Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
August 1, 2020 – Memorial of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Founder of the Redemptorists
My Marist Brothers’ community lives in a parish convent that previously housed 20 or so Sisters of Charity. As part of our lease agreement, the parish is responsible for structural repairs to the building and some routine maintenance of the yard, though our Bro. Dave has done much to transform the grounds into a floral wonderland. They mow the lawn and take down problematic trees while we still enjoy the freedom to improve the general aesthetic.
About those trees. Because the maintenance staff is busy with their numerous parish responsibilities (including the upkeep of two schools), they understandably emphasize function over beauty in some of their interventions. Hence, removing the trees has actually meant cutting them down to stumps instead of removing them entirely. Most of the stumps have been in their current state longer than we’ve lived here—some are dead, while others have sprouted new green. A couple of the ones closer to the house were cut down more recently by our request.
We have lived with these half-dozen stumps for some time. To the parish workers, they represent long-forgotten tasks successfully completed, if those jobs are remembered at all—the majority of those trees were reduced to stumps by employees who have since moved on. To some of us brothers, the stumps instead represent a gentle eyesore and work yet to be done.
I have begun their removal, using the basic tools we have rather than those that would be most suited to the job: a pickaxe, shovel, and a couple saws. Nothing with a motor. Digging out the stumps is not necessary, mind you. They bother me slightly enough that I will not be particularly annoyed by any that may survive the time I have to work at them. They are not doing any objective harm. It is an aesthetic issue, and my desire to extirpate them says more about my own compulsions and values than anything else. If the work were truly important, I would borrow suitable tools and be done in short order. Instead, I carry forth, feeling alternately frustrated and contented, but knowing that I could walk away from the challenge at any moment. Nonetheless, I am happy to have this ongoing project for however long it lasts and however far I manage to progress. The key is that I am able to remember its actual importance (which in this case is slight), as well as my motivations in pursuing it.
The multiple crises of 2020 have provided an excellent opportunity for all of us to critically assess our choices and routines at both the individual and collective levels. Of course, no sane person would have wished COVID-19 upon this world, just as no sane person would have wished for quarantine and its economic implications. Neither should anyone have wished for the unconscionable killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, which have brought generations of righteous outrage to a new boiling point. Some of these phenomena have slowed life down for many. All have re-focused our attention, leading us to ask important questions about what is important and what motivations underlie the various social structures that we might otherwise face unthinkingly. As we shed so many unnecessary distractions, the extra downtime and heightened vulnerability that the novel coronavirus forced on us collectively may have uniquely prepared us to respond to George Floyd’s murder by heightening our sensitivity to injustice and making us less able to escape the suffering of others.
The increased number of people moved to ask critical questions and take bold action at this time has led to a series of rapid changes, both profound and symbolic, with more sure to come, in spite of those who feel besieged by the forces of change. In this moment, a surprisingly vast portion of society seems willing to rethink our implicit values and priorities as we pursue a better world. There will inevitably be missteps, but given the inhumanity we are called to abandon, isn’t some risk warranted?
Some problems need a quick fix. Others need to be attacked at their roots. Some require a slow and nuanced approach informed by lengthy observation and analysis. Our most intractable problems likely require all of the above, to one degree of another. As we look at the great issues of this day, including those problems bestowed upon us by our forebears, let us be clear-sighted about the moral weight of the respective questions before us, knowing that we will each be challenged both by well-intentioned opinions that differ from our own as well as spiteful opposition. In all pursuant conflicts, let us remember to be honestly mindful of our own personal motivations, regardless of how well or poorly they may speak of us.
Gandhi coined the term ‘satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’ to describe the style and attitude of resistance he brought to the struggles he faced in his time. If we are to contribute any value to our world, we must indeed be united to Truth and value its reverberations in our hearts, intellects, and experiences much more than we insist upon personal convenience or allegiance to any theory, faction, or demagogue. Jesus, who is proclaimed to be the Truth, promises that by remaining in his word and by following him before anybody else, we will come to know the Truth and the Truth will set us free (John 8: 31-32).
This week’s “ear candy” uses whimsical imagination to ask the listener what is truly valuable. The “brain food” is a reflection on what the legacies of the recently departed Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C. T. Vivian might mean for us as we consider what important steps must be taken to foster a more just nation.
Ear Candy: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Amy Grant (original by Joni Mitchell)
Brain Food: “The Challenge Civil Rights Giants Leave Us” by Jim Wallis, Adam R. Taylor
This blog series is now monthly. Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!