Michael W. Higgins is distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and a senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
In her book For the Time Being, American writer Annie Dillard quotes biblical scholar Marcus Borg in writing that the world prioritizes “achievement, affluence and appearance.” But she also rightly observes that, in contrast, the "strong souls … try to sidestep just these things as snares.”
In a time of plague, it is these strong souls to whom we look for direction, solace and spiritual sanity.
But the novel coronavirus – like any invasive force that threatens social and biological equilibrium, if not our very survival – compels us to contract rather than expand. We hunker down, we isolate, we retreat, often for the right reasons. But while removing oneself from human interaction to ensure the containment of a life-threatening disease is a social good, it does not make for ideal conditions for nurturing strong souls.
Expanding one’s spiritual horizon, rather than contracting it, is precisely what should be done in such a time of fear and trembling. But how should one go about this task when a pandemic lurks?
The Christian tradition provides one way of reacting to the threats that imperil us: the manual or handbook for prayer. It is also called an enchiridion, and God knows I love that word – so deliciously arcane, so remote from daily discourse, so eye-catching in its exotic construction.
We have had a few over the centuries, written by the likes of Thomas a Kempis, Desiderius Erasmus, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Merton. But at this moment in time, let me boldly explore crafting a mini-enchiridion for our use, now. After all, we are a culture that loves how-to books – the parent-guiding, investment-growing, vehicle-fixing, health-stabilizing, sex-enhancing works that pepper our bookstores and clog our libraries (when they are open). But you don’t need anything to be open to implement three key items in this enchiridion: attention, anam cara and communion.
Let’s begin with attention, to which the early 20th-century French philosopher, political activist and mystic Simone Weil attached special significance. For her, it had metaphysical, epistemological, pedagogical and spiritual significance, and numerous studies have been written on her multivalent use of the term. But for our purposes, we can alight on the importance she attached to attention as a form of waiting: waiting on the other, waiting on God, approaching mystery and the luminous with the same rigour and focus with which we approach our studies, allowing the plenitude of ideas, of the sacred, to be revealed to a mind compelled by love.
Now, in this time of enforced enclosure, surrounded by endless Scandi-noir series on Netflix, reruns of tired sitcoms and nightly reportage on the very latest, is when attention can be vital. You can attend to your next book with a liberating intensity, attend to the person with whom you are living with a new gentleness, attend on God with a generous adoration.
Then we have anam cara, the rich notion of the soul companion, drawn from Celtic Christianity and reintroduced to us moderns by the Irish philosopher-poet John O’Donohue. Anam cara centres on the mutual dividends of shared counselling, shared prayer and spiritual accompaniment. The care of the soul that is the fruit of a spiritual conversation grounded in a deepening disclosure of heart, a yearning for the transcendent, has been much enriched by social media, technological networking such as FaceTime and Zoom and simple e-mail or phone calls. Rather than exchanging our private anxieties over economic instability, the inane prognostications of an American politician and the unpredictability of the re-emergence of normality (whatever that quite means now), we can find in an honest spiritual questing with another a new venue of hope in a darkening landscape.
Finally, communion. For Catholic Christians in particular, but by no means exclusively, the theological concept of communio or koinonia takes on a special urgency in a time of alarmist retrenchment, when countries, peoples and neighbours find comfort in the false consolations of encirclement, shunning the different and denouncing the stranger. The communio doesn’t only mean a fellowship of the living, it embraces something much larger: a communion that is outside time, contingency, mortality. A communion of the saints, of the living and of the dead, is a reality that is deeper and wider than we can know. Having a sense of being a part of something, of a holy solidarity that is outside the political and cultural, focuses our hope beyond government remedy and scientific assurance, as important as they are.
In the March 21 issue of the international Catholic weekly the Tablet, of London, we are reminded in the time of coronavirus that there is a Saint Corona, an uncommonly brave adolescent who comforted a Roman soldier being tortured to death for his faith and who then perished herself in an equally grisly manner. Now honoured as a patron saint for plagues and epidemics – because Catholicism has a saint for every eventuality – the Tablet invites its readers to invoke St. Corona to pray for us “that we might have a scrap of your faithfulness, compassion and courage.”
Would it help? It couldn’t hurt.
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