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Musings from a Jesuit in Community Quarantine

By Fr. Ted Penton, SJ

March 19, 2020 — My first night in quarantine I didn’t sleep great. Or rather, I slept okay but woke up at 4am — which is not my preferred time by a long shot — with the new shared reality of our community and world on my mind.

Fr. Ted's window looks out at the Gonzaga clock. Happily it doesn’t chime at night, but it does make it difficult to nap, he says.

After listening to the very good “Low Hum of Menace” episode of This American Life, I listened to many, many of my favorite songs of menace, while imagining all the terrible things that could unfold, all the way up to riots across the country and outside my window in the center of Washington, D.C., hoping that we’d be spared if we unfurled an “Unclean” banner across our gate.

The listening spree started with Ray Charles’ “Bye Bye Love,” which I had in my head when I woke up. The music is upbeat, but the lyrics decidedly not, and it ends with several refrains of “I think I’m gonna die.” In a rare practice of agere contra I ended on a more joyful note, with one of the most, beautiful, hopeful songs I know.

The day before one of my fellow Jesuits tested positive for COVID-19, it had crossed my mind to take one of our community cars and make a run for the border back to Canada (my homeland). I’ve spent many years in the U.S. and love this country, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d rather ride this out in a place where people spent the last two weeks hoarding only toilet paper, not toilet paper and guns, and where the societal divisions aren’t quite as sharp.

I spent most of my day on conference calls and emails (which is not all that different from my norm), but despite being tired, I very much appreciated the clear and consistent theme of care for one another and ourselves during this time of great stress and uncertainty. I did somewhat regret sharing my thoughts on the risk of riots with my team, but in my defense I also offered the hopeful note that Netflix may spare us from too many people leaving their homes: I continue to pray for the integrity of our servers and the internet tubes.

My colleagues and I also shared with one another considerable concern for the many, many people on the margins who, as always, will suffer the most: people experiencing homelessness; those who are incarcerated or in immigration detention, to name a few. As COVID-19 spreads to less economically developed countries, the impact will be even more severe. Our office works in advocacy on issues of justice and ecology, and we will have plenty of work over the coming weeks finding creative ways to lift up the voices and concerns of those most affected.

Even among the middle class, I am acutely conscious of, and grateful for, the privileges that our community enjoys at this time. The support of one another, of course; but also those who support us by bringing food and other necessities, plus our excellent health insurance.

I’m praying for those without these advantages, for those who are alone, those who are caring for children out of school while trying to work from home, and those stuck in apartments without access to outdoor space. And needless to say, I’m particularly praying for those infected, those serving in our health care system, those continuing to stock our grocery and pharmacy shelves, those making take-out meals, those at risk of losing their jobs, and many more.

A busy day, but I ended work at 4, which please be assured is not our norm, and which allowed for some running while listening to more rousing music than that morning, and then a yoga session that brought back memories of doing yoga in the Upper Senate Park when I spent the summer of '03 in D.C.

I ended the day reading and thinking about possibilities for building community online. For instance, I can’t celebrate Mass with anybody in person, so why not share one online with friends and family in places where the churches are closed? Even if nobody else was interested, I’m sure my mother would be!

This was just the first day of many, and none of us know how long this situation will last or how it will evolve. As we’re all seeing, our reality can change much more rapidly than we normally anticipate. But at least for this first day, even though it began on a note of menace, I also found a lot to be grateful for.

Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, is the Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. Learn more about his journey to priesthood here.

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