My wife and I watched the BBC documentary on Pope John Paul II and the female philosopher.
His long intellectual and emotional friendship reminded us of a Sunday picnic at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in 1971.
The most famous member of that abbey, Thomas Merton, had died nearly three years earlier, in Bangkok, on his journey outward from the rolling hills and cheese production and long silences, but he was still a presence, the reason we were there.
A few members of the Merton society, new friends who had welcomed us to Louisville, invited us to visit the abbey on Sunday, when the Monks, Merton’s peers, were allowed to speak, to meet visitors.
We were not prepared for the rush of energy from five monks, who mingled with us on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon.
They were polite to me, eager to talk to my wife, who had packed a picnic basket.
“They wanted to talk to me, not formally, just ‘It’s my turn now.’” Marianne recalls. “I probably spent 10-15 minutes alone with each of them, one on one.”
I remember being escorted on a tour of the abbey – the sparse rooms, perhaps a chapel, the rooms where they made cheese. They kept me busy. I understood.
“They all said how much they missed talking with women,” my wife remembers. “They said they laughed differently with women than with men. They talked about their mothers and their sisters. One man said he felt sad that he would never be a father and wanted to know what it was like to raise children.”
Four decades later, she fondly remembers these men acknowledging the gap in their lives, the part they had given up for their spiritual mission.
Merton was the man in the room who wasn’t there. He was the worldly member, born in the Catalan corner of southwest France, shuttled around Europe, studied at Columbia University in New York City, lived, explored, thought, wrote, was refused the priesthood because of his worldly past, so he became a monk, seeking peace and quiet.
He became a celebrity through his writings, met the Dalai Lama, and then, quite apparently, while recuperating in a hospital in Louisville, had a brief affair with a young nurse. He was in Bangkok, when he died, electrocuted by faulty wiring on a fan, as he left the shower, far from the quiet abbey in central Kentucky.
There is no moral to this, no talk of sin or weakness, no screed against celibacy, against monasticism. Merton needed to speak out against war, against injustice.
The former Karol Wojtyla from Krakow expressed himself in a complicated relationship with a worldly married woman, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who lived in America. The documentary said there is no reason to believe they had a physical relationship, and I believe that, from my impressions of him, up close. He was a strong man, in every sense.
I first saw John Paul II in person at a dude ranch outside Mexico City in 1979, on his first journey as Pope. He told us we should regard journalism as a vocation, a calling. I have never forgotten that. He was a force, even when I did not agree with his politics.
I saw him up close again in the fall of 1979 when he was striding across a heritage farm in Iowa, greeting Lutherans. As he moved across the turf, his strength, his stride, his jutting jaw, reminded me of a linebacker stalking a quarterback. (That’s when the security guard elbowed me, said I was getting too close.)
I believe that Karol Wojtyla was quite capable of being Pope and dear friend at the same time, although it sounds as if his friend had other ideas.
The documentary showed their letters and also his sturdy face, even in old age and illness, visibly happy whenever he saw his friend. He reminded me of the monks at the abbey, who told my wife they missed women.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.