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Musings from a Jesuit in Community Quarantine, Vol. II

By Fr. Ted Penton, SJ

Read the first piece in this series here.

March 31, 2020 — My first night thinking I might have COVID-19 I didn’t sleep great. Or rather, I slept okay but woke up at 2:30am — which is not my preferred time by a long shot. I took my temperature — 98.2 degrees — and entered it in the log I'd started keeping on my phone, along with my symptom, woozy. “Woozy” autocorrected to “woody” and my thoughts turned to the Beach Boys, the first concert I ever attended, with my first girlfriend and her mother, back in eighth grade.

But it wasn’t a morning for the Beach Boys. I listened to more songs of menace, and after four straight mornings doing that, I guess that's my thing now. Less imagining riots and more remembering that the high school campus I live on has 24-hour security guards, so I guess violence is still in the mix of my thoughts, along with, for some reason I don’t want to look at too closely, breakups and betrayal.

Like pretty much everyone these days, I’m feeling a very confusing mix of emotions at the prospect of being positive for COVID-19. Partly fear, of course. Partly relief—at least I wouldn't need to spend the next 12 or 18 months, or whatever it turns out to be, working so hard to avoid getting this damn virus.

The Jesuit Residence at Gonzaga College High School shown under quarantine.

Plus, assuming I got through it okay, which seems likely given my age and lack of underlying conditions, it'll be like having a superpower—I’ll be among the first people who can work with the infected with minimal risk to my own health. As the holder of both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Philosophy, I'm very familiar with the feeling of having nothing of value to offer others, so this new superpower would be a welcome change. Unfortunately, it wouldn't come packaged with any medical knowledge or skill with nursing. But even though it may be of less practical use at this time, after ten months of life as a priest, I know that the pastoral support I could offer has great value for many.

By 4:30am, I'd already been up for two hours and still had four hours until I needed to get up, since I don't have to shower or commute any more. (To be clear I do still shower, I just figure that there's no need to do it before work.) So I decided to watch one of my favorite movies.

Between streaming video and Bose headphones, this is definitely the best era to be in quarantine. Like the main character, I also grew up with a mother who was strongly opposed to rock ‘n roll and who tried (unsuccessfully) to forbid me from listening to some pretty awesome music. (Growing up years later than Cameron Crowe, my own mother was more taken in by the 1980s Heavy Metal Satanic Panic than she was concerned about drugs and promiscuous sex, though she undoubtedly disapproved of those aspects of the rock lifestyle as well).

Either way, both Crowe and I found plenty of reason to rebel, even if he did so in an infinitely cooler way, which I have only dreamed about. One of my colleagues told me that as a Catholic priest I’m probably not supposed to believe in reincarnation, but if I did, and if you could be reincarnated into the past, I’d love to be the teenage Crowe, who not only lived during rock’s greatest years, but toured with its stars at 16 years old and wrote about them for Rolling Stone, back when that magazine itself was still cool.

I’ve also been feeling a lot of gratitude, to those leading our community and to the public health officials who are making me feel more popular than I've been since eighth grade with their frequent, lengthy phone calls. And here, I thought people didn't use phones to make calls anymore. Unlike in eighth grade, we don't spend our time discussing girls we like or scoring Stones tickets, but more mundane matters such as my temperature and whether I have access to enough food and latex gloves. Still, I greatly appreciate their attention, as well as, in every case, their friendliness and patience.

Jesuits at Gonzaga College High School were quarantined for two weeks because a community member tested positive for COVID-19.

I don’t know if it’s the virus (if I even have it), or the insomnia or the new and continually changing social context we’re all living in, but at least in these wee hours I feel a strange new energy. A lot of it is directed in a pastoral direction — for instance, I’m excited about the idea of a COVID-19 “guerrilla” mass, live-streamed from my bedroom floor for a big group of friends and family.

I’m reflecting a lot on the ways that finitude and uncertainty about the future focus my attention more squarely on what is truly important. But then again, maybe these "reflections on finitude" are just a flashback to my philosophy days or the title of a half-remembered emo album.

The new virus has certainly seen me spending a lot more time videoconferencing with family and old friends. For instance, I’ve really enjoyed doing a live stream daily mass with my parents, my aunt and uncle, and some close friends.

And the gratitude has extended even as far as my own family. If only over email, I thanked my mom for the strong faith in which she'd raised me, her third most important gift to me after — in ascending order of importance — the loving, supportive home which she and my father provided and the Bose noise-cancelling headphones she gave me for my ordination.

To be clear, she would have much preferred to give me a stole, a more traditional ordination gift. But I figured every Jesuit community has lots of stoles that I can use, while the few Jesuits who have Bose headphones sure weren't loaning them to me. Plus they're pretty expensive, and we don't get THAT much spending money. You know, vow of poverty.

Poverty is a good note to end on. It does have a significant meaning in religious life, but not the typical meaning—as Jesuits, our material needs are met comfortably. In social terms, we live a very middle-class lifestyle. If I do test positive, I know that I’ll get the best possible medical attention. And I also know that for many people, that’s simply not true. I pray for those who do not have access to the care they need, who are so vulnerable in this crisis. And I pray for the people in developing countries that do not have the health infrastructure needed for normal times, let alone a time of pandemic. There’s no easy solution to the challenges we are facing, but we are undoubtedly called to stand in solidarity with all of God’s children and to make sure that our response to the crisis addresses the needs of the least fortunate.

At the time of writing this, Fr. Ted Penton, SJ was showing symptoms of COVID-19. He has since tested negative for the virus. Ted 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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