“These are the times that try men’s souls.” — Thomas Paine
Phrases like “these unprecedented times” and “these challenging times” have become cliché as, amid pandemic and pandemonium, the next president will be decided.
My father, whose parents survived the Great Depression, whose boyhood memories include World War II and who can tell you all about what it was like to live through the polio pandemic, mused about this other day when I called him.
He intoned, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” commenting that the phrase is more than a couple of hundred years old but it feels like it was spoken yesterday.
He recalled how, as a young man, he loved the folk quartet The Brothers Four. “There’s a song that that begins with one of them saying in a deep voice, ‘In times like these.’ ” he said. I wish I could find that album.
“I guess we always think we’re living ‘times like these,'” Dad said. “It always seems that our times are especially hard.”
My father is a retired pastor who looks “not to the things of this world” for his happiness. But like almost everyone else I know, he obsesses over the news, has been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions and feels that the current election is the most critical one in our nation’s history though he’s thought that before.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Paul Murray’s Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom each morning. A few days ago I had one of those amazing reading moments of connection that startles, clarifies and keeps my hope alive.
St. Catherine is the medieval firebrand known for her bright light in a terrible time of pandemic, political upheaval and religious corruption in 14th century Europe. Her purity was so palpable that she even commanded the attention of the pope, pleading with him to be man (or words to that effect), to leave Avignon and return to Rome.
She was intimately aquainted with Christ, who captured her heart at an early age and who compelled her to carry the truth of his love into the the chaos of her times.
One of Catherine’s favorite themes was the freedom God offers us to remain in him no matter what trials we face. “The gift of freedom is nothing less than a sharing in God’s own freedom,” she said. It is the great dignity of our creation. It is the only freedom that leads to ultimate happiness.
Our human freedom, she says, “reaches up like a hand…to take whatever our understanding knows of God’s unutterable goodness.” Murray comments at length on this image, for Catherine believes our freedom lies right there, in lifting our hand to grasp God’s extended hand, thus accessing true freedom, a freedom unknown to those who follow the tide of preference and emotion. Murray adds:
That image of the lifted hand–Catherine calls it ‘this strong hand of love.’
That line had me racing to the footnote, which read simply, “Prayers, 4.”
Fair enough. Footnotes are the wayfaring soul’s breadcrumb trail, but I’ll have to pursue this one later.
I raced to my CD collection instead. I recognized Catherine’s phrase and located Bruce Cockburn’s cover of Mark Heard’s “Strong Hand of Love.” Read the lyrics here. And just listen. (I once read that when the late Eddie van Halen was asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world, he replied, “I don’t know. You’d have to ask Bruce Cockburn.” You get a taste of why here as well.)
I don’t know whether Heard borrowed the line from Catherine or not. Certainly he was a wide-ranging Christian reader.
Given the timing of my discovery, I felt compelled to contemplate the fact that there is indeed a “strong hand of love hidden in the shadows” even now, creating us as we use our God-given freedom to love, even when it’s hard.
Mark Heard (1952-1991) was one of the songwriters who opened me to the hard truth that taking Jesus seriously is more than being able to quote chapter and verse, avoiding the so-called “big” sins and judging everybody who doesn’t fit in our self-created boxes, whether they be red or blue.
I am blessed to have a few friends on both the right and the left, friends open and loving enough to grant me the freedom to share views they don’t agree with without risking the shattering of the relationship in judgment, and they have helped me as well.
I spoke with one of them about election anxiety a couple of days ago, and he shared the advice he gave his daughter who is terrified that the current president will be re-elected. He doesn’t want her to end up hating people she disagrees with, no matter how afraid she may be of the results of their policies. He posed this question:
If you were stranded on the highway with a flat tire and someone came to help you, would you refuse the offer if you knew the person had voted for the guy on the other side?
You would not. In fact, it might help both you and the hypothetical Good Samaritain in this scenario to realize that we still, in times like these, have more in common with each other than we think.
And that brings me to another Mark Heard song. This one cuts to the heart of the freedom St. Catherine describes, the freedom each of us has to contribute to a culture of love no matter who is declared the next president.
We will always have the freedom to lift our puny hands to the Strong Hand of Love. Heard’s “What Kind of Friend” reminds us that this possibility is always ours. Read the lyrics here. Listen.
What kind of friend am I?
What kind of friend do friends become
When the heart says “kill” and the soul says “love”?
What kind of friend could I become?
What kind of friend am I?
I am still learning to be that kind of friend, but the song makes me want to try a little harder.
And that brings me back to Murray’s book on the 14th century saint who carried Christ’s love to pandemic patients, popes and prelates.
Catherine, he writes, was “inclined always to look through and beyond sin to the beauty and dignity of every individual.”
After this election, we’ll really have a chance to practice what we preach.
But we must reach for the Strong Hand of Love hidden in the shadows.
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You might also like Rutherfraud: How Political Mudslinging Diminishes Dignity.
Arthur Brooks advises us to cut back on our consumption of political news and become better people instead. His Atlantic article Reading too Much Political News is Bad for your Well-Being and podcast episode Politics and Unhappiness may light the way.
Sparrowfare reviews Brooks’ book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt here.