On Grace, Free Will, and Other Random Thoughts (Pandemic)
Well, once again it has been a very, very long time since I’ve chosen to sit down and write here. These months of pandemic, combined with a level of political turmoil I can’t recall ever being quite so extreme, have resulted in what I might call an almost malignant busy-ness.
There’s the busy-ness of having myriad and different things to do, priorities and commitments and tasks around helping two boys navigate a flawed online learning system since our schools remain closed, and supporting the ability of family members whose jobs are essential, to continue working without a worry as to child care, meal preparation, and lots of little things. All of it involves some stress, some worry that I might not be doing it “right,” and some impatience that probably comes from an underlying sense that it isn’t really supposed to be like this. And saying it that way reminds me that peace lies in the direction of accepting the blessing of being where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to do.
Then there’s the busy-ness of keeping up with everything that’s going on “out there” without being out there. And then there’s the busy-ness of following political and religious trends on social media. And thereby hangs a tale. I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised. After weeks and months of muting voices that I felt were shouting false information with no basis in fact or research, of seeking sources that felt more congruent with my own views, of diligently exploring voices that might provide helpful and/or useful perspectives, it occurred to me that all of it, really, was just noise. And “mind noise,” I discovered, is just as anxiety-provoking and annoyance-producing as physical noise.
So I removed the social media apps from my phone. The realization that Facebook was presenting me with very little that involved staying in touch with loved ones who live far away (or nearby, for that matter), and with very much that played on my anxieties and annoyance levels, led me to turn it off. And Twitter is gone. I had originally reactivated my Twitter account thinking I would find interesting voices to provoke thinking and promote communication and idea-sharing. Instead, I found dissonant voices that ranged from ill-informed and biased, to rabid and malicious, to inane if at least inoffensive. I found extremes of expression both in voices that purported to be religious and in voices that held themselves out as having political truth (an oxymoron?). Rather than coming away informed and provoked to deeper thinking, rather than finding an avenue of communication in this time of relative isolation, I found myself obsessively opening these pages to see something new, to find something provocative, and then sitting and wondering why I felt, at the same time, empty and provoked.
And so they are gone. I admit to taking a look at Facebook in the browser on my tablet the other morning; I had kind of missed seeing the daily memories it presented me. So I looked at the memories, and I looked at my “news feed,” and I realized that despite several days’ accumulation there really wasn’t anything there I needed to know or cared to see. I haven’t been back.
In this time of pandemic, where staying home and avoiding large groups and gatherings is the best way to avoid a potentially disastrous or even fatal illness, even a naturally solitary person can begin to feel isolated. The community around us shrinks; mine consists of about 6 family members and 2 friends. Call it my bubble, call it my community — it’s a lot smaller than it was. What I can say about it for sure is that I know the people in it are people I can count on, absolutely and all the time. That’s obviously not quite so true of the larger community that used to be in place. The pandemic, and people’s reactions to it, revealed some truths about people that changed how I felt about them and in some cases destroyed my trust in them.
So for about the past week, I’ve faced the world without the filter of social media. I’ve watched and read some news from major networks and newspapers (those my research has indicated were the least biased), and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that my true community, those 6-8 people, didn’t change when I left social media behind. I realized that when I left social media behind, not one of the people with whom that was my main or sole connection has noticed or inquired about my absence, even though I left one app in place that would allow direct contact. And I realized that slowly but surely, my peace of mind and my focus on the spiritual began to return.
This awakening has occurred after a few weeks of finally being able to attend weekday Masses 3 times a week, as well as being able to go to Sunday Mass with the family. Masses had been suspended from late March well into June. Just about the time that weekend Masses were reinstated, I picked up a stubborn viral respiratory infection — not COVID-19, but it still resulted in a stubborn case of pneumonia — and still could not go to Mass for several weeks. Finally in early August, I was well enough to go. My parish by then had reinstated daily Masses, and about that same time, the schedule was revised so that an early Mass was offered three days a week. Although I had continued to pray often throughout the months of no Mass, following online Masses when possible, and I found that when Mass was not available God opened other channels of grace, I was amazed at how being at Mass opened those channels wider.
As the weeks passed, I once again began to think in ways that seemed worth writing down. And finally, this morning, I began to think deeply enough that these ideas required me to write them down. I’ll capture them briefly here, and I hope to expand on them in entries over the next few days.
First, grace. I’ve been thinking a lot about grace in recent months, as a gift from God. It’s a gift with an almost ironic twist: we need God’s grace in order to recognize and accept God’s grace. And what is grace, really? I started to think about it in the terms that we use in everyday language. Grace describes a freedom and fluidity of movement which suggests a confidence and integruty of being in those possessed of it; it speaks of a certain congruity between the one endowed with it and the surroundings in which that person walks. I began to wonder how well that description translates to the spiritual life, and all manner of ideas began to form.
A second concept that has been working its way through my mind is that of free will. We were created with free will; although it’s one of God’s great gifts to us, when we consider how quickly and disastrously the first humans misused it, it can seem more like a curse. How do we deal with something that God gave us as a gift, but which we are so prone to use to separate ourselves from him by sin? What if we offer it back to him — not as a rejection of the gift, but in the same way that we offer ourselves and our works and deeds and actions? What if we offer it to him so that it can be reconciled with his own will? Much to think about there; such an offering cannot negate the gift of free will but instead must be a way of using the freedom. In much the same way as I turn my intellect and reason and consciousness over to God when I sleep, entrusting them to him for safekeeping, can I entrust my free will to him for safekeeping?
There’s a third idea rolling around in my head, having to do with who we identify with when we read the Gospels, particularly the Parables. For example, awhile back when the daily Gospel reading included the parable of the workers in the vineyard, I considered that every time I hear that parable, I identify with the ones who worked all day, only to see those who worked only an hour or so get the same pay. And I thought about what great mercy and grace could come from realizing that we are really the ones who were hired late in the day and yet received the full benefit of a day’s wages. What a wonderful thing to live in a spirit of gratitude like those last hired must feel, no matter when we came to the table. Much to explore there.
And then there was the reading from Ezekiel about the dry bones. This reading refers to the stony heart replaced, the dry bones restored. And I thought about how God changes us profoundly when we empty ourselves and let him. He doesn’t just change what’s in us, he puts something all new in its place! I want to explore this section of Ezekiel in greater depth.
That’s probably more than enough food for thought, and outright rambling, for now. The day awaits, and even though there is no online school to supervise today, there are many other things to do. Please, Lord, let me do them in a condition and state of your grace, so filled with your love that it simply spills over onto everyone I encounter and makes me a blessing to them!