As September dawns, it’s back to school for many of us, whether we’re in middle school, high school, or college (or a teacher like myself!). However, saying “back to school” almost sounds like we’re leaving a “normal” summer of fun in the sun. The fact is, the spring and the summer of 2020 has been hands down the most not normal set of seasons in most of our recorded histories. And honestly, not exactly fun.
Unless you’ve been living in a remote jungle deep in the Amazon basin studying poison dart frogs since March (and if you have been, I’m a little jealous), the rest of us have been in very abnormal lockdowns and isolation, stuck in our homes probably spending too much time on screens and hearing too many sad stories about COVID-19. I think we’re all itching to “get back” to normal, back to school, back to friends, back to sports, and back to life!
The Dark Valley
Before I talk about 3 must-reads for this fall, we first need to name the dark valley we’ve been dwelling in these past number of months. We have been through a lot.
Maybe as a consequence of this isolation, loneliness and frustration has crept in to your heart and mind. Did you have big plans that were drastically changed? Maybe it was a mission trip, or studying abroad, or maybe it was your senior year and this was going to be an exciting close of the chapters of your high school career, but the book slammed shut too soon. Maybe a friendship or relationship that was very life-giving was suddenly cut short due to COVID. Maybe the limiting of human contact put you even more on your phone and you just got to a point of saturation where that device became like Gollum’s Ring—something “precious” and addictive, and at the same time, something you started to hate and grow weary of. The overload of online learning may have stirred up a deeper hunger for real, in-person interactions, but what could you do about it?
We also need to consider the psychosocial effects that masks are having on us. Certainly, the intention behind masks is well meaning, and the protection from infection is important. But, it's weird not to see someone’s whole face, to be able to read their expressions, see if they’re happy or sad, smiling or not.
What has this stirred up in you? Is there a climate of fear around you that you almost can’t put your sterilized finger on? Are you more skittish, nervous, or anxious? How are you sleeping? Have you become a little obsessive about washing your hands, neurotic about touching things, and distant when it comes to seeing others, both literally and emotionally?
Maybe in the midst of this frustration and disappointment, left alone in your room with nothing but Zoom, you fell prey to temptation, or into a deep depression. Maybe a thick (or even thicker) chain of addiction to porn, masturbation, video games, gambling, or drinking or drugs, wrapped tighter around you. Perhaps you’ve stood on the edge of the valley of death itself and struggled with suicidal thoughts. This pandemic has opened lots of old wounds and created lots of new ones.
On all of this may the River of Mercy flow. We have been through a lot lately. But we are not alone. We need to know and believe and lift up our heads, because change is in the air. September and the cool autumn (depending on your location) is coming.
Getting Out of Our Own Heads
We are, by our very nature as human beings, young men and women, wayfarers, way-finders, pilgrims, and poets! We are called to see more and to be more! Our very life is a movement in itself towards something (and someone) beautiful. Life remains a gift and now, in this very moment, as you read these words, there is a chance to make a journey, an exodus, a saving step out of the pain and existential angst that COVID-19 and your struggling to cope with it has caused.
That Wise Old Greek Guy
Thousands of years ago, in a faraway land surrounded by turquoise waters, a wise fellow named Plato once said “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”
Education means literally to “be led out” or to “bring out or develop something latent or potential” within us. This is what beauty does! This is what education is supposed to do!
Beautiful things take our breathe away. One of my favorite writers, Joseph Ratzinger also known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, once wrote
“Genuine beauty... gives man a healthy ‘shock’, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away... from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”
So what can we do to educate ourselves in this new season in order to get outside of our own heads and fall in love with the “beautiful”? I suggest reading these three great books:
1. The Book of Creation (Genesis)
“Our first discovery of God often comes,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI, “through a contemplation of creation.” One of the blessings I think that has come from the COVID quarantine is the hunger people started to feel after a few weeks for blue sky, fresh air, and birdsong. There is so much to see and to discover when we step outside and slowly walk through a world that we did not create. Stepping off of the concrete and asphalt, away from the WiFi and the air-conditioned rooms opens our senses to the real. Father Lorenzo Albacete, a physicist who became a Catholic priest, once said,
"The smallest reality already contains within it this promise. If you look with simplicity of heart, everything that is real is a promise, a promise to your heart, a promise that your heart recognizes and pursues.”
I can’t say enough about the rich fruits of peace and happiness and rest that are available to us just a few steps away, in the gift of creation. It was God’s first gift to us, free and beautiful, and it’s ours for the care of the world and ourselves. Reading this great Book takes our mind off of our own struggles and issues and into the very Mind of God, the Master Artist Who crafted every detail, in every thing, simply for our delight! Creation can teach us and despite lockdowns, it always remains open!
2. The Book of Psalms
Maybe you’ve read snippets of it, maybe you’ve had it read to you over sound systems at your church on a Sunday morning or at a Vacation Bible School, but I’d suggest digging in to the very real and raw text for yourself, specifically the Psalms.
In the Psalms of King David, roughly located in the center-ish of the Bible, you’ll find the whole roller-coaster ride of human emotions, aches, hopes, and longings. There are deep questions, hollowed out pains, desires and decisions, and praise and wonder. Grab one or two and settle in for a deep dive into your heart. As you read this book you’ll discover it’s actually reading you! And somehow, in the mysterious power of God, the text IS you. It becomes your voice and God’s response; it is your story. It is History. The Bible is our own autobiography!
3. The Book of Your Life
Speaking of autobiographies, I think many of us are coming out of this COVID daze with a little more self-awareness or self-knowledge than we had going in. Having so much time with ourselves may have opened up the perennial ache that really defines us as human beings. What did you find yourself doing with your time and money? What did you want? What did you watch on TV? What did you do with that ache? Did you try and smother it with noise, games, social media, text chatter or Netflix bingeing? Did you go for walks? Talk with friends, start a hobby, pray? Keep a journal?
Another old Greek bit of wisdom can speak into this great escape from ourselves and into the invitation the silence gives us as well: “Know Thyself” says the ancient oracle at Delphi. It’s not easy. There are certainly things we’d rather not address or talk about that we discovered in the dark days of lockdown. But this “book of our lives” is one we write in every day, and stories have been written in it from our earliest days by God and our family, friends, and experiences. We should take the time to read it! As they say, those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. That’s not just the history of the world but our own micro-verse of personal history, of living and interaction, of dreams and decisions.
A great philosopher pastor once said that we must learn “to be the authentic master of (our) own innermost impulses, like a watchman who watches over a hidden spring… finally able to draw from all these impulses what is fitting for ‘purity of the heart.’” (Saint Pope John Paul II)
As September dawns and school opens in whatever shape it does in your area, let’s rise up, start fresh, and give these three books a good read. Equipped with a deeper experience of creation, of the Lord who made it, and of our own hearts, let’s get back to life!
Theology of the Body Institute
Pope Saint John Paul II’s response to the lie of pornography: “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little."