St. John Chrysostom, Frodo, and our tale of suffering
A year ago today the Notre Dame student body received an email that in-person classes were suspended and we would be going home. I remember setting my books aside, since classes were pushed back a week, and watching my friends closely, especially those who were seniors. The extended break did not thrill them; they said little, perhaps understanding better than us—more optimistic underclassmen—what was coming.
If we had known then that there would be no return to campus for the final quarter or their graduation, or that a year later we would be meeting on Zoom and still adding to the list of canceled events, we would have lost our minds. Instead, this new reality has mercifully broken upon the world in smaller pieces.
COVID-19 might not have been the most sickening headline of 2020. The strife that ensued from George Floyd’s murder bled into the fall, combined with heated tension surrounding the election, and seeped through the winter. These issues stand unresolved and remain unsettling.
For the past few semesters, the Notre Dame administration has been inventing solutions, as if to address all of these difficulties at once. While they have met with varying degrees of success, most of these efforts make it painfully clear which outcomes most concern Notre Dame. Even though there was no easy alternative to graduation-in-a-box last spring, I wonder if everything has been done to preserve the minds, hearts, and physical well-being of students.
Fatigued by debate over literally everything, we needed ten weeks to recalibrate after the fall semester. New routines and expectations have helped many of us, and time’s passing has rendered us more accepting of change. I laughed at the LED strip “party lights” in the North Dining Hall tent and winced when, during Valentine’s Day weekend, we all seemed to enter somebody’s hysteria as the quad became flooded with neon hearts, flamingos, and snowflakes. The effort was confused, at least a little demeaning, and really only rendered laughable by our general good health. Because it seems that we are, for the most part, in a better place than we were in the fall, even if time has been the only remedy.
Course expectations were adjusted so that we need not anticipate the syllabi slashing and burning of the fall, and, five weeks into the semester, burn-out levels are nothing like they were. Students enjoy a stability we did not know last semester, when we anticipated being sent home any week and folded under the pressure of the condensed schedule.
Mercifully, South Bend winter treated us well, and spring invites students back to the fire pits all over campus and to the weekend food trucks. Quads filled with lounging friends make for a rather pleasant sight. Although dorms no longer receive visitors (though, thankfully, we still enjoy the privilege of attending other dorms’ Masses!), social life seems to be sprouting even there, as lounges have been busy with movies, games, and art. In addition, the 24-hour spring break met with a neutral response at worst and was considered restful by many.
But this rest will remain superficial at best if we do not stop fighting suffering. Last week as I did a course reading, I was served by St. John Chrysostom in his third sermon on Lazarus and the rich man. Chrysostom writes that when you are in distress, “Give thanks instead of blasphemy, worship instead of despair. Confess to the Lord, cry out loudly in prayer, cry out loudly glorifying God. In this way your suffering will be lightened, because the Devil will pull back from your thanksgiving and God’s help will be at your side.” We have the right to grieve, and we should mourn the loss of every life, as true disciples of Christ despise death. We should hate the division that riddles every gathering. But spurning suffering will not exempt us from it—these are the rules of the game.
Jealousy plagued 2020 in a unique way. We asked, who will land on their feet despite the pandemic? Who will win the election? But again Chrysostom emphasizes that no one will escape suffering, and if one does in this life, he will not after death. We do not have to search long to find people not living in accordance with God and yet not apparently suffering misfortune. But do not call them lucky, Chrysostom says. “Weep and mourn for him, because he will have to endure all the misfortunes in the next life.” We’re foolishly confident in our ability to recognize and condemn evil, when we should pity and pray for those who do not seem to realize their error.
In speaking about personal suffering with a friend recently, she said that it seems Lent has been brought to us, even as we began to celebrate a relatively carefree and definitely beautiful spring semester. I thought, echoing one of my favorite protagonists (Frodo), I wish it never came to me. But then I recalled a scene from Two Towers, well into Frodo and Sam’s journey, which reminded me that not all penances are asked for, and we do not understand the story we are in. “And that’s the way of a real tale,” Frodo says. “The people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
2020 taught us that the realities of suffering and evil involve each of us. Hopefully we are a little less confident in our ability to recognize and condemn evil, and more aware that our own actions cause others to suffer. Such frailty and uncertainty is uncomfortable. But “the more our conscience hurts,” Chrysostom writes, “the more it helps the understanding of those who are hurt.” Letting go of outcomes and ambitions and settling into an honest examination of the present situation is not easy. When 2021 proves difficult, will we be surprised or grateful?
Lizzie is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies doubling in theology with a minor in Constitutional Studies. She grows weary of the South Bend weather whiplash and cannot wait for her first sunburn of the spring. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.