– Aurelio Porfiri
We are all aware that our lives are not completely in our hands. We need to face certain facts that we don’t often consider, like diseases and unforeseen events that threaten our existence and so on. Because of this, we are uncertain of what will happen to us in a month’s time or even in an hour’s time, to be very blunt.
This sense of uncertainty is much bigger in a time of medical emergency when you have to protect yourself even from people with whom you normally socialize. In the last 8 or 9 days, it seems that the curve of infected people is declining in Italy, even if we are not yet at the point where we can say we are safe. We begin only now to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even though we are still in the tunnel itself. I have to say that I appreciate the patience of most of the Italian people, their resilience to a situation that is highly distressing. Sometimes people don’t speak very highly of us Italians, but on this occasion, I have to say they are showing great understanding, even after the prime minister Giuseppe Conte has announced that the lockdown will continue until May 3. No doubt we are tired of this, but what can we do? We can only wait.
I was speaking of the fact that life is not in our hands. We are now learning to look at death more closely, not just as something that will happen sometime in the future. Felix Adler said: “It is written that the last enemy to be vanquished is death. We should begin early in life to vanquish this enemy by obliterating every trace of the fear of death from our minds. Then can we turn to life and fill the whole horizon of our souls with it, turn with added zest to all the serious tasks which it imposes and to the pure delights which here and there it affords.”
Indeed now we are much more able to appreciate all the freedom that we took for granted in the past. Going to a restaurant, taking a bus, boarding an airplane seem now luxuries that we cannot afford. The same Felix Adler also observed: “The bitter, yet merciful, lesson which death teaches us is to distinguish the gold from the tinsel, the true values from the worthless chaff. The terrible events of life are great eye-openers. They force us to learn that which is wholesome for us to know, but which habitually we try to ignore – namely, that really we have no claim on a long life; that we are each of us liable to be called off at any moment, and that the main point is not how long we live, but with what meaning we fill the allotted short span – for short it is at best.” Yes, maybe now we have to think about this when the daily bulletin tells us that hundreds of people have succumbed to this infamous virus, and we can do very little about it, we often seem powerless.
The great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877) wrote: “A dream! What is a dream? And is not our life a dream? I will say more. Suppose that this paradise will never come to pass (that I understand), yet I shall go on preaching it. And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The important thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the important thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted – you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times – but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness – that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.” It is not as easy as Dostoevsky thinks, to come to terms with life, but terrible events as this pandemic teach us a lesson that we have to put into practice as soon as possible.
One of the most famous books on spirituality is The Imitation of Christ, a medieval book that has nourished countless generations of believers. In it is stated: “Vain is the life of that man who putteth his trust in men or in any created Thing. Be not ashamed to be the servant of others for the love of Jesus Christ, and to be reckoned poor in this life. Rest not upon thyself, but build thy hope in God. Do what lieth in thy power, and God will help thy good intent. Trust not in thy learning, nor in the cleverness of any that lives, but rather trust in the favor of God, who resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble. Boast not thyself in thy riches if thou hast them, nor in thy friends if they be powerful, but in God, who giveth all things, and in addition to all things desireth to give even Himself. Be not lifted up because of thy strength or beauty of body, for with only a slight sickness it will fail and wither away. Be not vain of thy skilfulness or ability, lest thou displease God, from whom cometh every good gift which we have. Count not thyself better than others, lest perchance thou appear worse in the sight of God, who knoweth what is in man.
“Be not proud of thy good works, for God’s judgments are of another sort than the judgments of man, and what pleaseth man is oftentimes displeasing to Him. If thou hast any good, believe that others have more, and so thou mayest preserve thy humility. It is no harm to thee if thou place thyself below all others; but it is great harm if thou place thyself above even one. Peace is ever with the humble man, but in the heart of the proud there is envy and continual wrath.”
This passage helps us to consider not which happens outside of us, but what happens on the inside. If we read these lines in the background of this pandemic, we may be called to reconsider our life, the way we behave, the way we treasure our spiritual dimension. Humanly it is understandable that we want to look for a light at the end of the tunnel, but still we need to think about ourselves in the light of imminent danger and decide what account of our lives we want to give.
The Imitation of Christ also says: “It is good for us that we sometimes have sorrows and adversities, for they often make a man lay to heart that he is only a stranger and sojourner, and may not put his trust in any worldly thing. It is good that we sometimes endure contradictions, and are hardly and unfairly judged, when we do and mean what is good. For these things help us to be humble, and shield us from vain-glory. For then we seek the more earnestly the witness of God, when men speak evil of us falsely, and give us no credit for good. Therefore ought a man to rest wholly upon God, so that he needeth not seek much comfort at the hand of men. When a man who feareth God is afflicted or tried or oppressed with evil thoughts, then he seeth that God is the more necessary unto him, since without God he can do no good thing. Then he is heavy of heart, he groaneth, he crieth out for the very disquietness of his heart. Then he groweth weary of life, and would fain depart and be with Christ. By all this he is taught that in the world there can be no perfect security or fullness of peace.” Yes, we are really learning that in the world there is no “perfect security or fullness of peace” but only struggle, a struggle that will see us on one side or the other. We are not always sure on which side we are on, but in events like this we need to reconsider for whom we fight.
This year Easter has been unlike any other year in my life. By just looking at the ceremonies in the Vatican, deprived of all solemn apparatus, with only a few people in attendance, we know that this year is unlike any other year in our lives. We are witnessing history in the making, even if we would renounce gladly to be part of something like this. But we are not the ones who decide what happens in history. But we can be makers of our own history, and sometimes that “little history” can have a big influence also on world events. So, let us decide on which side of the fight we want to be.