feels worse than the coronavirus pandemic), the document is about so much more. It’s about the Christian life and how Christians owe it to the world to live it with overflowing hope. Hope is contagious, and it can be quite hidden these days. This cannot be. COVID-19 and the stresses of shutdown have increased people’s anxiety. We must show hope together, people of all faiths and none, to those who are gravely suffering and on the brink — or beyond — of despair. There is a lot of anger in the world right now, and it will only increase as the election nears. Don’t get distracted from the necessary mission of hope. Listen to the cries — in the protests and the riots and the violence and the sadness and anxiety. They are from people longing for hope. Make that your campaign — to show it.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.