Isolation and Presence in the Midst of the Covid-19 Crisis

“Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

~ Thomas Merton

Like all of my colleagues, friends, and students at Regis University, throughout the academic world, and well beyond, the rapidly unfolding events related to the coronavirus have left me unsettled. In fact, the Regis community this year has experienced a kind of double-whammy of social whiplash. Between a crippling cyber-attack in the fall and the COVID-19 pandemic now upon us, we have gone from sudden social congregating — with our infected campus computers quarantined, we came out of our silos to reconnect face to face — to extreme social distancing, in which we suddenly find ourselves quarantined from one another.

In the first instance, a virus drove us physically together; in the second, a virus has driven us physically apart. And now the whole world is waking up to a very strange reality: Is it possible to be effectively, authentically present to colleagues, friends, students, and loved ones, remotely?

Trying to beckon my own better angels in the midst of multiplying daily challenges, I was grateful when a colleague shared a short reflection by Jesuit Matt Stewart, fittingly titled, “Wash your hands. And Fold Them in Prayer: A Catholic Response to the Coronavirus.” Acknowledging his own “fight or flight” instinct to take control, Stewart gently shifts the frame to reassure us – to reassure me – that God never uses anxiety or fear to get our attention. The anxiety is real, to be sure, but it isn’t coming from God.

Rather, God speaks words of “peace, calm, expansiveness, open-heartedness, and magnanimity” — the kind of magnanimity, suggests Stewart, which enables me to empathize even with the harried mother at the grocery store, struggling to manage her two kids and three carts precariously overladen with food and supplies.

But it was these lines of Stewart’s that especially that caught me short:

Who are the vulnerable people in your life? We need to remember that there really are people who are at risk in our communities: elderly family members, the person next door with a respiratory illness, a pregnant friend, a coworker being treated for cancer whose chemotherapy leaves them immunocompromised, etc.

To speak of “unity of hearts and minds” — one of the core values that animates Jesuit education — is not a thin appeal to tolerance, doing our best ethical minimum to get along — though it’s not a bad place to start. Unity of hearts and minds begins with a deeply felt sense of our mutual vulnerability and need. Friends, colleagues, and strangers alike, we belong to each other. When the least among us experiences joy or suffering, it ripples through the community like a wave.

Prayer can bring us into that space of magnanimity, Stewart suggests, because prayer brings us into God’s own magnanimous space. And, as I’ve discovered in the past few days, he is right. Though I remain physically isolated from my colleagues, students, friends, and remote family members, I feel intimately joined to each of them in prayer and mutual concern. And somehow, held with them in God’s loving gaze.

Might the same be true of strangers at the grocery? The elderly, many now isolated much more dangerously than usual in nursing homes? Medical personnel, first responders, prisoners, the homeless, and thousands upon thousands of migrants, just barely hanging on (or not) in “holding facilities” at our southern border?

May we be joined together in solidarity, if no more than in prayer, so long as God helps us, helps me, to hold the most vulnerable of our neighbors within the very same loving gaze and compassionate ground of being in which God holds the whole suffering planet. We are not without power, nor presence to one another, though physically apart. To be knitted to one another in prayer, though it may feel inadequate, even lonely and impotent in our solitude, is not a bad place to start.

Perhaps, as Merton insists, it is to begin where we already are, held, as one and as many, in the hidden ground of Love.

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