You asked me how I’m doing.
To be honest, I am not sure how to answer that. There is so much I could write. Where should I begin? 2020 has been a veritable whirlwind of a year… I almost wrote a litany of recent crises to attest to this fact, but you do not need me to rehearse all the nonsense that has occurred. You already know about it. We are both caught in the same storm.
Suffice it so say, for a start, that I am tired. Almost all the time. No matter how much rest I get, I am tired. No matter how much tea or coffee I drink, I am tired. To make matters worse, it seems that the only moments when I am not tired are the very moments when I am trying to fall asleep at night. What cruel trick is this? Perhaps you can relate. Who knew that quarantine could be so exhausting?
As you know, my own proximal situation is relatively safe. I am in a good home, with good parents, a good sister, and good pets. We are privileged enough—financially and vocationally—to avoid exposure to the virus, which means we can weather the prevailing storm in relative peace. We live in a pleasant, quiet neighborhood in which I have had the joy of many pleasant, quiet walks. And in addition to walking, I pass my days practicing guitar, drinking tea, listening to audiobooks, playing video games, lifting weights, and enjoying contemplative eye-contact with my relentlessly affectionate and slightly wheezy cat, Piper. It is not a bad existence, as existences go. Indeed, people around the world are living through the current crisis in all manner of circumstances, and I have no doubt that my own circumstances are better than many, or even most, others.
Yet even I have felt so much potent, negative emotion these past four months. In March, I dealt with the shock and grief of a school year cut short, of unexpected and rushed goodbyes with graduating friends that heralded the beginning of a new age of distance. Throughout April and May, I alternated between deep depression and sheer, confounding numbness. In June, I endured some of the worst anxiety I have experienced to date: what I can only describe as a sustained, low-boil panic attack across five or six days, which destroyed both my appetite and my will to do anything more than stuff my ears with alternative rock music.
Fortunately, all of that has passed, thanks to numerous phone calls with my saintly therapist and numerous facetime sessions with friends who indulge me far more than they need to. Now, in July, I am trekking through what feels like an emotional moor: it is not, by any means, a wasteland, but it is rather uninteresting. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It is neither dull nor sharp. It just… is. I am tempted to use a word like acedia or ennui to describe my current state, but those words feel too substantive, too philosophical. Whatever I am feeling is more understated, more elusive. It is frustrating not to be able to articulate this emotion more precisely, but whatever it is, I prefer it to the depression and anxiety. So, I trek on, somewhat perplexed by what I find in my head, but no longer afraid of it.
An unexpected blessing in all this: at a time when so much feels static or slowed down, my own vocational discernment has been able to progress without a hitch. You may remember that right before the pandemic hit, I had just officially begun the long process of becoming a priest. To my own pleasant surprise, that process has continued over the summer, even though everything else seems to have come to a halt. Thanks to digital resources like Zoom, I have been able to continue meetings with my sponsoring priest and with the committee of community members who are guiding me through my vocational discernment. Those meetings have gone well, and the process seems to be moving forward. What a wonderful gift!
It is, however, a strange time to be pursuing priestly ordination. A huge part of my desire to become a priest is my desire to celebrate Holy Eucharist, one of the central, communal rituals of Christian tradition—and yet, because of the pandemic, I have not actually participated in a Eucharist since early March. This means that for most of this recent period of discernment, I have been unable to participate in the very ritual that drives me toward the priesthood. Therefore, my vocational reflection has been colored by a particular experience of sacramental and communal deprivation, and I think that deprivation has taught me some lessons I might not have otherwise learned.
For instance, I am reassessing what it means to be “alone with God.” Silent, solitary prayer has been a central aspect of my spirituality for years now, but until recently, it has always been balanced by prayer that happens vocally, in communal worship. There is something Biblical in this balance, I think. The Christ who tells us to pray secretly, in the solitude of our inner room, with the door closed, is the same Christ who assures us of Incarnational Presence when we are gathered together in groups. It is as if there are two poles in Christian spirituality: a pole of communal engagement and a pole of solitary contemplation. Normally, these poles sustain one another.
But now, in-person communal worship is largely impossible, and spiritual “gatherings” are limited to platforms like Zoom. To be clear, I enjoy the connection that the internet can provide, but in the long run, such connection is no viable substitute for the energy and vitality of a physical gathering in an actual church space. For me, the normal balance is gone. Quiet, prayerful solitude—once an anchoring pole of my spiritual practice—is now the core of my spiritual practice, whether I like it or not.
Of course, there have been many dedicated eremitic saints in the history of the Church, whose lives are a testament to the power of persistent alone-time with God; but my current hermit-hood is circumstantial, not vocational. In my case, I have found that quiet, prayerful solitude suits me very well on some days, but very poorly on others.
I have also recently noticed that my sense of what passes as “prayerful” solitude has expanded. Earlier this summer I committed to chanting the entire schedule of monastic prayers by myself, every day, as a substitute for the communal liturgies I would have experienced regularly if not for the pandemic. For a little over a month, this practice went well. I occasionally missed a service here or there, but for the most part I kept up with all the readings and chanted through the entire psalter. It was a powerful experience of solitary prayer, and I hope that someday I may regain the energy necessary to try it again. But in recent weeks, my motivation to maintain the rigor of the monastic schedule has waned.
These days, I find that my most prayerful moments of quiet solitude lack much of the outward form of religious ritual. In the past, prayer has visited me as I sang psalms or spoke the ancient collects of my liturgical tradition. Now, prayer ambushes me unawares, when I am quietly eating some oatmeal, or staring at the moon on a midnight walk, or listening to the crickets. And then, prayer abandons me as quickly as it came. After those fleeting moments, I am left only with the desire for deeper prayer, a desire heightened by prayer’s deprivation; yet perhaps there is cause for hope even in that experience, since the desire for prayer is itself already a form of prayer. Perhaps it is as if the end of prayer is the beginning of a quietly ravenous hunger, which is a deeper prayer, a prayer of longing, beyond words. Is it the Holy Spirit, sighing?
The last thing I will share with you is an observation of paradox: namely, that in recent months I have increasingly noticed movement in stasis; life despite death; new beginnings birthed from old ends. When quarantine first began, it felt to me like everything was coming to a standstill, like the entire world was pausing itself, holding its breath through the burgeoning cataclysm. But I quickly came to realize that this was a false perception: that, actually, life very much continues, even now—differently, but still stubbornly, and with all its vibrant force and all its terror and confusion.
I think this is true both at the level of my individual experience and at the level of our civilization and culture. In the loneliness of my current spiritual desert, I have discovered a new kind of connection, a broadened understanding of my own relationship to Christ through prayer. And out of the darkness of this strange time, we as a people have witnessed the resplendent light of desperately needed social movements and long-awaited political reckoning, breaking forth across our country like a searing, purifying dawn. And despite the supposed stasis of quarantine, I think we (or at least I) am recognizing that the journey very much continues; that there is movement down life’s road, even when it does not feel like we are moving anywhere. This last metaphor reminds me of some words written by T.S. Eliot, that preeminent poet-prophet, in Four Quartets. I can never hope to write of the paradox of our chaotic time as beautifully as he wrote of the paradox of his. But I can leave you with his words, as a final testament to how I am doing:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated Of dead and living. Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before and after, But a lifetime burning in every moment And not the lifetime of one man only But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. There is a time for evening under starlight, A time for the evening under lamplight (The evening with the photograph album). Love is most nearly itself When here and now cease to matter. Old men ought to be explorers Here and there does not matter We must be still and still moving Into another intensity For a further union, a deeper communion Through the dark cold and the empty desolation, The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning. 1
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a senior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.
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|1.||↑||From the end of “East Coker,” Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot.|