The old travelers of the world told stories of whales-pretending-to-be-islands. They rise up from under the waves and rest in the sunlight. Their backs are covered with grass, trees, and low bushes: all the comforts of land. Sailors, especially wandering monks, seeing the whale-islands, disembark. They make camp and take their ease. But the sneaky whales suddenly plunge under the water, and the unsuspecting travelers drown.
That is the feeling this world gives me at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. The unsettling feeling that the world just might be merely a cunning whale waiting to dive with us into the dark sea. It’s uncomfortable at times, and deliciously exhilarating at others.
[I should clarify: I am forever clarifying these days. It doesn’t feel worse than ever or scary or dangerous in the sense people often mean when they say “I’m concerned about your darkening worldview.” The world feels more honest – which is disturbing. It feels more haunted and more determined to ignore it’s hauntings – which is to be expected. It even feels a bit more precarious -which is hopeful in so many ways, but is also unsettling.]
I have a tall church-candle burning on my alter and Epiphany water from 2020 warming on the stove, with which to wash the walls. There is a thrilling pile of books on my bedside stand (otherwise known as the icebox). Life goes on as usual, with cozy mornings, slow evenings, and the eternal joy of my towering trees; but in the webby nooks and crannies of my life, there’s a disquiet.
Christianity has always existed uncomfortably in the secular world. Laws are passed, both good and evil – and the Church must respond. Not just officially, but personally – individually. These individual responses aren’t always unified. Too often, we fail to respond at all; or we respond in anger; or we capitulate. Too often, we read the Gospels for comfort instead of inspiration and ignore Christ’s clear words “the world hates you, it hated Me first.”
Right now, it seems we’re hating ourselves. Devouring each other in little battles that do nothing but wound and divide. Honestly, I’m not interested in those specific battles. Whether you think a bit of cloth over my mouth does more than muffle my words and tickle my nose is a non-issue. It’s whether you think the state has the right to mandate that bandage that worries me. Attitudes toward compliance and capitulation, especially in the Church, are interesting – maybe even essential.
Flipping through the Scriptures, we can find arguments for compliance and defiance. We can always find ways to quote Scripture for our own comfortable views and it’s so much easier to flow with the trends than to examine them; but can we forget the masks themselves and focus on mandates and the attitude behind them? Can we listen to those who have seen mandates multiply in their own lives and learn from them? When I think of mandates and the refusal to follow them, I think of Albert Camus, whose words have continued to confront me throughout 2020: “The world needs Christians who remain Christians.”
Too often in recent years, the Church has compromised with the state and focused on the small and unessential battles. We noticed, but while it was comfortably far off, we could assume the best of our weak leaders and hope to see them someday grow strong. But when the Church isolated Catholics from the liturgy and Sacraments during the holiest and most essential season of the liturgical year, our hierarchy acted unjustly and failed in that basic Christian duty to “speak out clearly and pay up personally” for Christ, His Church, and His faithful. Instead, they left us bereft and we are still wondering if our bishops will again play the whales’ island game with us. Fear can make us all, even our shepherds, forget the demands of our Faith.
But right now, I have children to raise. I have a life to live – one that revolves around Christ and His Church. That life is full of uncertainty. Will the bishop cave again when the governor tells him again to close the churches? Will another Easter be grimly observed by faithful Catholics exiled from the Mass? Will I have to explain to my children that, unlike our saints, who risked death again and again to celebrate outlawed Masses, our bishops and priests are comfortable “maintaining a compromise” that leaves the faithful bereft?
If we’re not careful, the Church will give up forever “the virtue of revolt” that has kept her standing with Christ and not with the world for 2000 years. “In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die.” It will go underground again, and we Catholics who have been abandoned by our bishops will fade into secrecy while the safe, stagnant parishes that devote themselves to the state wither and die out. The bishop can’t really believe that a government which has gained power over religious life will ever willingly give up that power; he can’t be so ignorant of history. We’ve seen all this before.
Our faith demands that we all “speak out clearly and pay up personally,” and when Catholics choose compliance over charity they fail in faith and humanity. I don’t care if the whole world wraps their faces in bandages, but I do care about maintaining the right to breathe free; to have a face and let it be seen. To be a whole person, unmuzzled. I will not ‘stitch up my mouth like a wound and wrap it in cotton” to keep out inevitable death. My children will not walk through public places unseen and unrecognizable. Their mental and physical health is worth protecting; their freedom to walk unbound is worth protecting.
I believe firmly that the forcing of masks, mandated coverings, and the forced isolation of those who see terror and tyranny behind the mask of safety is evil. I also know that the world beyond my ideals is complicated. I know that compromises have to be made, and I know nothing is as easy as simply going out in a blaze of glory. But the state has decided that the most essential aspect of my family’s existence is non-essential; so “a great unequal battle has begun.” And like Camus, “I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle.” I know so many Catholics who will fight that battle. “I merely fear that they will occasionally feel somewhat alone, that they are in fact alone ,” and that our bishops will be Judas’ in the garden with us: offering soothing words as they betray us again and again.
It’s an uncomfortable place to be. A precarious place to stand – I know my island is a whale in disguise, but where can I go? This year, I go to Mass – grateful for the priests who welcome the disquiet and guide me through it. I fast, pray, and create a secluded hermitage. But I can only do this because I cling to ‘the virtue of revolt’ and trust that there are others in the world who are fasting, praying, and standing in solidarity with me.