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Love in the time of corona

Words of wisdom and faith from Institute chaplains

Last Monday, life was B.C.-19 (Before COVID-19). I ran with the MIT running club along the Charles River at sunset, then joined the weekly Addir interfaith meeting. My small group of seven MIT students called “Metaphysical Mandrakes” discussed religion as a source of strength in crisis and parted with “see you next week.”

Last Tuesday marked A.C.-19 in Cambridge as Harvard and MIT began evacuating. As a chaplain intern at MIT and a residential proctor at Harvard, I have felt the brunt of ensuing disappointment, anxiety, and apocalyptic revelry. I wanted to assure my students that all would be well. My students read me headline after headline, and I wished I could shield them. I wrote on social media that our reactions to crises reflect who we are, but I feared my own reactions.

While I hear scientists’ advice to flatten the curve, I aspire to care for souls as a seminarian. So I began praying for tranquility. I reached out to my family, friends, and partner who sustain me, and turned to running, music, and drinks that rejuvenate me. I also perused history, and learned that Isaac Newton hit his “year of wonders” and discovered gravity while he was social distancing from the Black Death at the University of Cambridge.

Last week, I also knocked on the doors of the Institute’s 24 chaplains from a smorgasbord of religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions. Several chaplains volunteered to help students move boxes last weekend, and some even offered their homes and cars in addition to their hands and ears. In Christianity, the earliest scriptures were epistles. So consider these excerpted emails sacred gifts from your chaplains, who will continue holding worship services, meditations, and office hours virtually this spring.

“The COVID-19 virus is one of those many challenges that don’t stop at the borders, and require us to develop new capacities for cooperative action at all levels,” wrote the Baha’i chaplain Brian Aull. “Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of our faith, states, ‘The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ The human family now, he teaches, is in a turbulent period of adolescence out of which will emerge its collective coming of age — a world civilization.”

“I know we'll have a lot to learn from this pandemic, especially about the injustices — the sinful patterns we allow and perpetuate in our society — that determine who has access to healthcare, and who is left without a safety net,” wrote the Episcopal chaplain Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas. “But for now, I am trying to focus on the ways that we can show God's goodness. We can sacrifice our own freedom, comfort, and plans to reduce the spread of the disease and protect the people.”

“The more vulnerable we feel, the more anxious we get. To get out of the vicious loop, we need to deal positively with our anxiety. A verse from the Pañcadaśī is a helpful reminder,” wrote the Hindu chaplain Swami Tyagananda. “‘What will not happen will not happen. What will happen will happen — this knowledge destroys the poison of anxiety and removes all delusion. This is not fatalism. There is nothing any of us can do more than our best.”

“As we come out of an amazing Purim, a holiday all about joy, we should not have our spirits hampered by the news of MIT. There is a well-known Jewish axiom, ‘Happiness breaks down all boundaries,’” wrote the Jewish chaplain Rabbi Menachem Altein. “We encourage you to find ways to take this unexpected time away from the Institute to meditate and focus on what brings you genuine happiness.”

“I find the strength to face the challenges posed by COVID-19 from my congregation, Old Cambridge Baptist Church, which will imagine creative methods of cultivating community,” wrote Rev. Cody Sanders who serves as a LGBTQ+ advisor at MIT. “My own approach to COVID-19 involves three things: social responsibility to our larger community, caring for those adversely affected by xenophobia and loneliness, and approaching the disruption with curiosity toward what we might learn.”

“Lutheranism arose first as a Christian response to the widespread fear and sense of loss felt by people during a plague in Europe,” wrote the Lutheran chaplain Rev. Andrew Heisen. “At the core of Luther's faith was his discovery in reading the Holy Scriptures as the life-changing grace of God. We live in the hands of a God whose life-giving power and goodness is greater than the death and chaos that we fear.”

“Weighing in on my Muslim tradition, I have found the last few days to be humbling. I think of how much control each one of us imagines having over our affairs and how one tiny microscopic manifestation of creation has stripped us from that,” wrote the Muslim Chaplain Nada Miqdadi El-Alami. “It may be that God wants to shake us, to wake us up, or to inspire us to remember who has real control and dominion over all.”

“When we say our prayers with our kids each night, two of the prayers are short Zoroastrian prayers sung in an ancient Persian language,” wrote the Zoroastrian chaplain Daryush Mehta. “To make it easy for our kids to remember, we distill the prayers into two central guideposts: ‘Be good. Every day.’ and ‘Help people. Every day.’ In the current climate of uncertainty and fear, I find it helpful to keep reminding ourselves of these two simple, yet powerful, tenets.”

This column owes its title to Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Márquez who wrote Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985, and it would be remiss to neglect his Nobel wisdom. His protagonists Florentina and Fermina fall in love in youth and exchange passionate love letters after Fermina’s parents separate them. Fermina eventually marries Urbino, a physician committed to eradicating cholera. While releasing his pet parrot from his mango tree, however, Urbino slips from his ladder and dies. After half a century apart, Florentina and Fermina reunite in love.

So if Corona separates you from your loved ones, respond with letters. “It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience,” writes Marquez. “It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.” So Love, love and love, for love is more viral than Corona.

J.Y. Lee is a chaplain intern with MIT’s Addir Fellows Interfaith Program.