by Jonathan Pye.
In Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Fermina says, ‘nothing is more difficult than love.’[i] Márquez somewhat bleakly characterises unrequited love as a kind of disease often fatal to those people infected by it – love in a time of often fatal disease has unmistakable resonances for us in this time of global pandemic.
Over the past months, when most of us have, by necessity, spent more time in our homes than out and about, one of the (few!) positives is that I have had more time to read those things that would otherwise have had to wait. One such is Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti[ii] – a document of some 43,000 words. While it focusses on contemporary social and economic problems, in this time of Covid-19 (which Francis sees as exposing the failure of the world to work together during the crisis) its breadth is truly exhausting – immigration, racism, social inequality, economic deprivation, international co-operation and relationships, individualism, the free-market and the common good, inter-religious dialogue.
What holds these themes together can be seen in the encyclical’s sub-title: ‘on fraternity and social friendship’[iii]. Its central message is a call for greater solidarity between people and nations, and especially with the most vulnerable in society. Whilst I do not propose to summarise the encyclical, I want to select a few passages and to apply them to our current situation, admittedly in an undoubtedly nuanced way.
The notion of ‘neighbour’, a word which Francis uses frequently, especially with reference to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is an important thread that runs through the encyclical. What it means to relate to our neighbour, especially when the neighbour is perceived as ‘other’ to us, has been a key theme of our relationships both locally and nationally.
An example of this is the longstanding divide between North and South, which is in reality a divide between rich and poor, the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged, with its deleterious effects on education, health and life expectancy, which has in the current crisis become even more starkly delineated. It is seen in the damaging political disagreements between central government (based in the South) and many in local leadership (based in the North) which led, at least in some cases of regional ‘tiering’, to lockdowns in Northern cities and communities being imposed with no dialogue and often little notice. In such circumstances Francis’ statements that, ‘Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others…’[iv] and ‘the best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values’ [v] resonate poignantly.
And if such people ‘push back’ then we need to remember that, ‘often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations’ [vi] and that such reactions arise out of a long history of scorn and social exclusion.Francis makes it clear that even when the ideas themselves may be good or well-intentioned, they are likely to be rejectedif they are ‘presented in a cultural garb that is not [peoples’] own and with which they cannot identify.’[vii] Indeed, Francis goes so far as to liken the radical individualism and lack of social cohesion which consciously or unconsciously underpins such insensitive attitudes themselves to, ‘a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate’.[viii]
In the end, for Francis, everything depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles (what the New Testament characterises as metanoia) and the recognition that all people are our sisters and brothers, demonstrated, not least politically, in the exercise of self-giving love.
Having begun with a quote from Márquez’s novel, I end with another – words spoken by Florentino that distil the prolixity of Fratelli Tutti to a sentence: ‘Think of love,’ she says, ‘as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.’[ix]
[i] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
[ii] http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html October 3rd 2020.
[iii] The title of the encyclical has attracted some criticism for its gendered language of ‘fraternity’, unfairly perhaps, because the title is a direct quotation from St Francis of Assisi and because, in the body of the text, Pope Francis speaks throughout of ‘all brothers and sisters’.
[iv] Fratelli Tutti, 52.
[v] Ibid., 15.
[vi] Ibid., 234.
[vii] Ibid., 219.
[viii] Ibid., 105.
[ix] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
2 thoughts on “Love in a time of coronavirus”
I read ‘Love in a time of cholera’ when it was issued as a paperback, and having read it I consigned it to the paper recycling bin. It is the only book ever to have had that treatment at my hands.
The power of love does not diminish, let alone destroy, the object of that love. Unlike chocolate, which once shared is gone, the more love – genuine, disinterested love – grows when it is shared, and the more it enables growth. Loving my neighbour means, for me, wanting that neighbour to be able to grow and flower and develop – it can have nothing to do with the desire to control, or direct, or possess. The implications of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ need a lifetime to work out, and the first commandment remains ‘Love God’.
I don’t always agree with St. Paul, but 1 Corinthians 13 still reads well!!
Josie: I agree with you absolutely: Loving my neighbour means wanting that neighbour to be able to grow and flourish and develop – it can have nothing to do with the desire to control, or direct, or possess. I have no problem at all with the idea of loving our neighbour, in fact I feel that the ethical concern we have for each other is all that really matters. For me ethics is everything and God only comes to mind in the ethical concern I have for other people.
However I am not sure what we actually mean by love, especially loving God. It is surely not a sentimental attachment or anything sexual, and certainly not blind obedience to a neo-pagan god in service to the exclusive and judgemental hierarchical theocracy proposed by fundamentalist evangelicals.
At one time I thought Martin Buber had the answer when he made the distinction between I – It relationships, where the other person becomes an object, and I – Thou relationships, where we are subjects that meet on an equal plane. Love expressed as the I – Thou relationship is great for us humans, but I feel that God is mystery that cannot and should not be privatised or domesticated in this way.
I have thought long and hard about this and concluded that all we know is that God is interrelational, in fact God is Love, and this love at the heart of creation comes to mind in our ethical concern for each other. Grace is then the demand on our souls that we respond to the needs of the neighbour and in transcending our mundanity find purpose and meaning in our lives. Christ then is the icon of truly human authentic person who embodies this amazing love. I am still left with a question: If God is Love what does it mean to love love?