It is a welcome commonplace observation among Christians today that the Holy Trinity is understood as God as a “community” of persons. This understanding has developed over the centuries: the Trinity is something more than the expression of the mystery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit each being “God” while preserving our monotheistic confession that God is One–it’s not just a solution to a theological conundrum, but a profound insight into the nature of the divine. Being made in the image and likeness of God, this has tremendous importance for us. We are individuals, but also beings that exist in relationship; we are not fully human unless we combine these in our lives. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one that is not easily mastered by human beings, but it is of vital importance that we do, as by it we fulfill our vocation as sons and daughters of the Triune God.
Even the ancient hermits we today call the Desert Fathers saw community as an integral part of their monastic ideal and rarely regarded solitude as a way of life to be pursued at the expense of community. These men (and women!) of the Egyptian wilderness had much to say about community, hospitality and love of neighbour even as they are identified in the popular imagination as exemplars of solitude. It was through their withdrawal from community that they make us aware of the peril of town and city to corrupt us and draw us away from God and into sin. Yet such celebrated saints as St. Anthony of the Desert did not shoo away city-dwellers who trekked through the wilderness to seek out his wisdom; and the visits among the hermits of the desert was actually part of their spiritual discipline. Anthony and the other hermit saints of antiquity were known for their hospitality. They would break bread with their visitors and share what little they had in way of food and other creature comforts, welcoming the stranger as Christ into their humble cells. Lately we may be tempted to think of ourselves as pseudo-hermits given the current restrictions on civil life. However, this is not of our choosing as it was with the solitary monks of the desert. When this is imposed, it is not a spiritual gift, per se, but the outcome of a risky strategy of those who govern in hopes of fending off possible catastrophe.
Such is the role of the governor and lawmaker, whether King or provincial premier: to safeguard the community through wise, well-considered policies that preserve and nurture it as the living organism that it is. The need for order is to be balanced against the necessary freedom that allows us all to thrive. As Christians we see in the Trinity, for all its depth of mystery, this essential truth. Each person represents both the order and the liberty inherent in the divine community. The three cooperate in all things, yet preserve their distinct identities; while the Holy Spirit is the means by which God orders creation out of chaos, the Spirit is also an unpredictable force of liberation that ” blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3.8) Christ calms the storm, but also unleashed the violence of his righteous anger against the money-changers in the Jerusalem Temple. God the Father is serene, His peace absolute, and yet He will break silence and disrupt the lives of men making them prophets so as to accomplish His justice (e.g. Moses).
Today community is threatened, both by order and chaos; all balance between these poles having been lost. When order is overemphasized, community is suffocated; when chaos is unleashed, community dissolves.
While I understand the attitude of authorities in light of the threat of a virulent disease, my concerns arise around the uncounted costs accruing to us as a society, as the Church, and as individual persons. The social dimension is not dispensable, nor can the technologies of the virtual (Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc.) replace personal contact as they try to replicate community in the cybernetic realm of the internet. Much of our leadership class remain enamored with technological solutions and wed to their “top down” and centralized concepts of economic and social management. These fly in the face of Catholic teaching on the inherent strength of family and smaller units of community (what the Church calls, “Subsidiarity”). They value their ability to order our society according to their theories and assumptions over the risk of trusting that in the chaos of everyday community life, people will act sensibly and take appropriate measures for their safety and that of others.
At a recent graveside funeral of a beloved patriarch, I watched as mourners had to leave to exchange places with those waiting outside the cemetery so that the deceased’s loved ones could participate in the prayer and remembrance. There is no trust that a family will be able to organize itself such that, perhaps two dozen people could have stood in a cemetery, under what was a blazing sun, in the open air (conditions we are told reduce the possibility of infection to near zero) for less than an hour’s time. The principle of order here was smothering. Already in some countries mourners have rebelled, but in flouting unreasonable restrictions have probably been dangerously excessive in their protest.
While we in Dundas, and greater Hamilton, are very fortunate in our basic circumstances, the recent diminishing of civil life, economically and socially will have its ill effects. There will be the fearful who will shy away from community gathering and will relate more and more to the world via anti-social “social media.” By newfound habit and unconscious anxiety, many will continue some of the isolating practices they’ve learned (The diocese has related to the parishes that, based on experience in dioceses in other countries, attendance at masses is expected to be down by half and more after the end of lock-down). These will combine with a generation of youth who’ve been raised to rely on devices that substitute the virtual for the real. If unemployment increases, and an economic recovery is delayed, the costs to us in crime, addictions, and “deaths of despair” (i.e. suicides) will climb.
The collapse of community through chaos has been dramatically and tragically demonstrated in recent events in the major cities to the south. For as long as I have been alive, the United States’ urban centres have been subject to such periodic cataclysms that never seem to resolve anything but only devastate the already vulnerable and marginalized, harden division and further the dissolution of that national community. Detroit, for example, still bears the physical scars of its 1968 riots, but it was the after effects that have plagued that city since. The exodus of its middle class to the suburbs, and the downward spiral that results from such understandable flights to safety is seen in the lack of real investment in the city, a diminishing tax base to pay for essential services, and so an incapacity to maintain the city in its fundamentals such that it is an unappealing and unsafe place to live. Those who remain in its decrepit boroughs feel trapped and powerless, prey to the illegal drug trade, petty crime and gang violence. As crime rises, an overwhelmed police force becomes increasingly degraded, the quality of its recruits sinks, professionalism wanes, and frustrations increase on the part of both the constabulary and those who are policed. Go there, or to many other cities I might name, and the cycle of decay follows a similar pattern all under the watch of the ossified political regime that came to power in the late 60s and early 70s on the promise of ending the violence, rendering true justice, and restoring to dignity the marginalized. Ironically, there are among that group of leaders many who cheer on the forces of chaos, as if burning it all to the ground is the solution (such is the logic of revolutionaries whose culpability for the deaths of millions is beyond question).
Our gospel today reminds us that, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that world might be saved through him.” (John 3.17) God brought the flood once, and promised never to initiate such a radical “reset” again. Rather than torrential rain, he has sent His Son. Through Christ we find the way to the emulate that divine community of love that respects its constituents as it facilitates cooperation in its work of redemption.
How does this renewal of humanity then occur? If it is with Christ, it’s been going on for some time, two millenia, and we still haven’t sorted it out. This can all be put down to humanity’s slothfulness, its desire for the quick fix, the avoidance of the hard interior work of changing our hearts and minds through prayer, fasting, service and study of God’s Word of Truth and Wisdom; and to do it in each generation. Revolutions have been our attempted shortcuts that have unleashed unholy chaos; harsh reactionary regimes have arisen, equally from a desire for a simple solution through the exercise of tyranny, all in the name of public safety. Neither is of God.
The lack of charity toward our governors, their lack of forbearance for those they govern explain the contempt that is often evidenced by sloganeering activists looking to exploit the anger of the crowd and the cynical politicians eyeing the opportunities that arise in crises. This is not Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve.
The starting point for humanity in its pursuit of true community is with the recognition of our universal fallenness, our failings and faults. No one is innocent. No one is justified in casting a stone, through a shop window, or metaphorically speaking, through the rhetoric of recrimination and blame. When Moses gathered the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai in the aftermath of the scandal of the Golden Calf, he ascended the mountain. It was not to receive the law, that was done, but rather to offer intercession for the sins of the people, “… pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (Exodus 34.9)
We must open the churches once again for this holy and necessary work, and not unduly hamper them in this. Trust must be restored, despite the mistakes and overreactions both in trying to impose strict order, or in permitting chaotic behaviour. The balance must be found again, and it will not be found anywhere but in the peace of God that is entered into through humility and then affords us the faith, hope and charity that are the trinity of virtues at the heart of true community made in the image and likeness of the one true triune God.