Two weeks ago, my incoming PhD student emailed me to tell me she found herself unexpectedly pregnant, and she hoped I was still willing to take her on despite that. A few days later, I found out my second masters student was going through a flareup of a serious mental health condition. The first mentions of moving classes online after break also came through my inbox. As spring break began, I waited anxiously to find out what would happen with classes and binge-watched TV while fretting too much and praying too little. Last Wednesday, in the middle of the chaos of unpacking from a move, the university notified us that they’d decided to move classes online after break. Friday, we were informed only essential undergraduate research could continue in the lab. Yesterday, I found out no on-campus undergraduate research is allowed and we’re being encouraged to work from home. I suspect the university will be entirely shut down soon. I will not be doing any of the research I had planned for this spring. Soon, I may not even be walking to campus and enjoying the peace, quiet, and plants in my office.
In the middle of the chaos, I have begun to sense a pattern — my plans being upended and replaced. Why? I don’t know, but I am trying to be still and listen. While I have mourned the loss of my favorite parts of my job (teaching face to face, mentoring, research), tried frantically to cling onto the remaining bits, and struggled to acclimate to a constantly-changing reality, I have begun to pray through the experience as well. I am reading through Thomas à Kempis’s On the Passion of the Christ and I am constantly reminded of how I flee from suffering when Christ sought it out of love for us.
When I am not focused on my own losses, I have also spent a lot of time thinking and a little time praying through what a Christian response to the coronavirus looks like, too. Is it wrong to go to work, where I have very little contact with anyone, in order to boost my mental health and escape from home? Is it wrong for me to host my small group of dear saints over 65 years old for Sunday worship to cheer their hearts? What about inviting some of the students left behind in the dorms over to give them a respite from the deserted campus and boxed dinners? Should I do only one? Both? Neither? On a more mundane note, am I washing my hands enough? Buying too many groceries? Too few? What measures are fear and panic and what wisdom? I don’t know. Sometimes, I don’t even know that there are right answers. But, as Thomas à Kempis would note, looking at the face of the crucified Christ is the remedy for all ills, for it provides perspective on our own fears and suffering, while also reminding us of the compassion of Christ for our frailty.