In Front of the Gift of Corona
"It's funny how you are grateful for every face you keep at a ten-foot distance."
As the news started to unravel that the pandemic was spreading across the globe, it was a matter of only three days before my school announced it was closing and that we would work from home. I have lived alone since December 2017, a circumstance that has forced me to put my money where my mouth is: Since I met the Movement in 1991, I have despised some of the political aspects of our companionship—the risk of forsaking Christ as the core of our happiness in favor of power and success, mimicking the struggle for power at the heart of the world in the very life of CL. As a Memor Domini, I am not immune to this. You can live the rule of a house, you can preach the school of community, you can give all your money and you can be a star of mission—and you can still enter reality without true religiosity.
The first thing that struck me as the pandemic gained momentum here was that it is a hierophany, a manifestation of God. A situation has come over the world that changes the way all of us live and that is out of everyone’s control, epidemiologists and presidents alike—the ultimate irony being the elimination of that one aspect of reality Flannery O’Connor once said was the one thing in the world that was not dispensable: the Body and Blood of Christ. I came home from work last Friday throwing my hands up and saying, “Okay God, not even You this weekend in the place where sign and mystery coincide. What does this mean?” And I came through with one answer: if He was taking away that, then His presence in everything is something I needed to look it—something you can avoid, even being a daily communicant.
The first three days of work were torture. Waking up in a one-bedroom apartment without the goal of going anywhere except into all-day web classes. There was a sense of futility along with a sense of irony. No matter how confined I felt, I had to tell myself, “This, Jesus, is what you’re giving me, so You are either here or You are, frankly, nothing.” As the week passed, the lessons with my kids became more essential, gratifying even, as I saved bandwidth by turning off the video and we were left with only voices—until the final one yesterday afternoon with my junior-year American Lit students, who are working on Longfellows’ “A Psalm of Life,” a paean to the self-made individual that is the outcome of the Enlightenment filtered through an American Naturalist/Romantic sensibility.
They were struggling with drafting cohesive arguments in their papers, and so, as an exercise, I had them draft a thesis about the difference between what it means to view the world as Longfellow and what it means to view the world as the psalmist, who, rather than affirming mere human ingenuity, is certain that “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/ You are with me,/ Your rod and Your staff comfort me.” It was not by chance that this was the final lesson of the week on the first Friday afternoon that the pandemic really hit us, because the kids one by one affirmed that Israel’s and Christianity’s proposal of a God who is next to us is far more adequate than the American-Romantic god of nature, who “has eyes that cannot see and a mouth that cannot speak.”
I wrapped up the week filled with gratitude and certainty that God knew exactly what He was doing by sending us this pandemic, since, as this morning’s reading from Hosea points out, it is love that He desires from us and not sacrifice—or to echo Fr. Jose’s point at this afternoon’s Zoom call, it is the end for all of us of formality and lip service in the relationship with Him.
I left the apartment to meet two friends from work who wanted to walk their dogs and just see other, and when I looked around as we did this, I was grateful to Christ for the gorgeous magnolia and cherry blossoms all over the city, and for these two people, younger colleagues—one whom I’ve driven to work for two months because she had hip surgery and another who is my closest friend at work, a fellow English teacher and wise guy like me. I realized that I love these two people because they are, and for no other reason, and it occurred to me just how much any person in my life is a gift.
All over D.C. yesterday afternoon, we passed people on the street and chatted about dogs and other things, and I had the sense that in our mutual bafflement, we all understand our needs more and think twice before ignoring strangers on the street in favor of what is in our own heads.
Fr. Jose mentioned in D.C. last week that it might be a good idea to limit our contact with the media since it only incites more fear—and my principal yesterday told us and all the students to get off their email all weekend and breathe. It’s funny how, in the social distancing, the love for everyone and everything around you deepens because you’re aware of its source, and you’re grateful for every phone call, text, and, more importantly, every face you keep at a ten-foot distance because, in front of the gift of Corona, you would rather die yourself than want your sister or brother not to exist.
Dino, Washington, D.C