The world has been humbled by COVID-19. What originally seemed like a virus local only to China is now a global pandemic. It’s serious, and, in light of Italy’s death toll, it makes me think we’re living out the plot of Albert Camus’ “The Plague.”
COVID-19 has me standing between fear and hope, oscillating daily between that natural, emotional response to danger and that theological assurance that all shall be well. At some point each day I get worried, mainly for the health of my grandmothers back in New York. The fact of the matter is we’re all vulnerable, some more than others.
Two weeks ago, my wife and I left for Ireland to spend our school’s spring break with her family. We traveled knowing that Italy and China were in the throngs of this virus. Our plans of going away for a night, drinking creamy pints of Guinness, spending time with friends and family...all of it came to a halt. Everything in Ireland was quickly put on hold. All stores —“shops” as they’re called abroad — were shut. Pubs, hotels, restaurants, cafes, Churches, gyms, malls...all closed. We self-isolated at her family’s home in the country, away from densely-populated Dublin. Outside of the morning walk at a nearby park, we basically took a two-week vow of stability, having lots more leisure time than usual.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” over the past week. Its message seems timely for those of us at home in self-isolation. In his book, Pieper attempts to recover the original meaning of leisure. In the ancient and medieval sense, leisure is not mere loafing around, mindlessly amusing ourselves in front of pathetic screens; rather, leisure is a profound silence, a still, openness of the soul to God and the world. Leisure, says Pieper, “is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.”
Following the commands of health officials, my self-isolation has given me, and I’m sure others, more time for leisure. Many of us have found ourselves at home, hopefully with our families, with time on our side.
I’ve been wondering where Christ is in the midst of this pandemic. Perhaps Christ is in the leisure time we now have. It’s tempting to squander away this newfound time with aimless amusements, but now we have time to pray and be silent. “Attend” a live-streamed Mass. Read one of St. Paul’s letters. Pray the rosary. Open a spiritual classic like Augustine’s “Confessions,” or something more contemporary like Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain.”
With all this leisure time, it would do our anxious hearts good to open ourselves contemplatively to Christ.
Let this be very clear: God did not cause this natural evil, but He can bring about a greater good from it. Salvation history has seen pestilence and plagues. Now is no different.
May those of us at home, with time on our hands, be abundantly blessed by Christ during this pandemic.
Dan McQuillan teaches in the Humanities Department at Portsmouth Abbey School. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from St. John’s University.