Covid: Up Close and Parochial


In the development  of any relationship, it is fruitful on occasion to take stock.  Ignatius of Loyola counsels something similar with respect to one’s current spiritual state.

Take a look, he says, at its beginning, middle and end before making any premature conclusions or judgements. It would be nice to announce that I’ve come to the end of my relationship with Covid-19. That, however, depends less on my own assessment than on the WHO’s.

So for now, I can only examine the head and midriff of Covid and me. Maybe this will not be entirely fruitless, so long as I reserve for later final conclusions.

For the first few months in Corona World, the virus was pretty much an abstraction for me. None of my acquaintances had it, nor had any of their familiars. While the media was a wet, heavy sponge supersaturated with catastrophe, my immediate milieu was one of calm and peace.

In fact, the pandemic introduced itself to me as a generous fellow, increasing my tranquility by reducing the traffic thunder on the highway out front of my house. Thanks to the closure of Loyola House, site of my professional obligations, I was able to dedicate most of my time to working Ignatius Farm.

Since long before the discovery of my religious vocation I enjoyed agriculture as my avocation, this personal back-to-the-land movement felt like a return to neglected roots.

During this beginning of our relationship, I looked at the novel corona virus optimistically. As did others, I sensed Mother Earth stretching her beautiful limbs after decades of forced confinement. Air and waterways were clearing. Consumption was down.

Animals were emboldened to take up residence again in the homes from which they had been unlawfully evicted. The pandemic held promise. The farm was fun. There was a little more time to play guitar.

The soap-bubble abstraction hit the wall of concrete reality on May 2. I was asked to join a growing team of volunteers to help stop the staffing gaps opened up by a Covid outbreak in Rene Goupil, the Jesuit infirmary in Pickering.

The request induced the most agonizing day I’ve known since the world locked down. Fully convinced of the essential importance of food security now more than ever, I very painfully decided to ditch my commitment to the farm in favor of my plagued brothers.

Optics, I am not proud to comfess, helped grease the decision. I didn’t want to appear a coward and didn’t particularly mind looking a little heroic.

Suddenly, my Covid-free privacy became populated with all kinds of cases. No sooner had I walked into the infirmary than the fourth Jesuit died of the disease. Thus was I thrust into a realm that drained a good deal of the abstract optimism I had been cultivating away on the farm.

First, I observed up close the homicidal force of Covid. While most of its Jesuit victims escaped with their lives, others were butchered quickly, passing in three short days from lucid and indepedent to breatheless and dead.

Added to this was the fright of  witnessing Covid’s ecocidal rage as well. During my three week sojourn in Pickering, I’ve created more garbage than I had in the previous two years. Gloves, gowns, masks, disposable cups, plates, cling wrap, sterile wipes etc., excruciating etc., all had momentary contact with my body before being eternally damned to the dump.

The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) protocols in place to protect me and others in the infirmary hurled me into an existential crisis. Followed them I did, but not without a grief as deep as global injustice.

Here we all were changing gloves and single-use isolation gowns after visiting each and every resident, often after only a thirty second exchange in his room. Meanwhile, in countless barrios, favelas, refugee camps and field hospitals around the world,  people go without even the most minimal of protection.

Surgical gloves would be gold to them, and here they amounted to bags of hazardous medical waste. Outside of the abstraction, I watched Covid concretely reinforce the disaster of global disparity.

Here I am still as I write this…on the torturer’s rack of loving and wanting to serve those dear and spatially close to me, knowing at the same time that in a world of huge demand, our draw on the global supply of medical equipment, food and other goods jeopardizes others.

Attending to the real, daily needs of my brother Jesuits in the infirmary gave me graces and friendships I’ll not soon forget. At the same time, I felt myself slipping involuntarily into a parochialism of the here and now that could not contain the more universal suffering distributed unequally by the pandemic.

As households, communities, provinces and nations struggle to safeguard their own people, how do we overcome a very natural myopia, limiting us to the needs at hand, blinding us to those beyond arm’s length?

Because we’re not at the end, I haven’t any conclusive solution to this grievous problem. To complicate matters, the incisive words of Thomas Berry keep ringing in my ears: “you can’t have healthy people on a sick planet”. A medical response that sickens the ecosystem with waste can only be a desperate  emergency measure, not a sustainable procedure.

Here too we have to exit our parochialism to enter the wider world of what Pope Francis calls integral   ecology.  Let us keep all this in mind as our relationships with Covid continue to unfold.

Greg Kennedy, SJ is assigned to the spiritual exercises ministry at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. Novalis will publish Greg's book - “Reupholstered Psalms” - on March 1, 2020.

  • Margaret Powell
    Posted at 12:58h, 30 July Reply

    Well said and much “food for thought”. There doesn’t seem to be “a right answer”.

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 13:53h, 30 July Reply

    Thank you for the moving, incisive reflections, and for bridging the local to the global. Now I know what “integral ecology” means.

  • Hilary Jenkins
    Posted at 21:27h, 30 July Reply

    Thanks Greg for your perspective. I have a ton to say about all of this (as you well know), but best to be brief and use the Eastern monarch’s words…”and this too shall pass away”.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 07:40h, 31 July Reply

    Thank you very much Greg!

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