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Lead, Kindly Light

| Monday, March 23, 2020

To whom should we turn to over these next few weeks of uncertainty and isolation?

For Catholics, the obvious answer is “God,” although the question of how precisely one might receive his grace is far more difficult, especially now that public Masses have been canceled across the United States and the world.

Only two weeks ago, I was firmly entrenched in my routine of attending daily Mass at the Basilica or various dorm chapels and receiving our Lord through the Eucharist (see my byline at the bottom!). Today, as I sit inside my room in Albany, New York and listen to a noticeably reduced stream of planes flying over my house toward my hometown airport, it is impossible to avoid grieving that the Mass and the Eucharist which were so gloriously accessible just a short time ago will be effectively impossible to access until May, June, July or maybe even August (the exact timeline depends heavily upon how soon Americans get off the beach and out of restaurants and into their homes). Although I can still witness the daily Basilica Mass livestream at home on my laptop and pray St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Act of Spiritual Communion, these creative alternatives cannot fill the hole in my heart for Christ himself in the Eucharist. In short, God feels distant.

Of course, God’s apparent absence from the human condition is an abiding problem that has challenged human beings since time immemorial. Still, God’s absence feels more palpable during this pandemic than ever before, especially for Catholics who believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Under these circumstances, I have recently been pondering two fundamental questions about God which go to the heart of what it means to be human, questions which are “absolutely beyond human solution,” as St. John Henry Newman writes in his famous Apologia. We all ask these two questions from time to time, often subconsciously, because our experience of life often seems difficult to square with the existence of a good, loving God. Only God can answer these questions.

First, we ask why God would permit sickness, pain, suffering and death to exist in the world to any degree. Although this year’s pandemic is like nothing the world has experienced since World War I, sickness and suffering have always been part of the human condition, and biological death will ultimately capture us all at some point within the next century or less. Psalm 22 serves as a helpful roadmap to this question, which Christ’s resurrection definitively answers. In the end, “all is swallowed up in victory.” Still, in the absence of finger-in-the-nailmarks evidence, this question abides in our consciences.

Second, we ask why God remains so hidden from our presence, especially in times of profoundest need. Newman’s reflections in the Apologia serve as a helpful guide here. He states that the human race must have been “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity” that brought about this dizzying and appalling situation. God originally willed us into existence out of love yet we remain so palpably “discarded from His presence.” In other words, God’s beloved creation “is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator.” This paradox leads Newman to conclude that the doctrine of original sin is nearly as certain a truth “as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.” Only by dedicating our lives to holiness can we bridge the gap that exists between fallen man and our loving Father.

Quite frankly, I knew virtually nothing about Newman before arriving at Notre Dame in 2016 and singing a beautiful hymn entitled “Lead, Kindly Light,” a musical adaptation of Newman’s poem “The Pillar of the Cloud,” at Milkshake Mass one gloomy fall evening. Despite my prior unfamiliarity with his life, Newman has become one of my favorite saints as I have read more and more of his works inside and outside of theology classes. Newman was both an unprecedentedly brilliant intellectual and an extraordinarily holy servant of God and the Catholic Church, qualities which I can only dream of manifesting to such an exemplary degree.

As a senior, I know that I have left behind my Notre Dame undergraduate experience for good, just as Newman was so tragically forced to abandon his beloved Oxford in 1846 after converting to the Catholic faith. Newman may be a great saint and I a lowly sinner by comparison, but tragedy and grief strike saints and sinners alike. For this reason, I like to think that Newman and I have a lot in common. Over the past week, I have constantly been reflecting upon Newman’s beautiful lines of “Lead, Kindly Light” as a guide to embrace the uncertainty and isolation I have been experiencing in my own abruptly-altered life. I desire to emulate Newman’s holiness and take a step-by-step approach to encountering God amidst all the suffering and despair the world has been facing and will continue to encounter over the next few weeks.

In the Apologia, Newman recalls contracting a severe illness in the spring of 1833 during his travels in Italy. After parting with two friends in Rome, Newman traveled alone to Sicily and caught a fever so severe that his nurse soon after “thought that [he] was dying, and begged for [his] last directions.” After lying in bed for three weeks, Newman finally regained his health, though he was stranded in Sicily for three more weeks “for want of a vessel” to take him back toward his home in England. At long last, Newman, so far from home yet so desperate to return to his native place, found a ship that would take him to Marseille, France before the end of June. Along this voyage from Sicily to Marseille, still a full month from arriving home, Newman wrote the lines of “Lead, Kindly Light,” which I quote below:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom

          Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home—

          Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou

          Shouldst lead me on.

I loved to choose and see my path, but now

          Lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

{157}So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still

          Will lead me on,

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

          The night is gone;

And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

God may appear to be a “distant scene” during these trying times, but he is always leading us back home to himself in mysterious, hidden ways. Step by step in holiness, we walk toward his loving, eternal embrace. “Time is short, eternity is long.”

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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