Saturday, March 14, 2020
I am filled with dread thinking about being inside the house with my family for the next two weeks.
So began the pandemic for Dr. Regine Jean-Charles, professor at Northeastern University. A loving mother, wife, and academic, she could not imagine a complete cessation to her life outside her home. In those early weeks and months, she wept each day at the devastation so many were experiencing. She worried about friends, family, students, and others who were food insecure, forced to shelter in place with their abusers, or dying alone in hospitals. At one point, she had to stop her intake of news so that she could be present with her family and keep up with her responsibilities at the university.
Like Regine and those she wept for, Americans have experienced multiple losses this last year: loved ones, health, financial stability, or even time. Mothers, perhaps more than any other group, have lost margin.
Yet despite all the challenges and pressures that the pandemic has brought for mothers, noted author and spiritual director Adele Calhoun says that the moms she works with actually have a strength during pandemic that her generation lacked: telling God and others the truth of their experience. Calhoun has been struck by the honesty of the mothers she is working with this year. “When I was younger, we tried to look like we had it all together. That kind of hiding never really worked, and would have made thriving spiritually during a pandemic impossible.”
Instead, she said, “These younger moms are saying, ‘I wanted to wring my kid’s neck today,’ or ‘I don’t pray anymore,’ or ‘All I want to do is run away.’ So when they tell me that they aren’t doing any spiritual disciplines during the pandemic, I think to myself that they are doing a spiritual discipline — they are being honest before God, and that’s the start of all transformation.”
What they really mean when they say they have no time for spiritual disciplines, she thinks, is that they are missing their hour to sit quietly with their Bibles and their prayer lists. Yet losing previously cherished disciplines can make way for new practices that may be formative in ways they were longing for even before the pandemic. “Two days away on retreat will not be as transformative as learning to welcome Jesus into the chaos of three kids and two adults trying to Zoom in the same house.”
“Instead of beating yourself up for what you can’t do,” she invites moms, “look for what God has shown you you can do. Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Be a mom as you can, not as you can’t. An important question for all of us becomes, ‘How can we use this time to learn how to access God where we are?”
For Jean-Charles, this has meant being the kind of professor she can be in the midst of the pandemic. “As a believer in the Jesuit value of cura personalis (care of the whole person) I have always been the kind of professor who cares about my students' minds, hearts, and souls. But it was not until the pandemic that I began to draw from my well of parenting resources and tricks in order to help my students cope in an unprecedented time. It began with the check-in that we did at the beginning of every Zoom class. No matter how long it took I had every student share a high and a low for the day. Having done this regularly with my four children I knew that it could take some time before they got comfortable. From the student whose parent was an essential worker, to one who was battling food insecurity, to another whose difficult relationship with a parent made the prospect of sheltering in place traumatic, they slowly opened up and invited me and their classmates into their worlds.”
Instead of feeling debilitated by the immense pain people were experiencing, as Jean-Charles had felt at the beginning of the pandemic, she allowed God to use what she knew from parenting to nurture and care for her students. “After my husband and I decided to take the children on daily neighborhood walks, I saw how my children’s demeanors changed when we got out in the fresh air no matter how cold it was. I decided to challenge my students to go outside, breathe the air, and make observations about nature around them. It was so transformative that I changed my students' final assignment for our Caribbean Literature and the Environment class: all they had to do was take a picture of the natural environment and try to connect it to a novel or essay we read. Their photos of local streams, animals, flowers, trees, and random animals from settings that ranged from urban, suburban, and rural showed me that this exercise had made them to think differently about nature and to appreciate the world around them in a difficult time. Had I not been teaching from my home with children around me, it might not have occurred to me to rely on my parenting techniques and coping mechanisms to help my students through this time.”
In addition to asking “How can we use this time to learn how to access God where we are?” Calhoun has been asking herself a second question, “What about this that I am experiencing did Jesus also experience?”
When we identify with Jesus, moment by moment, none of it is lost. Not even in the pandemic. Identifying the ways Jesus has experienced what we are currently experiencing draws us into solidarity with Christ. Whether mothers are enjoying the extra time to spend with family, feeling worn down by the siblings who can’t stop bickering, or helping their children grieve the loss of beloved family, we can find times in Jesus’ life where he experienced something similar. Think of Jesus enjoying unrushed time with the disciples, or dealing with them when they want to know who is most important, or joining Martha and Mary in grieving the loss of Lazarus. Mothers worship a God who relates to their lives in intimate ways. When we feel crushed, and remember how Jesus was crushed, we can join Jesus in that experience. Our whole lives are taken up and transformed into the likeness of Christ, for the glory of God.
By embracing solidarity with the sufferings of Jesus, and the joys of Jesus, times of crisis can be times to turn to Jesus. Even as we know God is working for the end of suffering and the redemption of all things, we know that Jesus meets us in suffering. For Jean-Charles, this has meant identifying more with Jesus’ ministry, where no one asked him about work-life balance. His ministry, family, and friendships were deeply intertwined, and he found rest, comfort, and direction from God in the midst of the beauty, turmoil, and tragedy of his mission on Earth. Jean-Charles noted that, “The pandemic helped to dissolve the line between professor and parent in my life. And I hope to carry that forward.”
Being honest with God, asking ourselves what we can do, and identifying with the experiences of Christ can draw us into the here and now with Jesus — helping us experience Emmanuel — God with us in all things.
Image by Alyssa Sieb at Nappy.