Personal essays from faculty about their experiences during COVID-19.
Professor, Lynch School of Education
“To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. ”
When a class becomes a home
By Lisa Goodman
If anyone in my classrooms has received formative education in the last month, it has been the instructor. How so? Well, I have taken to spending the first 20 to 25 minutes of each class asking every single one of the students how they are doing and giving them a minute or so to catch us up on what’s been going on. Anyone has the right to pass, but so far, no one has. To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. And across undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels, they have given each other tremendous mutual support even as they struggle. One student, worried about others who were left alone in their apartments after their classmates had gone home, organized a “Netflix party” so that anyone who wanted could come together virtually to watch a movie at the same time from their separate dwellings. Others cheered on a first-generation student’s efforts to get university support for those remaining on campus. And still others, even those hardest hit themselves, have followed-up individually with students who seemed to need extra support. Because I teach about difficult and personally challenging subjects, I have always worked to create a classroom climate that is as safe and supportive as possible. So what’s the lesson in formative education that I have received lately? These past weeks have taught me that the classroom can be transformative along many more dimensions than I had previously understood. It can become a home.
Associate Professor, School of Theology and Ministry
“Our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics. ”
By Andrew Davis
This semester’s shift to the virtual classroom has reminded me of an important lesson: education is most formative when professors and students are partners in learning. Formative education means integrating text and context, making connections between course content and the larger world in which we live and work. Both have been radically transformed this spring, as courses moved to online platforms and the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
Though bumpy at times, the move online was, in hindsight, the easy part. The harder part was rethinking what course material means in light of the pandemic. How does our new context force us to read course texts in new ways? It might be tempting to ignore this context and push through lectures and readings like any other semester. But this spring was not like any other semester, and our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics.
I was fortunate that both of my courses this semester—one on the Book of Job, and the other on the biblical prophets—have something to say about unexpected disruption, hardship, and suffering. I have been intrigued and moved at the connections students have made to the turmoil taking place outside our virtual classroom. Several students in the Prophets course redesigned their class presentations to take this new normal into account, and some students in the Job course asked for permission to adapt their final course paper to allow more reflection on the meaning of Job in the midst of a pandemic. One student wrote a paper comparing the Book of Job to Albert Camus’s The Plague.
I wish I could say these adaptations were a function of my teaching, but most of the credit goes to the students themselves. They have been committed to bringing their pandemic lives to bear on their coursework and vice versa. This experience has reminded me that if we want students’ education to be formative in their lives after they graduate, it must be formative in their lives while they’re in our classrooms. As often as we professors invite students to be partners in their own learning, we prepare them to continue that work after they graduate, and in the process we ourselves may be transformed—as I have been by my students this semester.
Associate Professor of the Practice, Biology Department
“Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. ”
By Danielle Taghian
The day before we were jolted into a new state of being, where the “being” bit was open to interpretation, I began my lecture with this trendy—some would say naïve—advice to my students: “Keep calm and carry on”. Nearly two months later, I have developed a new set of teaching skills, including recording lectures in an empty classroom, conducting office hours, advising hours, and even S.O.S. hours over Zoom, and administering and grading exams and problem sets online. But, I still maintain the advice of that day, albeit with the added footnote, “We will get through this.”
Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. To do this, I first had to dedicate myself to setting an example that we could all move forward in our new lives, whilst also acknowledging that there would be glitches, emotional turmoil and physical barriers to overcome in our new learning environments.
With these ideas in mind, I held classes with my students that conveyed the familiar biological mechanisms and innovative progress being made in understanding and treating cancer, and I found new ways to interact with them personally, allowing them to know that even in less than ideal circumstances, learning will always nourish our curiosity, excite our interest, and expand our minds. From my countless zoom meetings, I have come to respect the validity of virtual interactions. Using our online tools, I have been able to both explain data and slides and listen to students’ needs, concerns and life stories...all while working out a few bugs along the way. And all the while— when a dog runs across the screen, siblings laugh in the background, or someone freezes on screen for a moment—we find that we have jumped into each other’s lives in new and interesting ways. Distance learning has certainly changed the way we interact, and has made us better, and more attentive, communicators.
It has also opened new ways for us to connect with and learn from others. For instance, during the last two lectures of Cancer Biology, I hosted two guests who delivered live Zoom lectures: Dr. Shannon MacDonald, a BC alumnus and talented pediatric oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the BC senior and future physician Bridgette Merriman, a survivor of pediatric cancer. It was quite a way to finish this extraordinary semester—two extraordinary people sharing their knowledge and experience. My group of 61 students were riveted as they listened and engaged with the speakers and with each other.
Indeed, through the closeness provided by our small screens, students not only adjusted to but thrived in the new “being.” I noticed many more questions being asked than during on-campus guests lectures, and the simple side chats offering sincere thanks and encouragement to the speakers demonstrated the true spirit of Boston College students. Yes, our semester was disrupted, and our lives have quite possibly changed forever more, but what I have witnessed most is the formation of students with a renewed resiliency, students who can and do “Keep calm and carry on!”
Filippa Marullo Anzalone
Professor and Associate Dean for Library and Technology Services
“I realize that being in a space that evades definition is actually quite interesting and maybe even calming if one allows oneself the luxury of slowing down.”
Reflections on Contagion in the Bardo
By Filippa Marullo Anzalone
Right now, this very minute in fact, feels a lot like what my early teachers, the good Sisters of the Confraternity of Saint Joseph (CSJ), described to us as purgatory. Purgatory was an in-between place, a kind of waiting room for those who had died without the proper qualifications to be admitted into either the eternal reward of heaven or the damnation of hell. According to the nuns in my local parish school, the lost souls in purgatory had escaped the fires of hell, but they were not yet ready for prime time in heaven. At St. Clement’s School on the Somerville-Medford line, we prayed mightily for the souls locked in purgatory — we prayed that they would be able to leave that arid, in-between place as soon as possible and move on to the rewards of everlasting life.
Like my grammar school classmates, I was never quite sure what the tipping point had been for those ending up in purgatory. Were the recently departed missing some essential credentials for virtuousness? Perhaps they had grievously sinned and not adequately repented? In these days of contagion and quarantine, I find myself revisiting first-grade religion lessons with Sister Mary Laurita, CSJ. Sister Laurita was a sweet, kind, lovely woman; but her stories about the poor waiting souls in purgatory petrified an impressionable, six-year-old me. Although I have mostly moved on from my Baltimore catechism-based and parochial understanding of the afterlife, I realize that the concept of a liminal state after death is not exclusive to Catholics. In fact, I have since discovered that some schools of Buddhism have a similar state of purgatorial limbo called the “bardo.” The bardo, like purgatory, is a state of being in-between, neither here nor there. The bardo is a kind of pause between one manifestation of life and the next.
In fact, during this time of the COVID-19 lockdown, quarantine, stay-at-home, whatever name one chooses, my feelings are best described by thinking of this time as a kind of bardo. Although we have carried on with many of the facets of our lives, whatever we do: teach; hold and attend meetings; write reports; say goodbye to colleagues; celebrate births, birthdays and holidays; mourn loved ones; console those who have lost loved ones, the actions are tinged and they feel quite different to me. It seems that all “normal” human activity has been altered in this time of stasis, in this real but unreal cadence of life in the bardo, purgatory, limbo of life and not-life. If I pay attention to what is arising, I must admit that on good days, I can live with the uncertainty of the liminal space, but on bad days, a feeling of panic and dread is common in the face of this neither fish nor fowl type of existence. The sense that I am in a constant twilight (or is it a dawn?) is common. Underneath even the happiest of days is a sense of despondency—a yearning, a sadness for what has been lost. I find myself breathing, eating, working, sleeping in a space that is neither dark nor light—a liminal space, a between time, a Zoom waiting-room space that is a type of life but not the life that I was used to, that I was comfortable in; the one in which I knew the rules.
And then, after periods of meditation or prayer or both, I realize that being in a space that evades definition is actually quite interesting and maybe even calming if one allows oneself the luxury of slowing down. After all, the times of day that are sometimes the most breath-taking are dawn and dusk, the early morning and the hard to define time of day known as twilight. The in-between times of the day—the quiet, reflective times in the bardo. We are most certainly in a curious way-station. There is no doubt about it. But fretfully ruminating about when we are getting out is not going to release us from this holding pattern.
I, for one, am just starting to relax into the tempo of this new, middle life. I am just now surrendering into the gifts and the richness of the experience of the bardo . I am just learning how to enjoy being in the bardo that the threat of contagion has brought us to for just a little while.
Associate Professor, School of Theology and Ministry
“It is our capacity to stand in attentive consciousness, with love and compassion for the whole of our broken, beautiful world. This is what makes us capable of healing ourselves and one another. Because life is more than suffering, and we are more than our fear.”
Healing Our Hearts in a Dark Season
By Kathleen Hirsch
In this strange “at home” but keenly homeless time, I drove from Boston to the family house in New Hampshire to check on things. Mud season will soon be upon us. It seemed the quiet of the country might do me good.
As soon as I arrived, I unpacked my laptop for a global Zoom teleconference. The topic: how best to care for ourselves, our spiritual communities, and the planet during the pandemic.
The participants, from numerous spiritual traditions, offered thoughts on acceptance, staying grounded, and the invitation of the present crisis to teach a new sensitivity to the non-physical-- to the interrelationships that bind us to a larger reality. I left the meeting feeling steadied and affirmed.
Just as I was shutting my laptop, my husband passed through the room and casually remarked. “There were two birds with blue stripes up at the old swallow house in the meadow,”
It was good news in a grey time, that the birds, at least, were conforming to pattern, returning and taking up residence, reminding us that life, at a level distant from our fears, was going on.
He isn’t a birder, so I assumed they were jays. I spent a satisfying afternoon cleaning a closet, reading, and finally knitting in the worn wing back chair by the window. As the sun began to set, I looked up and my eye fell on the bird house. A small bird was perched there like a sentry, absorbing the warmth before a cold night fell. Its breast was radiantly white - almost haloed - by the light of the lowering sun. I picked up the field glasses. Just then, he turned and exposed his magnificent blue feathers.
An Eastern Bluebird! We haven’t seen one here for several years. I couldn’t stop looking. That glorious blue and tawny breast in a relentlessly grim, colorless time was like an icon, a kind of transfiguration.
I was in good company. The bluebird has been the harbinger of happiness across cultures for thousands of years. One of the oldest myths, from the 2nd century B.C. Shang Dynasty presents the bluebird as the messenger of a fearsome goddess, Xi Wangmu. By the 1st century, the goddess had morphed into a fairy queen, friend of nuns and singing girls. I’d like to think that the bluebird played a role in gentling her ferocity. In Russian fairy tales, the bluebird is the symbol of hope. In 1987 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
The world rolls round,—mistrust it not,—
Befalls again what once befell;
All things return, both sphere and mote,
And I shall hear my bluebird's note,
And dream the dream of Auburn dell.
It is my experience that only great suffering and great beauty compel us to the state of true presence. Something in us -- sharp, almost painful in its acuity - breaks through the miasma of anxiety and self-absorption to stand before life as we are meant always to stand, but seldom do.
As I continued to look through the glasses, the female returned. I watched in awe as their dance unfolded. The male swung away and perched on a nearby bough while she sailed in and took the spot atop the house. While the light held, they crisscrossed one another in a wide-flung dance of distance and intimacy that was their seasonal rite of exploration and homecoming after a long winter.
Theirs was the eternal dance of opposites within a shared reality that would ultimately produce a new thing.
In a flash, I realized: the bluebird was the opposing force of the suffering that had suffused my awareness for days, stoked by too heavy a diet of online news. Wildly, unexpectedly, paradoxically, miraculously -- the bluebird. The two didn’t so much cancel each other out, as they revealed two sides of the same reality: life, in all of its brokenness and beauty.
Hours earlier I’d listened as a rabbi of the Jewish mystical traditions, Ted Falcon, spoke about the futility of resisting fear or of trying to talk ourselves out of it.
“The ego is that part of us that holds the illusion of the ‘separate self.’” He said. “It’s a waste of time to try and talk the ego out of its fear.”
“The pain comes from forgetting that the ego is not all we are.”
I had stopped knitting at this point and listened more closely.
When we are able to become aware of our fear, he continued, we also are able to be aware of the source of our awareness. “That inner voice, that witness, allows us to be bigger than our fear.”
He was speaking, of course, of Presence.
Presence is the reconciling element. It is our capacity to stand in attentive consciousness, with love and compassion for the whole of our broken, beautiful world. This is what makes us capable of healing ourselves and one another. Because life is more than suffering, and we are more than our fear.
“...the quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul now needs to be encouraged with greater intensity everywhere.”
Physical distancing lessons from a monk and a rabbi
Pandemic a time for a quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul
May 27, 2020
St. Simeon the Stylite depicted in an illumination in the "Passionary of Weissenau," of the 12th century Bodmer Codex (Wikimedia Commons/Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer)
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.
Some fear that organized religion might falter unless the faithful closely commune between four walls and under a roof — against public health advice. Recent surveys in the United Kingdom suggest the exact opposite. Since the prohibitions began, a quarter of adults have participated in a religious service through television, radio or various online and virtual connections. Of those, 5% claim never to have worshipped in church before. Contrary to expectations, so-called social distancing might increase religious devotion.
Of course, the actual mandate is not "social" distancing — absurd jargon — but physical distancing. And that problematic physicality is precisely what religion is uniquely equipped to overcome, to transcend risky physicality through metaphysicality. Those who claim that an emergency ban on death-threatening physical proximity violates religious freedom disdain the transcendence that religion offers. A fifth-century monk and a 19th-century rabbi teach us how strong it can be.
Around 410, in the countryside outside Aleppo, an 18-year-old shepherd withdrew from the secular world to join a monastery. When his piety proved excessive for his fellow monks, his abbot asked him to leave. He never returned. He sought refuge at the bottom of an abandoned well, then in a cave. Ultimately, he built a small cell on top of a pillar, initially about 6 feet high. Stylos, Greek for pillar, gave him his name: St. Simeon the Stylite. Over decades, he maintained his solitary devotions, fasts and other forms of ascetic practice, but these very acts attracted more and more veneration from both poor and powerful. To avoid such distractions, he raised his pillar ever higher, eventually piercing 80 feet into the sky, the same number as his years as a monk. He spent 47 of those atop his pillar.
Around 1860, in the midst of denominational struggles over sanctuaries and ritual, the highly influential German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the inspirations for modern Orthodox Judaism, provocatively preached, "At a time as confusing as ours, the most radical and thoroughgoing treatment with promise of a cure might be to close all the synagogues — provisionally — for a century! .... To have all synagogues closed by a Jewish hand would ... proclaim most emphatically that... the focal point of Judaism lay not in the synagogue."
The contexts for these two extreme but pious advocates of physical distancing were not the same as the challenges to people of faith today, but Simeon's quasi-quarantine, initially 6 feet distant, responded to metaphorical plagues. He became an exemplar. Pillar people, hermits, anchorites and other socially and physically distancing monks started to populate the countryside. They inspired a voluminous record of saints' lives, spiritual literature for the ages.
Rabbi Hirsch's shocking proposal authentically highlights the centrality of hearth and family — rather than public edifices — in Judaism. Although his words were uttered at a moment of denominational contention over communal space, they do offer abiding insight. Some of his modern Orthodox heirs have started to invoke them to adapt religious practice against the virus.
To be sure, today no one proposes to shut synagogues for a century or to spend nearly half a century solo atop a skyscraper, but the quiet contemplative sabbath of the soul now needs to be encouraged with greater intensity everywhere. A pastor can shepherd, like Simeon, in many different ways.
Most faithful know this. Overwhelmingly, once informed, they have responded to the plague in thoughtful, responsible and imaginative ways. But a small faction — almost threatening a new Jonestown and their fellow-travelers — has willfully refused. Thereby they devalue religious experiences that may be private, solitary and metaphysical. Perhaps unfamiliar with the words and deeds of the saint and the rabbi, they feel that only housed herds, large jamborees and sacraments conceived as static rites can deliver meaning and salvation. Such behavior not only denies life, but also disparages the freedom of religiously-inspired creativity. To resist the plague, such creativity is true resistance.
Today no state action threatens that resistance. On the contrary, it encourages it to flourish. The life-threatening consequences of violating sensible temporary restrictions appear repeatedly in the news. The violators may be a minority, but it only takes a few perpetrators to threaten the many innocent victims — disproportionately the poorest and most oppressed — in the midst of this pandemic. The sensible religious majority must embrace imaginative spiritual first aid, repudiating and combating in the strongest terms those who threaten life along with those who would aid and abet them.
[Benjamin Braude teaches in the history department at Boston College and is the author of Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (Lynne Rienner Publishers).]
“Love is our shield and protection in the age of pandemics; may we recognize that it is also so at every other moment.”
Finding light in darkness,
love of neighbor in the age of the coronavirus
(a letter to my students at Boston College)
Saint Patrick's Day, March 17, 2020
By Yonder Gillihan
From my own place of quarantined exile in Newton, MA, to my very dear students and colleagues and to all fellow thinkers and co-laborers who build up the community of Boston College, and who now share the life of quarantined exiles in the Boston area, throughout the United States, and around the world:
I am writing to you from this place of exile and quarantine, which we share with each other and with countless other others throughout the world. I am writing to you because, in spite of the global pandemic, and despite other existential threats that confront our species -- climate change, war, and mass extinctions, to name three -- there are reasons to be hopeful.
One of the reasons that I feel hope is because you remind me to do so. One of you, just last week, told me in an email that "Darkness does not exist without light." You said your mother told you that. Clearly your mothers and fathers and other guardians and mentors raised you right -- all of you! I say this to students at Boston College, and to every Earthling on this planet: Remember who we are! And now look at this wisdom from one of your mothers: she is not just right, but truly wise. Now that we can see darkness so clearly, we should be alert to the presence of clear light.
Let's try to answer the question: Where is the light? I have a few proposals of my own, and I would be delighted to hear yours.
1. We are light. For one thing, we are it -- we are light, in the most literal physical way. I told you this already, what we learned from our scientists last century: our bodies, all of their atomic pieces, just like everything else on our planet and in our solar system, are the burned out embers of exploded stars. That's just what we are: our every atom came from stars;
we have cooled and configured into these strange creatures for a time; in about 5 billion years we are all going back to the stars, when our sun puffs up and absorbs the earth. During this brief time that we imagine ourselves to be separated from the stars, we are still as connected to the stars as when we were fusing hydrogen into helium: look how we build and sustain our bodies with captured starlight, the photosynthesized energy that our plant and animal sisters and brothers provide for us. When we eat, when we breathe, when we feed other beings with our bodies, we are stars communing with stars. Where do we find light these days? Look at yourself. Touch yourself. Listen to the sound of your own voice, and to the voices of others: this is light. It is every taste and every smell. Where you are, there is light. Ask a physicist or a biologist. I'm not joking around.
2. Real immortality. If you are willing to be consoled even a little by the notion that we are made from light and eaters and drinkers of light, because this notion is plausible, then let me point to an even cheerier implication of the same scenario: the stars from which we came, like every other thing in this universe, are made of immortal matter, some stuff that existed before our Big Bang, stuff that was who knows what before that, and which condensed and blew up into all of this Universe. This means that nothing here, including you and me, was ever "born": everything in this Universe is not just as old as this Universe, but vastly older, belonging to those infinite, unknowable prehistories behind our comparably recent Big Bang. Likewise nothing here, including you and me, will ever "die": everything continues on in infinite new configurations, until this Universe dissolves into infinite embrace, embracing everything that it will become in its infinite embrace. We Earthlings love our present configuration here, as Earthlings, and it is right that we should love it: What is is us, and it is beautiful. We should love what is and what we are as deeply as we can love anything; indeed, there is nothing else to love. What is now, what we are a part of, contains all that is. But we should also be curious: what else will become? What does the experience of existence hold? One thing that it certainly contains for us, in relatively brief cosmic time, is union with the sun. What will that be like? What will be after that?
3. We are one. There are other sources of light that illumine from deep within this present darkness. I want to share with you one thing that the novel coronavirus has revealed, and which we so badly needed to see: The essential unity of the human organism. This virus is reminding us that we really are all exactly the same, equally dependent on each other to sustain the lives that we lead. All of the distinctions on which we base our usual patterns of relationships with each other, matter very little: To the coronavirus, a human is a human: power, wealth, celebrity, education, intelligence, nationality, gender, religion, sexuality, ability, and whatever else, matter little. No matter who you are, the coronavirus approaches your vulnerable tissues grinning and insisting,
"Let's work together! You are exactly the partner that we need, and we're both here, so let's get started!"
I don't like the way that the novel coronavirus treats people, but I do like its egalitarian, trusting assumptions. Perhaps novel-coronaviral assumptions could be adapted into useful human assumptions: We might learn to suspect less and trust more, to regard each human as a potential ally in our individual own quest to thrive, to present ourselves to others in a way that invites them to perceive us as potential allies in their individual quests to thrive. What might antiviral science, health care, and policy look like, if we insisted on acting out of solidarity and trust, not fear and blame? It turns out, I'm pretty sure, that if we each regarded every member of the human population with the same egalitarian assumptions as the coronavirus, we would have a good chance of beating the coronavirus, and other challenges that we face.
4. Our Greater Human Body. I'd like to suggest another source of encouragement and light, in the fact that the coronavirus provokes us to recognize the human species as a collective organism. Each individual human being might rightly be regarded as a cell within something that we might call, following the Apostle Paul, among many many others, the "Greater Human Body." What is this Greater Human Body? To catch a glimpse, follow it: where the Greater Human Body dwells, its tracks are obvious. Civilizations are its nests. Look: the Body is the community and its society; no single body in the whole community embodies the whole thing, but all are embodied by it. The loss of any one being within the society, however painful, costly, and tragic, can be overcome, but the loss of the society threatens the organism as a whole. When the Greater Human Body dies, its death deprives its member beings of the most fundamental necessities for survival. When the Greater Human Body truly thrives, it can nourish all beings within it. When the Greater Human Body thinks, libraries arise. When the Greater Human Body builds, cities blossom and flourish. When the Greater Human Body travels, it circles this planet, voyages through the solar system and out into the Universe. When the Greater Human Body goes to war, the whole Earth trembles. My brain plus your brains plus billions of other brains equal the brain of the Greater Body; our muscles supply the great and patient power of the Body; and our lungs give the Body its vital breath. There is no greater proof of this fundamental creaturely unity of all human beings, than the present coronavirus pandemic. Your breath is my breath: see how easily what is in my lungs flows to yours, and from yours back to mine. The breath we breathe is from each other and for each other. Our lungs are commonly owned; to the extent that we guard our own breath, we guard the breath of others, and of the Greater Human Body to which we belong. To the extent that we guard the lungs of others, we guard our own, and those of this great Body.
5. Your Neighbor is Yourself: Here is another bit of light, from Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity: We can discern particularly useful and relatively uncommon meaning for the great commandment that we find first in Leviticus 19:18, and then repeated numerous times in the New Testament; other versions of this commandment are found throughout global cultures, both before and after those that produced the Bible. The commandment is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Usually when we read this, we imagine that our neighbor is "like us" in an analogous way, but I want to point to a more literal possibility in the language of the English translation: We should love our neighbor "as ourself," not because our neighbor is like us, but because our neighbor is us, and we are our neighbor. There is no real boundary between me and anyone. This is becoming easier to recognize, in vivid and startling ways: my breath is your breath. What I breathe, you breathe. My lungs are your lungs. The cleanliness of my hands is the cleanliness of your hands. Any risk that I choose to take for myself, I also choose for you to take with me. Any protection that I offer to myself, becomes your protection. This is reality. My health is your health. My vulnerability is your vulnerability. My strength is your strength. My hope is your hope. My loss is your loss. My body is your body. Awareness of such intimate identification with neighbors prepares us for the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:15-21:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)
6. Moral light. If we take the Apostle's guidance in his Epistle to the Roman church, it may help us to discern our specific responsibilities as member beings within the Greater Human Body: Rejoice and mourn together. Embrace all as neighbors, regardless of status. Have no enemies. If there are enemies, allow God to define them and to confront them, in God's own time. We, in our time, are to love even those that we might think of as enemies. The New Testament is full of this idea: in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives his followers the command to "Love your enemies." The Gospel of Matthew makes it clear that this commandment contravenes conventional moral sensibilities:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44; cp. Luke 6:27, 35)
In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha gives a comparable teaching. He exhorts all who seek insight and clarity to practice generosity toward all beings, without discriminating between them on the basis of their external appearances, or any of our perceptions or feelings or thoughts about them:
Those who depend on such notions to practice generosity are like people walking in the dark. They will not see anything. But those who do not depend on such notions to practice generosity are like people with good eyesight walking under the bright light of the sun. They can see all shapes and colors. (Section 14, adapted from the translation of Thich Nhat Hanh)
I think we can observe with some confidence that the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha defy most "common sense" in most societies throughout history. Such teachings often provoke anxiety: we have been educated and habituated to establish moral clarity by distinguishing between worthy and unworthy recipients of our compassion. We assume that we achieve moral clarity by restricting generosity to people who demonstrate worthiness to receive generosity. We weep with those who deserve company in their grief; but those who do not deserve, we leave to grieve alone: we decide that their grief does not deserve to be lightened by our participation. We rejoice with those who deserve our company in their joy, but those who do not deserve, we ignore or reject or scorn: we decide that their joy does not deserve to be magnified by our participation. We assume that our discrimination clarifies important moral categories, i.e., friends, enemies, strangers, the worthy and the unworthy. Conventional understanding claims to preserve and protect generosity and moral clarity, by making sure that generosity is not wasted on the undeserving, and that generosity is applied where it is deserved. However, the ancient teachings on unconditional love and compassion seem to claim that what we regard as moral clarity -- i.e., our conventional categorization of people into the worthy and the unworthy -- is not actually clarity at all, but darkness and confusion. In contrast, what appears to introduce moral confusion -- i.e., indiscriminate, conditionless generosity, lavished freely upon all without regard for whether the generosity would be wasted, or whether it was earned, etc. -- actually introduces clarity.
What kind of clarity is this? Perhaps these ancient teachings aim to help us to recognize the wisdom and insight that we actually have, and to conform our actions to it. Here is what I mean: We wish to discriminate between friends, enemies, and strangers, and between the worthy and the unworthy, but we do not, in truth, have access to the internal motives or intentions of the people that we judge and categorize. We cannot fully know the motives and intentions of anyone except our individual selves. To act as though we do have access to these phenomena in others is to behave falsely and to walk in darkness.
In contrast, the fullest understanding of human motives and intentions that we can possibly have, is our understanding of our own motives and intentions. This, at least, we can know with some confidence: When we know ourselves to be generous beings, then we know what a generous being is like, and how a generous being is moved to treat other beings. By the consistent practice of generosity toward all, we strengthen the generous nature that we see within ourselves, and empower it to arise with greater frequency and effectiveness; we clear our minds of delusion and prepare them to meet every experience with equanimity and insight. We will never lose moral clarity when we recognize that we can only have clarity with regard to ourselves, and when we insist on renouncing judgments of other people that we cannot make, because we cannot know what the judgment requires.
7. Light in darkness. Here, then, already, are multiple sources light: We are light. We share immortality with this marvellous Universe. We are one, all vital members of this magnificent creature, our Greater Human Body. Our lives intertwine so completely that when I act to strengthen you -- any of you, anywhere in the world, whatever nation and language and religion and political system, whatever history of interactions with other nations -- whenever I strengthen you, I am stronger, and the great Body to which we belong increases its integrity, vitality, and capacity to offer refuge to all.
From my perspective, and probably also from yours, the practical enactment of all that is required to sustain human community isn't going to be easy, but, thank goodness, in this case, it isn't complicated. We will stay in place; this is how we love each other. We play games and wash our hands and hang out in virtual spaces. We check in on each other. We protect each other and ourselves. This is practical love. It is compassion that prevents and relieves suffering. It is generosity of the most generous kind: everyone can get full credit for loving humanity -- for regarding all equally, rejecting the categories "friends," "enemies," "strangers" -- simply by staying home and doing the very least that anyone has done in a while. This is now a life-giving blessing. We are giving doctors and scientists time to develop effective treatments and vaccines. We are lightening the future burden on medical care providers. This is a real contribution that you and I are contributing. As we wait, we can see our waiting as a practical expression of compassion. It's one way in which we seek to free ourselves and others of suffering. It is loving each other, our neighbors near and far, as ourselves, because our neighbors are, in fact, ourselves-- your wellness is my wellness; your strength is my strength; your vulnerability is my vulnerability. In our time, unconditional compassion and love of neighbor turn out to be essential national security measures. I think about you with great affection. Greet each other and all your neighbors with love, regard each other with love, encourage each other with love. Love is our shield and protection in the age of pandemics; may we recognize that it is also so at every other moment.
A compulsive note: Since I am a professor of Scripture writing to my students, my scholarly conscience compels me acknowledge, first, that I am offering a personal interpretation of these scriptures, not a scholarly one; indeed, I could not offer a scholarly opinion about the Buddhist texts at all. This same conscience compels me to acknowledge that the biblical and Buddhist teachings that I compare are not identical; further, any effort to claim a particular meaning for either one of them will invariably fail to disclose its full meaning. Nevertheless we should, like countless faithful others before us, attempt to understand our Scriptures, and attempt to tell each other what we understand; in this way we expand and improve each other's understanding, and the capacious understanding of the Greater Human Body.
Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM
“We are to love one another, as Jesus has loved us. And it was in the act of footwashing, Jesus gave us the example of how to do this: we are to serve one another, humbly, even to the point of relinquishing that which is most dear to us: our reputation, our status, and ultimately, as Jesus did, our very lives.”
Encouragement/Giving a Reason for Our Hope
By Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, Ph.D
My father died twenty-five years ago when I was on my first-ever sabbatical in South Africa. I still remember getting the phone call from my brother Billy in the middle of the night. My large family waited for me to get home to have the funeral, and so began a long journey back, with lay-overs in several cities: Durban, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Detroit, and finally, to Chicago, where I grew up. That same brother picked me up at the airport and took me to my mother’s house. When we got there and were unloading the car, he stopped, looked at me intently, and said, “I have just one question for you: will I ever see my father again?” I am sure this is a question that almost anyone who has ever lost a cherished family member or friend has asked oneself. I don’t recall exactly what I said to my brother. But I think it must have been something like, “Well, I certainly hope so; adding, “no, I do believe that we will see him again.”
I was reminded of this incident when I read today’s second lesson from the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” counsels the author. I know that grief can cloud the memory, but I was sure that my brother wasn’t looking for a theological explanation, and certainly not a platitude. He wanted me to comfort him, to reassure him. And yet, I distinctly remember that what I said was somehow a challenge to my own faith: could I really give a reason for my hope? Of course, I certainly do hope that I will see my father again, and not only him, but the others in my family who have died: my younger sister and brother, my aunts and grandparents, and my mother, who is still alive, but is in quarantine in a nursing home, as well as so many good friends and mentors who have gone to God before me. But as for giving an account for, or a reason, for my hope. Well, that is where I sometimes stumble.
In the face of a loved one’s passing, or when we are approaching our own death, and especially in this madly frustrating experience of living in a pandemic that has threatened the whole world, giving a reason for one’s hope can be a very challenging request. It was especially hard for the community that Peter was addressing. Biblical scholars tell us that this letter, written in the name of the apostle Peter toward the end of the first century, addresses three major themes: baptism, suffering and traditional exhortations. Yet, despite its many references to suffering, the background for this letter is not one of Roman persecution. Rather, it reflects the alienation from family, neighbors, and society in general that newly baptized Christians of the early church experienced as a result of their conversion to Jesus. Old allegiances to the gods of one’s family and the city’s gods were relinquished, causing a shift in loyalties that brought about tension within families and in civic society. So, when Peter writes, telling the newly baptized “be ready to give reason for your hope to anyone who asks,” he follows up with “but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” He exhorts them further that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”
In our own time, perhaps we can think of situations where choices or decisions we have made have created tension within our families and among friends, perhaps even cutting off these relationships. I’m thinking here especially of our choices that we make for authenticity, risks we take in coming to terms with who we are, who we are called to be, prophetic commitments we have made and the values that they are based on that we cherish. Whether these are political commitments, disagreements (or even agreements) with the church’s teachings on significant social issues, promises we have made, or broken –all of these choices, including those we didn't choose: most especially, this precarious situations caused by the Coronavirus pandemic: joblessness, food insecurity, our elders and veterans dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals, exhausted parents trying to balance working at home and overseeing their children’s education, seeing the future plans we have made or the provisions for our retirement collapse and disappear. All of these stressors have a bearing on whether we are able to “give an accounting for our hope.” At best, we may feel resigned; at worst, we simply feel paralyzed. And yet, perhaps the reading from John’s Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter offers us some “good news,” regarding the painful situations that many, if not all, of us are experiencing.
The Gospel for today comes from the first of Jesus’s “farewell discourses” in John’s gospel. Chapter 14 starts out with “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” a familiar selection for funeral Masses. Midway through the discourse, Jesus promises that when he goes to the Father, “I will do whatever you ask in my name…if in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Wow! How’s that for a reason for hope? But then, right after that, in the passage assigned for today, Jesus reminds us that, if we love him, we will keep his commandments. That saying immediately brings to mind the “New Commandment” that Jesus gave to his disciples at his last meal with them: we are to love one another, as Jesus has loved us. And it was in the act of footwashing, Jesus gave us the example of how to do this: we are to serve one another, humbly, even to the point of relinquishing that which is most dear to us: our reputation, our status, and ultimately, as Jesus did, our very lives.
Today, among those of us who find ourselves among the privileged, one hears that we are losing “the way of life” we have come to take for granted: going out to dinner, seeing movies in theaters, even receiving holy communion. We are sobered by the possibility that even should these activities eventually be resumed, our very lives may be at stake—unless we can discover a vaccine. Yet, this life-threatening situations have long been familiar to the poor, to refugees, to those living in war-torn areas, to victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, or anyone who has ever been excluded on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus has become “the great leveler”; it does not discriminate. And yet, this daunting reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus need not leave us in despair. For Jesus promises that he will ask the Father, his Abba God, to give us an “advocate,” the Spirit of truth, who will be with us always.
My colleague in the Theology Department at Boston College, Fr. Michael Himes, has a video I use in class where he explains that this word “advocate” – is variously translated as “counselor” or “comforter” or “Paraclete.” In the original Greek, parakletos, can mean “counselor” or “advocate” –in a legal sense, someone who sits at the side of a plaintiff in a court, to advise, defend and give guidance. In John’s Gospel, however, this Counselor represents both the presence and activity of God and the continuing presence of Jesus in the community. In the video Fr. Himes adds an interesting tidbit from a sermon by the 19th c. Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to his ex. Hopkins, who is known for his playfulness with words, gave a sermon to his congregation in Liverpool, in which he asked,
What is a Paraclete? A Paraclete is one who comforts, who cheers, who encourages, who persuades, who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward, who calls on, what the spur, and word of command is to a horse, (and here, Fr. Himes interrupts his reading from Hopkins and says: ‘in other words, gitty -up, gitty-up!) He returns to Hopkins and continues, what clapping is to a speaker, what a trumpet is to a soldier. That is what a Paraclete is to the soul: one who calls us to the good. [One sight is before my mind, it is homely, but it comes home: you have seen it at cricket, how when one of the batsmen at the wicket has made a hit and wants to score a run, when the other doubts, hangs back, or is ready to run again, how eagerly the first will cry, “Come on, come on!”] A Paraclete is just that, something that cheers the spirit of one with signals and with cries, all zealous that one should do something and full of assurance that if one will, one can, calling us on, springing to meet us halfway, crying to our ears, or to our heart: This way to do God’s will, this way to save your soul, come on, come on!
Being an American without much understanding of Cricket, I tend to think of my Boston College students lining Commonwealth Avenue during the Boston Marathon, urging on the runners up “heartbreak hill,” or the former TV Sportscaster, Jack Brickhouse, in my hometown, yelling “hey, hey, Ernie!” when the Cubs’ Ernie Banks was rounding third base and headed for home.
This is the message I think the 6th Sunday of Easter has for us during the Coronavirus. As we look toward Pentecost in just a few weeks, as we ponder how to give an accounting for our hope: let us remember the gift of the Paraclete: “Gitty-up! Gitty-up! I will not let you fail!”
1 Michael Himes et. al., The Vision of The Gospels, Disc 2 “The Gospel of John.” (Jefferson Valley, NY: St. Anthony Messenger Press. Fisher Productions, 1997).
2 C. Devlin, ed., Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (Oxford University Press, 1959), 70. Cited in Joseph J. Feeney, The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Routledge, 2016), 167.
“I feel a profound sense of pride in our nursing profession, our colleagues, and members of the team... I know that too many people have not survived and feel profound joy that I am still here to tell this story.”
My Encounter with COVID-19
By Rachel E. Spector, RN, PhD
“It happens to thee, and thee, and thee; but never to me”
I learned this little axiom many years ago as a young nurse; it generated the grit to care for people with countless communicable diseases – polio, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and so forth – without fear. Now, as a much older nurse, I confronted the coronavirus with the same attitude. I carefully followed the CDC mandates – mask, gloves, distancing 6 feet, and hand washing, etc, but felt no fear of ever getting it.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2020 – I lost interest in daily events.
Friday, May 1st - added a low grade fever and a dry, non-productive cough to the mix.
That afternoon, a COVID-19 test was administered on the roof of the physicians’ office building parking lot - the “swab”- with results to be available in 3 days.
Saturday, May 2nd - spent in a chair – restless, sleeping, and not eating.
Sunday, May 3rd - woke up feeling poorly but walked around, did not eat breakfast or lunch and slept most of the day. Around 6 pm I became confused but remember being placed on a stretcher and being whisked away. I really could not pay too much attention to the event because I had developed a high fever –104 – was coughing, and sleepy. The EMT told me we were going to a Boston Hospital. I faded in and out of consciousness.
When we arrived at the emergency room, I remember being given oxygen via a nasal cannula, and the nurses making me wear both a mask and the cannula together. This made breathing nearly impossible. When privacy existed, I slipped the mask down and took some real breaths.
Suddenly the EMTs arrived and informed me that we were going to another hospital as there were no beds in this one.
Just as I was falling asleep after admission to the second hospital, another set of EMT’s arrived and whisked me off to yet another hospital – (3 different hospitals in 5 hours). When they told me where I was, I wanted to bolt – my good friend had died here and I did not want to stay. No choice, I had to stay. I saw a huge deep hole in front of me. I said, “I ‘m scared.” My friend appeared with her arms raised and pushed me back away from the hole, said “don’t be scared,” and disappeared. The doctor asked, even though they had a copy of my signed DNR and DNI forms, did I want to be on a vent. I remember saying abruptly – “NO.”
The following is the admission summary statement: “On presentation she was confused and inattentive, was satting at 94% on 6 liters of oxygen, with a fever of 102.8 and a blood pressure of 200/90. After defervescing and BP control her mentation improved.”
Monday, May 4th, 2 am - I remember being moved into a bed in a COVID-19 recovery unit and hooked up to an intravenous infusion, oxygen, and monitors. Around 3 am I was given my first dose of remdesivir and received this medication every early (3am) morning until May 11th. Remdesivir is an antiviral drug that is given by intravenous infusion in the hospital and is being tested in carefully controlled environments. It has been seen as effective in patients who were newly diagnosed with COVID-19 who were not placed on ventilators. Every day there is more information. A long awaited study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 22nd. Essentially it reported that the drug was effective!
I believe the combination of remdesivir, oxygen, Lasix (used to treat the pneumonia), Lovenox (used to prevent blood clots), highly skilled nursing care, and sheer determination brought me to a point where on the 6th day in the hospital I was up and out of bed on my own.
May 4th – May 7th – days 1 - 4: I silently put on my “nurse’s persona” and observed an interesting progression: The first night and day I was often confused and slept. By day 3, I was more alert. From the beginning, I knew that the nurses were with me; first every 2 hours, then 3, then 4 – as they checked my blood pressure, orientation, intake and output, and so forth. They also followed the monitors, watched, and communicated with me via an iPad from the other side of the closed door. I was totally isolated and not allowed visitors. Everyone who entered the room was wrapped up in protective equipment – gown, mask, plastic face shield, and gloves. I missed smiles and sometimes hearing words was difficult.
My appetite gradually returned. I was given a menu that initially made no sense due to my confusion, but by the 4th hospital day I mastered the art of finding outstanding food. My daughter, who flew in from California and my son, who flew in from Nevada, dropped off treasured treats each day.
May 8th – 10th, days 5 – 7: Brought an increasing awareness of improvement and freedom. The physical therapist taught me several exercises for getting out of bed and walking. The nurses trusted me to be on my own to go to the bathroom and walk around my room. The cardiac monitor and then the nasal oxygen cannula disappeared.
Monday – May 11th, day 8, home! The discharge for the most part was easy, with instructions for strict isolation and other aspects of homecare discussed. My husband was not tested along with me and we did not know if he had had the virus. Therefore, we could not be in the same room, or use the same bathroom and shower for the first few days I was home. My husband had been stranded home alone while I was in the hospital, and he was overjoyed to have noise in our home! He is not a medical person and the information he was given, especially in the early hours, was overwhelming.
Follow up – nursing and physical therapy were arranged with the Visiting Nurses.
The nurses – I cannot think of one negative thing to say. They were phenomenal. Every time they entered the room, they efficiently and quietly did what needed to be accomplished. Not a single nurse left without a reassuring word, asking if I wanted anything, and if I was comfortable.
The other members on the team – physical therapists, dietary, laboratory phlebotomists, physicians, and so forth, were also highly skilled, and kind. The team members for the most part are young, committed, and kind. I feel a profound sense of pride in our nursing profession, our colleagues, and members of the team.
In closing – there is one important thing to be said: Decide NOW if you want CPR, to be placed on a ventilator, etc. If your choice is NO, complete the necessary papers and be sure you know where they are.
This was my confrontation with COVID-19 as well as I can remember. I know that too many people have not survived and feel profound joy that I am still here to tell this story.
P.S. The above was written in May, 2020 shortly after I was discharged from the hospital. It is now December and I believe I am fully recovered. June and July were days of recovery – I was able to walk – each day greater distances, and to swim, increasing the numbers of laps over this time.
I taught my Capstone Course – Holistic Living - this fall and learned from scratch how to teach on Zoom. I had thought that a Capstone class could never be taught this way – yet this particular class was far more gratifying than any I had taught over the past 20 years!
There are thousands of people who have recovered from COVID yet the news tends to focus on the lives that have been lost. It is quite the opportunity to share the story of a successful recovery – thank you.