By Patrick Schmadeke
Last Tuesday morning, after being away from the University of Notre Dame for over a week, I returned to campus to gather my belongings from the library. Like places around the world, campus was shutting down services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Driving northbound on Notre Dame Avenue to arrive on campus, one is met with a direct view of the main building, crowned with its “golden dome.” Colloquially, the dome is known as a “second sun” because it shines so brightly, and is visible from nearly anywhere on campus. On this particular morning, however, the dome was concealed by fog. The sight took my mind back to Assisi, Italy.
Some years ago, three friends and I decided to hike the 2.5 miles up the mountain outside Assisi to the hermitage where St. Francis would spend time in prayer. We didn’t just want to visit this place, we wanted to be there at sunrise. Unfortunately, we spent the first hour of our early morning wandering around Assisi trying to find the path up the mountain, and, eventually, it became clear that we were on the wrong side of the mountain to see sunrise. To compound matters, the mountain was, like Notre Dame’s golden dome, shrouded in fog.
The darkness of the morning calmed our excitement as we began our ascent. In short order we began to walk at a distance from each other, preferring silence to chatter. As dawn arrived, and the sun began to pierce the morning fog, it became clear that we were moving in and out of small and large patches of haze. As for myself, I was so focused on the mission to arrive at the top that I nearly forgot to saunter. En route to a holy land, I neglected that the ground on which I was walking was holy, too. About halfway up the mountain, I realized that my intentions were misplaced. Now, liberated from the “goal” of getting to the top, I felt infused with the sudden awareness that it truly is the journey that matters. I felt like I was walking in a metaphor: there may be fog along the way, but that’s just part of the program of life.
The disorienting realities imposed upon us by the COVID-19 virus feel like a rather large patch of fog. Not since 9/11 do I remember a time when humanity held its collective breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Indeed, in many ways we don’t know what is going to happen next. But we do know some things, and they are less than pleasant. By the time this goes to press, it’s looking more and more like the harsh realities of our fragility will continue to be revealed.
Dare we speak of hope in a time like this, when lady fortune’s scales have tipped so dramatically against our favor? Can the weight of our hope serve to counterbalance the scales or is the mere act of hoping simply exhausting when it is so often met with uncertainty and disappointment? “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” reads the epithet on the gates of Dante’s inferno. This feels like an apt description of the hardest hit places of our country and our world. But there is room for hope.
Like faith and love, hope might be best known in retrospect. Expressions of hope are almost exclusively in the future tense, and yet, like looking back at moments of true love and true faith, we recognize hope more clearly after the fact. The gravity of the present circumstances may obscure our understanding and anticipations, but hope’s beauty will be enhanced by the clarity of hindsight.
This pandemic appears to be of biblical proportions. But so is God’s grace and mercy. Sometimes we believe we see God’s grace and mercy in the form of a cure, but the healing which God offers is often more subtle and not contingent upon human innovation. Even now, in this hour of darkness, it awaits us still, yearning to be known in the light of the awareness that we are always in the presence of infinite love.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame.)