So Friday the Jesuit magazine America put an article up on its website with the rather sobering headline “Three Spiritual Exercises for Facing a Long Future with Covid-19.” Not exactly what you want to see heading into the weekend, but it couldn’t have come at a better time — between the everlasting pandemic, the unfolding tragedy of Afghanistan and furious political opposition to basic public health protocols, even in Illinois, things don’t exactly look promising at the moment.
On the other hand, it could be worse. Our local metrics of community spread are significantly higher than in Chicago and the suburbs, but nowhere near as bad as Missouri and the “red states” to the South where the pandemic has been so heavily politicized. And maybe — hopefully, cross your fingers! — we’re beginning to flatten the curve a little. Here’s one measure, for Sangamon County:
But altogether, a year and a half into the pandemic, it’s all profoundly dispiriting. With that in mind, I figured we could use some spiritual nourishment. So I shared the article, by Jim McDermott, SJ, to Facebook with this headnote:
This guy’s a Jesuit — he’s the Los Angeles correspondent for America magazine — but his take on the spiritual exercises will sound familiar to 12-steppers and spiritual wannabes like me who dabble in a little bit of Zen, a bit of insight meditation and a little bit of anything else that helps me get through the night.
As I usually do when I share content to FB, I excerpted part of the article. McDermott writes:
The thing that I find hardest to accept right now is the possibility that rather than just a couple terrible years of our lives, Covid may be here to stay in one form or another—and with it, things like masks and variants and sickness and lockdowns. I don’t want to believe that. I hope I’m wrong. But it’s not clear. And if this is not a blip but our new reality, what then?
Sometimes I find a simple mantra can help me accept the world as it is. It’s just three words that I repeat to myself quietly. “Now. Here. This.”
In one sense all three words serve the same purpose. They ground me in the present. Now. Here. This.
But they also make me consider what stands before me in a different way. It doesn’t matter what my plans were or how I feel. There is nothing to debate or to judge. Now is just now. Here is just here. This is just this. It gives me a kind of freedom.
A good attitude, I think. And it seems, at least to me, to be eminently do-able. McDermott lists three spiritual exercises (I think I might call them attitudes to cultivate instead). They are:
- Center yourself in your own present-day experience.
- Consider the big picture.
- Look ahead with acceptance (and maybe hope).
Now. Here. This. McDermott mentions it toward the end, but I think it applies everywhere. Like I said on social media, it could be right out of the 12-step program. I can visualize it in a diploma frame on the wall along with the other AA Slogans in a meeting room. One Day at a Time. There are two days in every week, the old-timers say around the tables, that we have no control over — yesterday and tomorrow. Today is the only day we can change.
And aren’t the Zen koans about living in the present moment? I’m certainly no expert on Zen Buddhism, but I taught them in freshman English at Benedictine. Why did the Patriarch come from the west? asks one of my favorities. The cypress tree in the courtyard, it answers. This tree. Here now. In this courtyard. This pandemic. Here. Now. Don’t intellectualize about it.
The only Zen you find on tops of mountains, says Robert Pirsig, is the Zen you bring there.
I’ve got to confess my idea of Zen has more to do with popular culture, Beat Generation poetry and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than it does with Buddhist spiritual practice. (I’m not very factual on motorcycles, either.) And the mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation I mentioned on FB, i.e. cultivating “a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens,” is one of those things I never quite get around to actually doing. In fact, I may never.
But with those caveats, I found McDermott’s advice to be very much in the moment — and very useful in this particular moment.
Certainly we’re in an awful moment, and I need something. I think we all do. McDermott writes:
Maybe it’s because so many people continue to refuse to get vaccinated (or to be safe around others) that even our vaccinated immunological defenses can be overwhelmed. Or maybe it’s that our vaccines are slightly less adequate against the Delta variant. But it seems that many of us are going to get this damn virus whether we’re vaccinated or not.
That is a lot to have to confront. It can easily lead us down roads of outrage, panic and despair.
I am struggling with this myself. And these are three spiritual exercises that I am trying to use to help me find my way through it.
The mantra I quoted above — Now. Here. This. — comes up in the third of McDermott’s exercises. But I think it works for all three. In fact, I think it’s the essence of the first — centering ourselves in our own daily experience. Jusst take a moment, McDermott says, to get in touch with our emotions:
So what if we were to take some time to sit in the presence of God and listen to what is going on inside us, to give our feelings a chance to speak, without judgment or need to respond? Maybe we discover that we need some space to grieve the death of our belief that we were just about out of the woods, or to sit with our outrage toward others who will not get vaccinated, or to cope with our fears of getting sick.
McDermott’s second exercise? Consider the big picture. He suggests one from St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises, “a meditation in which we look down on the whole world with the Trinity and consider what we see.” That gets into theological controversies that can take me away from the here and now if I’m not careful, so I think of the pictures from the Hubble telescope instead. I’d like to hope the pictures take me to the same place, mentally or spiritually: It’s not all about me, and I need to remember that more often.
“I don’t know about you,” says McDermott, “but when I am scared or angry my world can get really small. This tends to be a self-perpetuating cycle; the smaller my world gets, the more out of control I feel, and the more defensive I get.”
Well, there’s plenty to be angry about. Says McDermott:
During the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic, we each made incredible sacrifices. To be confronted with the fact that we may still get the virus and transmit it to others is dispiriting and not a little bit frightening. For me, part of spiritually coping with our present moment is about allowing ourselves the time and space to feel what we are feeling right now. Panic is often fear that has been too long ignored. Lashing out at others can be much the same—an expression of something inside us that we have not yet taken the time to actually see and hear.
But stepping back and looking at the big picture, I can see I’m lucky. I live in a “blue” state with a governor and state legislature that take the epidemic seriously. Our local test positivity rates seem to be holding steady, peaking in Sangamon County on Aug. 12 at 9.7 percent and falling, ever so slightly, to 9.3 percent on Aug. 16 and 6.5 percent on Aug. 20. The metrics continue to be daunting, but are we beginning to flatten yet another curve?
We have plenty of vaccine available nationwide, if — if — we can just get people to take it. In the meantime, McDermott reminds us, there are billions of people worldwide who can’t get vaccines as the latest variants run wild.
“What is this world that I am living in?” he asks himself (and I ask myself along with him). “The more I can stay grounded in that reality, the more I open my own life to other people’s needs and to the possibility of being able to help in some way.”
Which leads me back to McDermott’s mantra.
Now. Here. This. Yes, it sucks. And, yes, it feels awful. Is this what it felt like in, oh say 476 AD when the Roman Empire was about to fall? Or 75 years later during the Plague of Justinian? Or 1347 when the Black Death was sweeping Europe? What could I have done to make things a little better in 476 or 1347? There must have been something. But what?
And what can I do with our new plague in the year 2021? Now. Here. This. Do I have any more agency than a Roman plebeian? Or a European peasant in 1347? (Other than maybe sharing articles from a Jesuit website to Facebook, a option they didn’t have in fifth-century Rome.) I don’t have a good answer to that question. But I think it’s important to keep asking it, and maybe — just maybe — I feel a little better for the asking.
Jim McDermott, “Three spiritual exercises for facing a long future with Covid-19,” America, Aug. 20, 2021 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/08/20/three-spiritual-exercises-future-covid-241265.
[Published Aug. 26, 2021]