By Fr. Michael Moynahan, SJ
Sheldon Kopp was a psychotherapist and author based in Washington, D.C. He wrote several practical self-help books that caught my attention in the 1980s. The titles of his books were always imaginative and engaging. Even a Stone Can Be a Teacher was the title of his book published in 1985. The sub-title was Learning and Growing from the Experiences of Everyday Life. The title of Kopp’s book came to mind as I was reflecting on what in the world the COVID-19 pandemic, which we have been experiencing for the past six months, could possibly teach us.
Three gifts that I have discovered during this coronavirus — gifts that are available to all of us — are gratitude, hope and compassion. Each of these is both a gift and a spiritual practice that can help us navigate the storm of this pandemic.
GIFT ONE: GRATITUDE
St. Ignatius of Loyola considered gratitude as the most important virtue and attitude a person could have in life. Gratitude moves a person from being entitled to being blessed. As St. Ignatius once wrote, “Ingratitude is the forgetting of the graces, benefits and blessings received.” I think that is ultimately the greatest harm a pandemic can do to us. Because it is such an unexpected shock to our systems, it makes us forget what is before us in our ordinary everyday lives — a world of blessing and grace.
Bill Spohn, a classmate and friend who died after a long battle with brain cancer, described gratitude this way: “Gratitude is the echo of grace.” Has the pandemic made us deaf to all those echoes of grace in our life?
St. Ignatius, in his Examen prayer, begins by inviting us to look back on our day and remember the blessings of that day — all those “echoes of grace.” You can even begin your day that way. It doesn’t take a great deal of time, but it will transform our living of each day from entitled to deeply grateful.
GIFT TWO: HOPE
Hope is the fertilizer of life. Jesuit Walter Burghardt called us all to be men and women of ceaseless hope long before the existence of a pandemic. He reminded us that “Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope. But that means you must be men and women of the present, you must live this moment — really live it, not just endure it — because this very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with all sorts of possibilities, is pregnant with the future, is pregnant with love, is pregnant with Christ.”
Bill Spohn, as he became more aware that death was approaching, wrote to his family and friends: “If gratitude is the echo of grace, then hope is the echo of God’s paying attention to us.” Bill lived and died full of hope because everyday life and approaching death expanded his heart and his vision.
What is key, especially during these days and weeks and months of a pandemic, is to not allow the coronavirus to narrow our vision, to paralyze our hope. Continue to focus on those people and actions that stir hope within you. I think of all those men and women who put their lives at risk to medically help those suffering from this virus. I think of the people I know who reach out to the elderly and isolated to see if they need help and to remind them that they are not alone. I think of all of those who take the recommended precautions seriously (i.e., wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, sheltering in place, etc.) not just to maintain their safety but to ensure ours. All these people fill me with hope.
The more I ponder these men and women who call out hope in me by what they are doing and who they are, the more aware I am that God has not abandoned us in this storm at sea but is with us in the boat. And this, once again, fills me with hope.
GIFT THREE: COMPASSION
The third gift that the current pandemic can offer us or deepen in us is compassion. The great priest and theologian Henri Nouwen was an apostle of compassion throughout his life. He reminds us that:
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
And as we experience the sufferings of others, as Christ did, as Gandhi did, as Nelson Mandela did, and so many others, we remember the words of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, “It’s time for greatness — not for greed. It’s a time for idealism — not ideology. It is a time not just for compassionate words, but compassionate action.” This is simply a way of saying that in the face of all this suffering, it is time for love. And St. Ignatius would remind us, “Love expresses itself more in deeds than in words.”
Fr. Michael Moynahan, SJ, (left) with fellow Jesuits on staff at Saint Ignatius Loyola Parish in Sacramento
I began this article by asking the question “What can the COVID-19 pandemic teach us?” Hopefully, it can offer us opportunities to ponder how we can be more grateful, more hopeful and more compassionate. While we don’t know the exact date that a vaccine will be developed to combat this virus, researchers and scientists are working diligently to produce one. The pandemic will eventually come to an end. But the acts of gratitude and hope and compassion, that can help us through these challenging days, are spiritual practices for a lifetime.
Father Michael Moynahan, SJ, is senior priest in residence at Saint Ignatius Loyola Parish in Sacramento.