In 2007, while I was conducting interviews for a book project, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. My goal was to interview the monks who had known the famous monk Thomas Merton as their novice master or teacher back in the 1960s.
While I was there, something strange happened. I noticed an elderly monk who wasn’t on my interview list but who kept peeking around the corner and looking at me. Finally, he knocked on my door in the guesthouse and asked if we could talk.
Although I listened politely, what he told me sounded so wacky that I immediately decided that his comments wouldn’t be included in my book. But I did let him continue. According to what he’d been told, an Irish woman was receiving direct messages from Jesus. According to the monk, over a period of time, Jesus had told the Irish woman that a great spiritual awakening was coming to the world.
My first thought was that the monk had dementia, and I forgot about our strange conversation until five years had passed. In 2012, I was visiting another monastery, this one on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was actually returning to this monastery to thank the monks for letting me interview them back in 2007 for the book.
The community in the Upper Peninsula was small, consisting of five monks. After dinner together, we retired to the monastery’s library, where I read aloud portions of my book based on their interviews. After I finished reading, one of the monks, in a whisper, asked if I had heard the latest from the Vatican.
My first thought was, “Why is he whispering? There’s no one within ten miles of us.” He continued to whisper, saying that many religious leaders believed that a great spiritual upsurge would soon take place in the world, and religious institutions needed to be ready for this.
I couldn’t help but remember the similar conversation from five years before with the elderly monk in Kentucky. Since 2012, I have read that other religious leaders, including Native American spiritual leaders and Buddhist masters, have expressed their conviction that a great influx of light is coming to the world.
Certainly, something major is happening to our world with the coronavirus. Because human beings have free will, whether the crisis will lead to more light and compassion or more darkness and fear is up to us.
As a pandemic, the coronavirus crisis reminds us that we are part of the global human family. What happens in China, Japan, Italy and Spain matters to us, and how we as citizens of the US respond to the crisis will matter to our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
I don’t pretend to know if the coronavirus is part of the great spiritual awakening that others told me about. Maybe what the monks and others have shared with me over the past decade is what old-timers used to call “piffle,” utter nonsense.
However, what I believe is that this crisis offers a spiritual challenge, not just a medical and economic one. When this crisis is over, Italy will be remembered as the country where quarantined people sang together from their balconies. Spain will be remembered as the nation where her citizens, at a prearranged time, opened their windows to applaud and cheer the dedication and courage of health-care workers.
What will our country be remembered for? Will America be remembered as the country that stockpiled toilet paper and guns or be remembered as a country that emerged from the crisis with reset values?
The future is not written in stone. What we will be as a nation is up to us. Let’s choose wisely, not letting that part of the brain where fears are bred override that part of us — the heart — that cares for others.