There have been a few moments in recent weeks when this coronavirus experience suddenly hit me in a deeper way. We’re funny, humans. So one of us was when Amazon put books on the bottom of our priority list. Bookish type that I am, that is what Amazon is for me: books. And I’ve had a whole new rediscovery of those boo stores and distributors I used to rely on before Amazon made things so simple. I’m thinking I really shouldn’t go back. Aren’t we all having a renewed appreciation for the smaller businesses in our lives and the people behind them, and the lives they try to help make possible, even in such difficult circumstances?
Of course, there have been more serious moments. Woman can live without Amazon Prime overnight delivery of a new book. There was when I realized I’d have to go into isolation because of likely direct exposure to the virus. An introvert’s dream isn’t really so much of a dream when it’s dished out with all the anxieties of the moment. But all these realizations come with tremendous gratitude. A fever seems to come and go. (As far as I can tell, thermometers are not to be had in the Northeast, for those who do not plan ahead, as far as I can tell from where I’m hunkering down.)
Surprisingly, though, I was most rattled when I read about a cruise ship of passengers who are not getting off any time soon. The name of the boat sounded remarkably familiar: Holland America’s Zaandam. I was on it less than a year ago. As sometimes happens in the lives of non-planners, it was a remarkable gift. It was one of the fundraising cruises we at National Review often take with some of our wonderful readers who like to come and spend time talking about the issues of the day with some of their favorite writers. It’s really a privilege to get to talk with some of you! That, needless, to say, doesn’t happen every day and on these cruises — it happens for a week undisrupted. And the bonus, for not the first time on one of these journeys, is that the cruise was the very beginning of a tremendously renewing religious pilgrimage. Not 15 minutes from the Montreal airport. I visited the church that holds the earthly remains of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Mohawk convert who has always been close to my heart.
Montreal is a city of some closed churches, of some churches that may be more tourist attractions than places of worship, but it has them all the same. And some are extraordinary. This Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, I couldn’t go to Mass — a reality that is so foreign to me, someone who normally goes to Mass daily, wherever I am traveling — but I was brought back in prayer to my visit to the Saint Joseph Oratory in Montreal, right before I boarded the Zaandam. The oratory is a veritable fortress of prayer and includes the earthly remains of St. Andre Bessett (from the same religious order that runs Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.). It wraps you in a warm fatherly love, it imparts a confidence about trusting in the love of God, a Heavenly Father who will not abandon us. Is there a message that could be more helpful right now, as we look for hope beyond this moment? As we want to believe that there is a purpose to the suffering experienced by the people on the front lines of this plague? In Montreal, too, as I intimated, I also encountered the shedding of religion, watching others experience the Notre Dame basilica there as a tourist attraction. (I believe the organ was playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while I was there, seemingly catering to exactly that audience, instead of elevating all hearts and minds who enter there to seek things that are above.)
Once we got on the Zaandam, we sailed to Quebec City, which had me tripping over the graves of saints whom I had come to encounter at a conference not so long ago on the rich Catholic faith of the Americas, the fruits of missionary labors. Quebec City is like nothing I’ve ever experienced outside of Europe. I don’t know how devout it remains, but it certainly is impossible to miss its Christian heritage as you trip over the tombs of saints, including François de Laval and Marie of the Incarnation.
Anyway, as all of these memories flooded in, I prayed that somehow the little pilgrimage some of the Christians on the ship experienced as we were about to set sail had laid a groundwork for healing — while, in some of those very rooms where we had slept, people today might be living a kind of prison experience, unlike what they had hoped for when booking the cruise. I thought of the long-suffering staff on the ship — some of the hardest, self-sacrificial workers, devoted to their families, living in what are far from luxurious sleeping quarters during these months-long assignments.
This is all to say: This time for so many of us, having to “shelter in place,” which means a severe isolation for some, really ought to be a time for reflection about who we are and who we want to be. Are we self-pitying in our inability to have things the way we like? Or are we growing in gratitude for the blessings we’ve had and still have in our lives? Are we reaching out to others, taking all the precautions called for, or are we turning inward? And if we are people who believe in something more, what are we doing about that? Are we getting to know God better and what He wants for us? Because when we disembark from this crisis, we want to be living differently, don’t we? As people renewed in hope and gratitude for the gift of life? And as we experience suffering and death, even from afar, we always want to be beacons of love. America could certainly use some more saints, after all.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.