As those who are taught

Like almost everyone else, I’m trying to make sense of this coronavirus pandemic and all the hardship and grief we’re suffering with it. I feel like the folks must have felt who asked Jesus why bad things happen to people (Luke 13:1-5). Was it because they sinned? Is this pandemic the result of something we’ve done wrong?

Jesus, of course, had a wise answer to that question. Bad things don’t happen because anyone sinned, he said. Bad things that happen, period. And they remind us that life is short and uncertain, so you’d better live it as well as you can today. You might not be around tomorrow. Carpe diem, seize the day.

I wish I had as wise an answer about this pandemic. I wish God would let me know “how to sustain the weary with a word,” as Isaiah knew (Isa. 50:4), there are so many who are weary today. But all I come up with are platitudes, answers that may sound good but don’t satisfy anyone. Those answers make me sound like Job, speaking without knowledge about things beyond my comprehension (Job 42:1-3). It’s better for everyone if I stay silent.

And silent is not a bad thing to stay right now. Take time to listen, something whispers to me. The Isaiah who had a tongue to sustain the weary was the Isaiah who first had “to listen as those who are taught.” Before I can say anything that might sustain the weary, I’ve got to listen.

St. Benedict wrote the oldest and most widely followed rule for Christian community still in practice – 1,500 years ago. Its first word is “listen.” Listen, Benedict writes, and incline the “ear of your heart” to the guidance of your teacher. Listen like Elijah listened to God, not in a great wind or earthquake or fire but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Listen like Job listened when God spoke from the middle of the disaster his life had become (Job 38:1ff). Listen like Jesus listened when he was tested by all the illusions this world could offer (Matt. 4:1-11).

Everything in life has something to teach us – everything – the good things and the bad; the smooth, soft experiences and the rough, difficult ones; things I welcome and things I find offensive; things sacred and things profane. When Isaiah says, “Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me” (Isa. 50:8), he’s not setting up a contest to see who wins. He’s describing a classroom in which we can learn important lessons from those who attack us, even from those who may finally take our life.

That’s the story of Palm Sunday. To complete his life, Jesus goes right to the heart of things, to Jerusalem, the city of opposites, where forces of good and evil coexist, where the brightest and darkest of human impulses live side by side. It’s where he will drop all his defenses, surrender all he is, and open himself to the hardest lesson God has to teach about life, a lesson hidden in his death. And it’s where new life will burst forth from everything that binds it, even from the tomb.

St. Paul was well acquainted with hardship and affliction. He also knew the consolation, the growing intimacy with God, that comes precisely from hardship and affliction. It was a consolation God gave him that would become a tool he would use for consoling others who were undergoing similar hardship and affliction (2 Cor. 1:3-7).

I won’t speculate about why this pandemic has come upon us, and it’s far too early to gauge its lasting effects. But I believe if we stand and face it in faith, and listen like Isaiah, “as those who are taught,” we will hear something God is trying to teach us, something essential to life in all its fullness. And we will have the next important tool to use in consoling the world.

Questions for reflection

  1. St. Paul wrote that God consoled him in his affliction so that he could console others with the same consolation he received (2 Cor. 1:3-4). How have you been consoled by God? How has your “affliction,” whatever it may have been, worked to draw you closer to God? How have you used that consolation as an effective consolation for others?
  2. Is it too early to sustain with a word those who are suffering in the coronavirus pandemic? Or is there something in your experience, some consolation you have received in another situation, from which you can draw a word of strength and consolation for others today?
  3. As you “stand up together” with your adversary, the coronavirus and its effects, and as you confront your adversaries in this pandemic, what are you hearing with your wakened ear? What are you learning that can become a word to use in sustaining others?

 

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