Many things come back to me in this season and today I recalled this excerpt from Josef Pieper’s memoir No One Could Have Known. In it, Pieper recalls, amidst his adventurous student days, making a thirty-day silent retreat.
What awaited me, as one of a group of fifteen to twenty companions was precisely that kind of “initiation” into adulthood that, at the age of twenty-one, I needed: reflection, in complete silence, on the fundamentals of my own existence. Often enough, when I tell people about this, they shake their heads in disbelief, or even in horror, and ask me how it was possible to endure that kind of thing, and for thirty days! Nowadays let no one dare suggest that youngsters should put up with even three days of silence! This timidity seems to me just as absurd as if one were to say to someone: Listen very carefully; but of course, if you want to, while you are doing it, you can look through a magazine or whistle a tune. ‘Reason’ comes from ‘perceiving’ and no one can perceive anything unless he is quiet; only the silent person can hear things.
The ‘retreat’ into quarantine is perhaps an exercise with different purposes, yet it certainly provides an occasion for reflection on silence, solitude, and attention. What capacity do we have for these things in either normal or extraordinary times?
Our present circumstances issue the occasion and challenge to combat noise, loneliness, and distraction.
I also recall this excerpt from Eric Voegelin’s book on modern gnosticism:
The spiritual disorder of our time, the civilizational crisis of which everyone so readily speaks, does not by any means have to be born as an inevitable fate; that, on the contrary, everyone possesses the means of overcoming it in his own life. And our effort should not only indicate the means, but also how to employ them. No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crises of society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid the folly and live his life in order.”
In addition to overcoming the current pandemic, there’s the clear need for us to overcome what Pope Francis has called “the globalization of indifference” in addition to the spiritual lethargy within our own souls.
I return again to Pope Francis’ address on the World Day of Peace in 2016 in which he noted how often we become roused only at the moment that something really touches us directly.
Here are the key excerpts:
The first kind of indifference in human society is indifference to God, which then leads to indifference to one’s neighbour and to the environment. This is one of the grave consequences of a false humanism and practical materialism allied to relativism and nihilism. We have come to to think that we are the source and creator of ourselves, our lives and society. We feel self-sufficient, prepared not only to find a substitute for God but to do completely without him. As a consequence, we feel that we owe nothing to anyone but ourselves, and we claim only rights.
Indifference to our neighbour shows itself in different ways. Some people are well-informed; they listen to the radio, read the newspapers or watch television, but they do so mechanically and without engagement. They are vaguely aware of the tragedies afflicting humanity, but they have no sense of involvement or compassion. Theirs is the attitude of those who know, but keep their gaze, their thoughts and their actions focused on themselves. Sadly, it must be said that today’s information explosion does not of itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems, which demands openness and a sense of solidarity.
Indifference towards God transcends the purely private sphere of the individual and affects the public and social sphere. As Benedict XVI pointed out, “the glorification of God and human peace on earth are closely linked”. Indeed, “without openness to the transcendent, human beings easily become prey to relativism and find it difficult to act justly and to work for peace.
Crises seem to be an antidote for a decadent and indifferent society.