Pope Francis is most transformative of millions by touching individuals in their ordinary lives, so he was at his most transformative in the ordinary city of Philadelphia. He spoke to inmates in Philadelphia’s largest prison — in the country holding 25% of all of the prisoners in the world — of washing their feet, washing the sand and stones out of their sandals so that they could set out on the road again. And then he spoke, in the more free and open air, of homes and faith:
Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are…the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
These messages called up powerful images for me, as I’m sure for many of you. First of my father-in-law, a saintly man in his own way now in hospice, a preacher who built a camp in the woods that shaped the lives of hundreds of young people and whose sermons in a tiny country church on “breaking bread” and other concrete acts of love were so like the Pope’s in their humility and compassion. Then, of the transformation of my own favorite holiday, Yom Kippur, last week. And finally of the digital transformation of love within my family.
For a peripheral Jew on the High Holidays the first question has always been: Do I go, or not? Go, and sit in a chair, and sing a little and stand a little, and look at others and have them look at me. And do I fast, or not? I don’t know about you, but whether I go or fast or not, Yom Kippur has a gravitational pull like a black hole, sucking the shallow self into reflection on all it has done wrong in general and to others. The sitting and the standing and the looking — less so the singing — are just distractions. So this year I said, There must be a better way, and that better way must already exist. So I set out on the Internet, and I found it: Cyber-Yom Kippur, that could be running in my ears and occasionally my eyes as I made it through my little day trying to repair my little world. Oh, yes, it was breaking all the rules. As I walked down a city street in the full glory of the music and the reflections it triggered, a vision of my most intolerant Hebrew School teacher sprang up: “When anybody tells you they go to the woods and fields to pray, DON’T YOU BELIEVE THEM!” May the Holy One bless her and keep her, far away.
My most profound epiphany from the Pope’s words, however, was about the way in which love is created and manifested throughout every day in my own busy nuclear family: through encrypted group texting. Digital life has created something a hundred times stronger than the family dinner table that died, never to be revived, in the days of James Dean. Instead of — again — sitting stiffly, and in this case passing the potatoes without saying much at all, there is constant sharing of thoughts, observations, images, videos, without interfering with all of our needs for privacy and to continue with our working, teaching and learning lives whenever not texting. Herein lies an answer not just to the relatively shallow issue of “work-life balance,” but to the deeper issue of the anomie from the ripping apart of the family by the first Industrial Revolution; the family is reunited throughout the day and the night. Perhaps it’s my professor wife’s excellence as a teacher, but the miracle is that our teenage daughters are in frequent, intentional contact with us and each other. Knock on wood.
Pope Francis’s most transformative moments involve the physical touching of individuals, but in touching millions through each such gesture, he points toward the many ways in which we, too, can help enable mobile miracles.