It is hard to believe that more than six months have passed since Covid 19 began to shut down our ordinary lives, disrupt work and school, and bring sickness and death to so many near and far. We don’t have to worry about a second wave of the pandemic, but only because the first wave never ended. Here we are, all cooped up, working at home, schooling at home, puttering about at home, yearning to be elsewhere. These past six months, we have been as it were under house arrest. It is as if Lent has gone on for a very long time, and we are being purified and remade: we are not the people we were in March 2020, nor are our town and state the same, nor will the Church come out of this unchanged.
If we have jobs and have homes, and family or friends or (for me) other Jesuits in our home, we are lucky. We may find it all very hard, but we must be mindful of the very many people who have died or gotten very sick, or lost loved ones, or lost jobs and have no money to pay for even the basics of life. We have to be mindful of those who risk their own health and safety every day, caring for the sick and keeping society afloat. But we can still find our own situations difficult, even calling into question our presuppositions about ourselves until this point in our lives.
It turns out that forced inactivity and seclusion can occasion intense personal reflection and honesty about one’s life and its purpose. Confinement has for instance led to many an important book being written. In the 6th century, the philosopher Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting a trial that would lead to his execution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom I mentioned a few weeks ago, used his last months before the Nazis murdered him to write the compelling Letters from Prison. Anne Frank kept her beautiful and sad diary while hiding from the Nazis in an attic. Henry David Thoreau wrote On Civil Disobedience inspired by his experience of a single night in jail, while Dorothy Day speaks in her Long Loneliness of the misery of just a few days in jail, after she was arrested protesting for women’s right; it was that misery that cemented her sense of human suffering and helplessness. Mahatma Gandhi wrote his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, while locked up by the British because he wanted freedom for India. Martin Luther King wrote his very influential Letter from the Birmingham Jail that that jail, while Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, Conversations with Myself, during his 27 years in prison. There were losers too: the Marquis de Sade some of his most infamous works from a prison cell, while Adolph Hitler wrote his ghastly Mein Kampf while in prison. Check out a whole list here. Being stopped in one’s tracks, left to face oneself, one’s life at a standstill and passing before one’s eyes may lead to new and powerful words, the right ones for what lies ahead. Creativity in confinement.
I mention all this, because our second reading this 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 20) is another example of writing from prison, St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The reading we have is too brief (1:20c-24, 27a) and so we need to read more of the first chapter of the letter to begin to make sense of what is going on. We have the impression that Paul was always on the move, preaching and building communities across the Mediterranean. But now Paul is writing from prison, or under house arrest, possibly in Rome or Ephesus. Paul in prison is a hyper-busy man screeching to a halt, his wide-ranging ministry frozen in place. He pines away in captivity, having to look on with joy and a little envy while others do the active work that had been his. Yet he sees that his willingness to suffer for the message he preached is an inspiration to many in the community and even among his captors:
"I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. Most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
But he is a realist too, and sees that while some continue the mission in his spirit, others seem to see Paul's captivity as chance to consign him to history and take his place:
"Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment." (1.15-17)
He seems not to know how long he will be in prison, or what will come next. He speaks of his deliverance, but he seems uncertain whether that means by death or in life:
"Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death." (1.18-20)
Like many a prisoner, Paul seems to confront a rather brutal uncertainty: might I now be better off leaving this life altogether? Or is there more for me to do here on earth? By instinct he gets to the heart of the matter, in unforgettable terms:
"For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you." (1.21-24)
Some scholars think that Paul has passed through a period of depression, and that in this letter he is sharing his crisis of faith with the Church in Philippi, to put into words the intensity of the message he preaches. But in the end he decides that he cannot give up, because he wants to see the faith live on and grow in the lives of his readers:
"Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again." (1.25-26)
Depending which imprisonment is the scene here, perhaps Paul was soon set free and able to return to his mission. Or perhaps his active days really are over as he nears the end of his life. But his confinement led at least to this beautiful letter to the Philippians, one of his deepest and most heartfelt expressions of the Christian message. Fortunately, we will be hearing more of this letter over the next three Sundays.
Paul, Gandhi, Mandela, King, Anne Frank, and a host of others: they all found their voice with a new power in their time in confinement. And in 2020 here we are, six months-plus into our own seclusion, quarantine, isolation, uncertain about how it all will end. It is perfect moment for us to take stock, to take a long view on our lives, to see ourselves in a new light, and so to begin to refashion who we are and how we shall act. Some of us may write more and better words in these forced circumstances; others among us will find renewed energy for their work, study, and basic priorities at home — or opt for a new job, new path; still others, perhaps just a few, will really want to go and “be with Christ” in a better world; and some of us, surely, are just stuck for the moment, not yet able to see beyond the dilemma of our lives on hold.
And who knows? After only six months, it may be far too soon to discern how our world, our country, our Church, and ourselves shall be and live after all this is over. Five years from now, long after Covid 19 has been contained, or (if you are young) ten or twenty or thirty years on, we can look back and count up what was lost and gained in these past six months. But if we are open to the grace of our confinement, then we may end up less frantic, stripped to the basics and more honest, more simply true to ourselves in how we imagine our present and our future and what it is that God is calling us still to do.
Pictures: Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, St. Paul, Martin Luther King.
Video: An earlier version of this homily appears on the OLOS website as part of this weekend's Mass (posted on Saturday).