A post-pandemic vocation
Seven months after the attacks on the United States that reduced the twin towers of the World Trade Center to a smouldering mass of rubble, I flew into New York. It was the week before Holy Week of 2002. I had come to address the annual retreat of the clergy of the diocese of New York. I had read widely, prepared carefully, prayed and strained over a text of reflections. As I was about to discover, I had no idea what I was walking into.
The clergy, as front-line workers, were frayed by months of grief counselling as they sought to patch together the shredded emotions of their people. Four of the clergy were still functioning as chaplains assigned to the sifting mills on a Long Island dockyard. There the remains of the towers were being shaken through screens such that wedding rings and bone fragments could be extracted from the concrete and dust. I had arrived among men and women in shock, exhausted, almost expressionless; their greetings to each other were warm but subdued.
Almost immediately I realized I had completely underestimated the impact of the catastrophe on their lives. These people did not need a talk. They needed someone to help them gather into small groups where they could wrap their arms around each other, weep, pray and speak of dreadful experiences. They needed to be led to Scriptures from which they might reclaim a kernel of hope to counter the prevailing rhetoric of revenge and retaliation. They knew it was not over.
“When we get to the other side of vaccinations—when the weight of an oppressive fear is lifted off the ‘chest’ of society and it rises in collective grief bearing the chronic effects of strain—who will be there to help?”
American novelist Don DeLillo called the events of 9/11 “the defining event of our time”—for Americans. One might wonder: How will we weigh the impact of this global pandemic when, in mid-March 2020, the world stopped? What language will we use to name the impact of this time of almost universal trauma? When we get to the other side of vaccinations—when the weight of an oppressive fear is lifted off the “chest” of society and it rises in collective grief bearing the chronic effects of strain—who will be there to help? Who will be ready to support and respond to the decompression of exhausted and wrung-out front-line workers? What of the amassed grief held by those who lost businesses, savings, friends? What of those who could not visit loved ones and who stood outside care homes waving to a parent or grandparent they would never hold again? What of those who, restrained from travel, were unable to attend the burial of a loved one nor be consoled by the embrace of family? The traumatic strain of this pandemic, when it is over, will not be simply eclipsed by “vaccination parties.”
The Hebrew book of Nehemiah gives a detailed description of those who were the first to return from the devastation of the Exile. For more than a generation, the peoples of Israel had been scattered across an empire to the north, enslaved and with no cause to believe it might ever end. But then the rise of a new political power in the Middle East released the people of Israel to return to their lands and begin again.
The refugees came in waves. Imagine the feelings of the first to arrive in the ruins of Jerusalem. Nehemiah tells us of a day when hundreds crowded into an open plaza by the “Water Gate,” overshadowed by the ruins of the temple. In the sunlight of that day, they came together as free people. They had made it through. They had survived.
“There comes a time for weeping, as it came that long-ago day in a ruined city, and may come for many who have struggled through the shadows of a 21st-century plague.”
Ezra, the priest, climbed onto a specially built wooden platform and stood before the crowd. He held in his arms the scrolls of the sacred Scriptures. The scrolls were unrolled and he began to read. The people stood. And then, as the Scriptures were heard, the people began to weep. We might wonder, “Why were they weeping?” After all, they had come home. They were safe. But the trauma carried in their hearts for so long, supressed and sealed away as they sought simply to survive, could not be contained any longer. In the realization that their ordeal was ended, a wave of emotions spilled forth for all that had been endured, for the memory of those left behind, for the accumulations of loss. When this COVID pandemic is brought to an end, it may be so for us too.
There comes a time for weeping, as it came that long-ago day in a ruined city, and may come for many who have struggled through the shadows of a 21st-century plague.
As vaccines arrive and long-awaited inoculations begin, an enormous opportunity exists for the Christian community to play a significant role for which we can prepare. While many people, once they are vaccinated, may prefer not to think anything more about the pandemic, there will be others who may welcome the opportunity to review, remember, weep and heal.
There will be those who will welcome a forum to explore questions like: Is there a wound, a loss, you carry from this time? How was resilience discovered? Were there times you encountered the love of God, the Presence of Christ? Are there actions needed to bring closure? How is life different now?
So much will be needed. There will need to be a plan to help children who are sponges for the anxiety felt by others; for students who have felt the limits of online study; for seniors who carry traumatic injuries from the stresses of long-term care; for those who have survivor’s guilt.
The error I made in 2002 was to not fully appreciate the depth of the impact of a devastating disaster on a community and their need for care. In that instance there was time to “pivot”—as we say—but a lesson learned. For us today, there will be one more “wave” to this pandemic: a final wave.
We have become familiar with speaking of this powerful virus as something that comes in “waves.” As I write we are speaking of a second and third wave. But when those successive waves of infection have passed, there will be a wave of emotional, psychological and spiritual need. As we prepared for a first, a second and a third wave, we must prepare for this final wave.
Paul of Tarsus exuded a strident personality but also one of compassion and sensitivity. Near the end of his longest surviving letter, he writes words that are eloquent and timely:
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”