By Anne Millington
The coronavirus has destroyed our feelings of safety and security. We fear for our country, our work, our families, our health. We dream of life once we get “through this,” knowing full well that life has changed forever. Indeed, as Lawrence Wright recently noted in The New Yorker, the Black Death, the Spanish flu and other plagues and pandemics all ushered in profound social change. As we live through today’s coronavirus pandemic, we see similar profound changes unfolding around us.
But life is continuing, and it is transforming into something new. If we had been in a caterpillar stage before the virus hit, we are now chrysalises. Our insides have begun to dissolve and create the fluids that will become the wings and body of the butterfly. Indeed, our insides have become what Kathleen A. Brehony, author of Awakening at Midlife, calls “caterbutter stew.”
This place is unsettling, even downright scary. Life as we knew it has melted down and dissolved, and the future appears murky and uncertain. We grieve the life form we have left behind, and we fear for the future.
Perhaps more difficult, this place can also feel barren. As chaplains, we are called to live examined lives, to reflect theologically on life around us. Distracted and anxious, it may be hard to pray, let alone offer spiritual insight and direction for others. But we are not alone; fiction writers today are experiencing distraction and writer’s block. As Clea Simon wrote in The Boston Globe, “For many writers, the subconscious, where so much plotting and character-building happens, has been taken over by a silent screaming panic.” Poets, too, have difficulty during these distracted, nervous and fearful times. A colleague recently quoted William Wordsworth, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
And yet, as chaplains, we remain called to accompany others during this time, even as our insides are caterbutter stew. Those of us in hospitals put on our masks and our face shields and do our best to be present to the sick, the terrified and the dying. Those of us working from home faithfully make our phone calls, doing our best to offer messages of hope and healing to patients and their loved ones. We are needed more than ever, as behavioral health-related admissions are growing, stress-related cardiac situations are on the rise, and staff are more fatigued and worried.
Lately, I have been praying that God will hold me together on the outside when I feel shaky on the inside. That God will continue to give me the strength to serve and to comfort during this time when traditional spiritual supports and gatherings have been postponed or replaced by Zoom calls and webinars. When prayer may seem brittle and rote, when meditation feels mired in distraction, I pray that God will strengthen me from the outside in.
Indeed, I am choosing to trust in a God whose goodness does not depend on my efforts at all. I am choosing to trust in God’s strength rather than in my own. As I walk the corridors of both hospital and life, I seek to draw hope from Psalm 131: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child I am content. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.”
All things pass, even pandemics, and someday we will emerge from our collective chrysalis into a new world with a new social order. Some things will be lost, some things will be found. I pray that I will bear witness to how God kept my outsides strong and my walk faithful, and I pray that we will all emerge with a deeper trust in God’s healing transformation.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.