Pandemic Discoveries

Photo by Severas.

Anniversaries are often a mixed bag of joys, surprises, and regrets, as well as a time for reflection on what has changed since the last anniversary. On March 22, 2021, I realized that it had been a year since the pandemic required us to stop our usual gathering for worship at the meetinghouse of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and begin observing the CDC guidelines for pandemic lockdown. At the time of this one-year anniversary, I celebrated that many in our meeting were vaccinated and in good health. 

In worship sharing at the end of 2020, a small group in our religious education class had reflected on the year with queries addressing unexpected joys, things we learned about ourselves, hope-giving observations about those around us, and something new we tried during the year. I appreciated these queries and enjoyed sharing my reflections and hearing from the other Friends who were present that day. In daily journaling afterwards, the questions continued to guide me to deeper truth. 

Worship on Zoom

At the top of my list of truly unexpected joys was meeting for worship on Zoom. Our meeting began Sunday morning worship on Zoom on March 22, after missing only a single First Day. Despite my initial doubt that I could possibly find looking at a computer screen worshipful, I haven’t missed a meeting on Zoom. 

Over the last several years, I had avoided the computer, cell phones, and all electronic connections on Sunday in order to “keep Sabbath.” But what I discovered after the first few months of the pandemic was that although I rarely felt deeply centered in the way that I had when worshiping in our meetinghouse, I was grateful to see the faces of beloved friends and to feel held by this community in an online environment. When I struggled to settle, I offered a prayer of thanks for each face and name. I came to think of this hour of worship on Zoom as a hard walk up a steep trail, one step at a time and with frequent stops for rest. Isaac Penington’s advice became a mantra: “Give over thine own willing; give over thy own running.” And when I repeated those words, I could rest in the Spirit and open to the help I needed.

The need to spend more time meeting family and friends online instead of face-to-face continues to be a challenge—one that has helped me remember that I like challenges, and am resilient. Even with eye strain and headaches from the glare of the screen, I looked forward to staying connected this way. And I am grateful for the ability to meet online, realizing this is a privilege that many are denied.

Gratitude and Grief

It is a strange paradox, that when we are open to deep gratitude for what we have now, we see more clearly what we have lost. Even as we adapt and compensate with connections by phone, email, or Zoom meetings, we feel the loss of the physical energy that we exchange in hugs, handshakes, or just a touch. Living with uncertainty about what was safe presented a special kind of loss. How do I protect myself and others?

I’ve been thinking about how I learned to grieve, and how I am relearning those lessons now. Like many others, I was taught to be grateful for what I have but not taught to grieve loss. “Count your blessings,” my mother said, and her favorite Bible verse was “A merry heart does good like a medicine” (Prov. 17:22). My father believed that God does not ask nor require more than we are able to bear. 

I was in high school when my father died, and 25 when my mother died; both died from heart attacks. At age 25, I was married with a young daughter and working on a master’s degree in counseling. A few months after my mother’s death, I was in a psychology class when I heard the professor say, “Life is a series of losses.” I was stunned by the truth of this simple and profound statement.

Life is a series of losses, and grief is the price we pay for love. Healing is a process that may never feel complete, because we are all individual threads woven into a web of family and community that holds us, and loss leaves a hole in this web. Grieving helps us honor and mend the torn places, but some holes may remain. The process of grieving is like kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold or precious metal, transforming the broken pot into one that is unique and beautiful: highlighting, not hiding, the broken places. When I embrace my loss and the resulting imperfection, I create an even stronger, more beautiful life of courage and resilience.

Strangers Are Neighbors

When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor”? he told the story of the Good Samaritan. As a child in my Southern Baptist church, I was taught that Jesus called us to see our neighbors as those in need, whether or not they lived nearby, looked like us, or practiced our religion.

What gives me hope now are the many stories of good Samaritans during this year of COVID-19: daily news about people giving time, food, money, blood, and plasma donations. Volunteers hand out food from food banks to people in long lines of cars. The Freedge Movement is a grassroots effort to fight food insecurity through neighborhood refrigerators used to share food. There are many examples like these in the news, and they have been a needed counter to the daily death toll. This pandemic crisis, like 9/11 and other disasters, has helped many of us see beyond the boundaries of our own community and become more generous and willing to do our part. We all depend on the kindness of strangers.

Growing Where We’re Planted

A recent May morning reminded me of a past walk with friends in the Burren, looking for spring wildflowers along the rocky west coast of Ireland. It was a cold, windy morning, and I wondered how this dry, hilly ground could be a home for wildflowers. Then we found a tiny, lavender-blue gentian growing out of a narrow crevice in a rock. What an unexpected joy to see a flower like that thriving in such harsh conditions! I wondered what allowed it to grow. 

Looking more closely, I noticed that the crevice in the rock provided shelter from the constant wind. I realized that it was the wind that had blown seed and soil into this opening in the rock. The same opening had allowed in enough sun and rain to encourage growth. While at first glance it seemed that the gentian had grown there in spite of these harsh conditions, in fact it had grown because these natural forces had provided all that was needed. As our morning walk continued we found other wildflowers, confirming this was a field of many that could be seen, if you were willing to slow down and look for what was easily hidden.

The pandemic year forced me to slow down and look more closely at the space around me, my home and neighborhood within a daily two-mile walk. I discovered that slowing down and looking more closely allowed me to see much that I’ve missed in the 27 years I’ve lived here. Like the gentian, I grew this year, not only despite challenges but because those same challenges encouraged growth, and I found the resources I needed to find another way. I’m grounded in the faith that my father taught me: God does not ask more than we are able to bear.

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and former clerk of the meeting. She shared Quaker beliefs and practices through the FGC Traveling Ministry Program and as director of Decision Bridges. She currently works as a spiritual nurturer for Quaker Voluntary Service. Find her previously published articles in the Friends Journal archive. Contact: [email protected].

5 thoughts on “Pandemic Discoveries

  1. Lovley reflection.
    This is not a criticism, it’s just a pet annoyance I have.
    Sunday is not the Sabbath. Saturday is. Early Christians chose the first day of the week (Sunday) to be their common day of gathering because it represented a New Beginning (Resurrection). Christians rejected the Jewish seventh day (Sabbath) in favour of the first day (Sunday).
    So, the Muslims have Friday, the Jews Saturday and the Christians Sunday. The Sabbath and all the beauty it represents is not Christian. It’s an apporpriation of something that is not ours and demeaning to Jewish culture.
    Peace.

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