In our contemporary world, distractions abound that allow us to ignore questions of ultimate meaning and purpose. Our material abundance, including the endless string of gadgets that supersede one another every year; our access to infinite information that prevents us from any idle moments in which to ponder and dream; our freedom of movement, both physical and virtual, which enables us to experience new places whenever the usual gets stale all provide means by which to elude the deep questions of existence. Or, perhaps more accurately, all of these things grant us the pretense that the ultimate answer to life’s ultimate question…is us. We tacitly believe that we are the center of the universe; everything revolves around our wants and needs.
Prior generations didn’t have this luxury. As Robert Nicholson recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “Our ancestors’ lives were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. We now float in an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen, and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to ‘the shackled form of a conquered monster,’ as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate.”
That is, until now. The past forty-five days have reminded us of our contingency and fragility. A virus has emerged against which we have no natural or pharmacological defense. In our efforts to stave it off, we have cloistered ourselves in our homes, sundering virtually all physical human connection. We have shut down our economy. These actions, in turn, feel as ominous to our long-term well-being as the virus itself.
But God redeems all things, and I believe God is weaving redemption through these challenges by reawakening us to three things essential to our humanity:
Relationships are central to who we are. Whether introverts or extroverts, we are created to be in one another’s presence, not to live in isolation. The doctrine of the Trinity reveals that even in God’s own nature relationships are essential, and that essence overflows into humanity. We are created to gaze into one another’s eyes, to share laughter, to embrace in sorrow. Our lives intertwine, and when the threads are pulled apart we are diminished. We are built to need one another, and that need is a blessing from God.
We find our grounding in sacred spaces. As we have posted Cathedral worship services online, I have received many emails from parishioners saying, in some version, “Seeing the Cathedral makes me yearn to be in that holy space.” Some who have not been regular churchgoers in years have remarked that they didn’t realize how much they missed the Cathedral until they could not be there. Holy Scripture teaches us that sacred spaces, set apart, call us like a lodestone.
Almost two centuries of Christians have been baptized, married, and buried within the Cathedral walls. It has been the location for innumerable holy moments of hope and sorrow. The stained glass, the rood screen, the high altar: all communicate God’s grace. We rightly cherish the sacred space entrusted to us. God is surely present there.
And most importantly, our source, our center, and our end are God. Once we are stripped bare of the many distractions in our lives, and once the earthly things in which we place our confidence are proven unreliable, we remember that our lives truly are contingent, and our mortal future is never sure. But that is no reason to fear! We are created by a God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine. Our meaning in life is to know God as closely as we know the very air we breathe, to recognize that the veil between God and us is so thin as to be porous. And our end is a return to God, who awaits us as the father waits upon the Prodigal Son. God will meet us with joyous abandon.
These days of COVID-19 have reawakened us to these truths of human existence. When we are on the other side of the coronavirus, as we surely will be, I pray that we will stay awake. I pray that we will cherish one another, gather again in joy in sacred spaces, and know the one great truth: that we find our very lives in God.