This Easter is different than any other, but it arrives with its own precious and refined beauty.
In 1940, a Dante scholar named Uberto Limentani was on a cruise ship called Arandora Star with a thousand other people They were off the coast of Ireland steaming west when a German torpedo hit the ship. About half the passengers filled the lifeboats while the other half either went down with the ship or struggled to tread water. Limentani was left to fight for his life in the water. About 500 people drowned that day, but he was not one of them.
Years later, when asked how he managed to swim for so long, he revealed a surprising source of motivation. “I began reciting a poem to myself, ” he said, “Alessandro Manzoni’s ode on the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Il Cinque Maggio … that was what kept me going.” It was a poem that kept him alive.
Poetry would probably not be high on your list of the most useful and practical items when attempting to survive a shipwreck. And yet for Limentani, that poem shone like a lighthouse. Its beauty motivated him to fight for his life.
The author of that poem, Alessandro Manzoni, says that when he learned of the death of Napoleon, “His death shook me. It was as if the world were missing some essential element.” He was so full of emotion that he turned to the most practical outlet for grief of which he knew — writing. He sat at his desk and, while his wife played him songs on the piano, wrote the 108 lines of poetry that became Il Cinque Maggio. In his sorrow, Manzoni immersed himself in a moment of beauty.
Today, Easter Day, April 12, 2020, is an Easter unlike any I have ever experienced. I’m saying Easter Mass, the greatest solemnity on the Church calendar, in an empty church, without my parishioners. We are separated from each other and cannot worship in the same space. The separation extends well beyond the Church walls. It extends into our homes and divides us from families and friends. The sources of comfort and strength that we rely on have been withdrawn. We miss our routines, jobs, friends, and freedoms. We’re worried and uncertain. It feels like a great hero has died and left us alone. Uberto Limentani recited a poem to himself to survive. Alessandro Manzoni composed a poem to deal with his bereavement. For us, too, a moment of beauty can make all the difference.
Here’s where I’ve noticed moments of beauty lately: My livestreamed Masses are garnering crowds far larger than a typical daily Mass. The neighbor girl keeps shoving handwritten notes through our mail slot. Everyone goes for a walk on the street now. The hyacinth is blossoming and smells amazing. I’ve had lots of time to sit in the sun and read novels. My son started a fire with a magnifying glass yesterday and jumped in triumph.
These moments of beauty breathe new life into the world. They inspire us to keep swimming.
This Easter is different than any we’ve ever celebrated. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t arrive with its own precious and refined beauty. Find that beauty today. It’s a power stronger than death.