There is a poem by Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges that was one of my favorites since my youth. It says: “There is a street nearby that is widowed of my footsteps, / there is a mirror that has seen me for the last time, / there is a door that I have closed until the end of the world.”
The poem, titled “Limits,” is a reflection on our mortal condition. For years, I read it as a memento mori, as a reminder that we have a limited time on this earth, that each one of our actions could be the last. Then came September 11 and after that, Borges’ poem acquired a new meaning. Not only are we mortal, but also everything is perishable. The street that is “widowed of my footsteps,” as Borges says, could disappear before myself. The door and the mirror he mentions are temporal too.
We all thought that the Twin Towers would adorn the Manhattan skyline long after we were gone, but now we look at our pictures of the towers as we look at pictures with our loved ones that no longer are with us.
I had the same feeling during lunch on Monday, April 15 last year at a little French restaurant near The Tablet’s office. It was there that I found out about the terrible Notre Dame Cathedral fire. I looked up the news on my phone. They were saying that the whole structure would collapse. “Notre Dame is lost,” read the headlines. I remembered, with terror, Borges’ poem.
The following night, at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, Bishop DiMarzio celebrated the 2019 Chrism Mass with the priests of our diocese. At that moment, he was two months shy of his 75th birthday, when by Canon Law he was going to send his resignation letter to the Holy Father.
It was a remarkable homily in which he recounted his years as Bishop of Brooklyn and the challenges and joys of his office. Bishop DiMarzio said: “This Chrism Mass may be my last or next to last Chrism homily as your Bishop. Each year, I work hard on this homily to make sure that it is relevant to each of you and says what needs to be annunciated at a particular time. In no way tonight could I have avoided speaking as I have done.
These years have been for me a wonderful time serving as your Bishop.” Of course, Bishop DiMarzio couldn’t imagine that the following year, while still being the Bishop of Brooklyn, he would have to postpone the celebration of the Chrism Mass due to a pandemic.
He couldn’t predict — none of us could — that a year after his powerful message to the priests of Brooklyn and Queens some of them would be dead due to a virus that was not known at that time, that all our churches would be closed, all Holy Week liturgies canceled, and we would be watching the Sunday Mass each week on TV or Facebook.
There are almost three million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world at the moment I write this column. More than 200,000 have died in this pandemic. And we can hardly see the end of it. Borges’ poem, in its original sense, is brutally true for those who have died of COVID-19. But for the rest of us, the poem rings true in that second meaning I painfully discovered on the morning of Sep. 11, 2001 — everything we take for granted is temporal and perishable, just like us: the buildings and the doors, the streets and our summer plans, our daily routines, and our whole way of life.
On the other hand, our hope is not a perishable good. The resurrection of Christ is the decisive event in the history of humankind and in our own particular lives. That’s why, in the middle of this crisis, we can repeat the psalm we will hear this Sunday at Mass on TV or through a Facebook livestream:
“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. / He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. / Even though I walk in the dark valley / I fear no evil; for you are at my side. / With your rod and your staff / that give me courage.”