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Rich lessons to be learned from an unsought sabbatical

Fr Ronald Rolheiser explains why we must show love to others throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 1985, Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published a novel entitled Love in the Time of Cholera. It tells a colourful story of how life can still be generative, despite an epidemic.

What is besetting our world right now is not cholera but the coronavirus. Nothing in my lifetime has affected the whole world as radically as this virus.

Whole countries have shut down, virtually all schools and colleges have sent their students home, we’re discouraged from going out of our houses and from inviting others into them, and we’ve been asked not to touch each other and to practice ‘social distancing’. Ordinary, normal time has stopped.

We’re in a season that no generation has experienced, perhaps since the Spanish flu of 1918. Furthermore, we don’t foresee an end to this situation soon.

Exit strategy

No one, neither government nor doctors, have an exit strategy. No one knows when this will end or how. Hence, like the inhabitants on Noah’s Ark, we’re locked in and don’t know when the flood waters will recede and let us return to our normal lives.

How should we live in this extraordinary time? Well, I had a private tutorial on this some nine years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, underwent surgery for a resection, and then was subjected to 24 weeks of chemotherapy.

Facing the uncertainty of what the chemotherapy would be doing to my body I was understandably scared. Moreover, 24 weeks is basically half a year and contemplating the length of time that I would be in this ‘abnormal’ season in my life, I was also impatient.

Pulling through

I wanted this over with, quickly. So I faced it like I face most setbacks in my life, stoically, with the attitude: “I’ll get through this! I’ll endure it!”

I keep what might euphemistically be termed a journal, though it’s really more of a daybook which simply chronicles what I do each day and who and what enters my life. When I stoically began my first chemotherapy session I began checking off days in my journal: day one, followed by day two.

I had done the maths and knew that it would take 168 days to get through the twelve chemo sessions, spaced two weeks apart. It went on like this for the first 70 or so days, with me checking off a number each day, holding my life and my breath, everything on hold until I could finally write ‘Day 168.’

Awakening

Then one day, about half way through the 24 weeks, I had an awakening. I don’t know what triggered it—a grace from Above, a gesture of friendship, the feel of the sun on my body, the wonderful taste of a cold drink, perhaps all of these things—but I woke up to the fact that I was putting my life on hold.

I wasn’t really living but only enduring each day in order check it off and eventually reach that magical 168th day when I could start living again. I realised that I was wasting a season of my life.

Moreover, I realised that what I was living through was sometimes rich precisely because of the impact of chemotherapy in my life. That realisation remains one of the special graces in my life. My spirits lifted radically even as the chemotherapy continued to do the same brutal things to my body.

Richness

I began to welcome each day for its freshness, its richness, for what it brought into my life. I look back now and see those three last months (before day 168) as one of richest seasons of my life.

I made some lifelong friends, I learned some lessons in patience that I still try to cling to and, not least, I learned some long-overdue lessons in gratitude and appreciation, in not taking life, health, friendship, and work for granted. It was a special joy to return to a normal life after those 168 days of conscripted ‘sabbatical’, but those ‘sabbatical’ days were special too.

The coronavirus has put us all, in effect, on a conscripted sabbatical and it’s subjecting those who have contracted it to their own type of chemotherapy.

Lives on hold

The danger is that we will put our lives on hold as we go through this extraordinary time and will just endure rather than let ourselves be graced by what lies within this uninvited season.

Yes, there will be frustration and pain in living this through, but that’s not incompatible with happiness. Paul Tournier, after he’d lost his wife, did some deep grieving but then integrated that grief into a new life in a way that allowed him to write: “I can truly say that I have a great grief and that I am a happy man.” Words to ponder as we struggle with this coronavirus.

—Fr Ronald Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Visit www.ronrolheiser.com

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