In September 2022 a new life entered the world and inherited the name of his uncle: Malcolm. My first grandson.
We don’t know yet if he has inherited anything else from his namesake. His hair is ginger, what he has of it, and uncle Malcolms hair was blond, very blond and curly. His legs are long and skinny so he certainly has his uncles length. But uncle Malcolm was a preemie and new Malcolm was late. There may be something shared even in that, though. Uncle Malcolm entered the world thanks to an emergency C-section, but if his later nature would be an indicator, he would have hung around and been late himself, if he’d had his way.
New Malcolm is my new love. I was hesitant about the name for a while after his dad shared their name selection. How would my hurt respond? But it grew on me. No new Malcolm will ever take his uncle’s place; he is definitely his own very different person already. And although I sometimes think I see his uncle looking fixedly at me through the baby’s eyes, it is only as if to say, “I’m still here, mum. Don’t feel bad for loving a new Malcolm. He can’t take away any of the love you gave me. I’m holding on to it until we meet again. I just wanted to see your eyes smiling at me one more time.” And my hurt heart was warmed.
In his baptisms Fr. Arango used “we” instead of “I” because he (I assume) understood that it is through the request and the faith of the parents that the baptism is taking place, not through his personal assumption of authority and power. He can’t baptise on his authority alone even if the church says he is in the role of Jesus. Jesus didn’t force people to accept him. So “we” not “I” is good Christian theology in my opinion.
In Catholic tradition any baptized Catholic can baptize someone in extraordinary circumstances – ex. potential death and no priest available, like a miscarriage/ live birth. As a chaplain I was called upon to perform baptisms. My mother, and many like her, baptized her premature babies before the doctor arrived. In an emergency there is no formal rite except pouring water over the child’s head and reciting the words of baptism “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” There is no assumption of the one baptizing being “in persona Christi” as there is in Catholic theology of priesthood. So the use of “I” would be inappropriate by a mother except to identify herself as a person of faith in the absence of any other family or faith community members. In a church baptism there are parents and family present along with the priest or deacon, hence “we.”
So there are nuances already in the performance of the sacrament. It is the faith of the parents that acts as the spiritual conduit/context through which the child is welcomed into the church. The child cannot ask for baptism but the parents do on the child’s behalf and the Church accepts that request on the basis of the faith of the parents and the pledged support of the faith family and community to which they belong. So, I believe the use of “We” is not only appropriate but good theology.
As a Catholic educator I had been saddened by the continuing return to Tridentine theology and liturgy. I had been drawn to religious education by Vatican II and it’s emphasis on the shared priesthood of the people and its de-emphasis on hierarchy. Rev. Arango sounds like a good, Vatican II type of priest. And his words represent the forward thinking that Vatican II Catholics were pursuing. Sadly, that movement is no more – at least among the clergy, who now are returning to Latin and cassocks and incense more and more, despite a more forward looking pope.
Isn’t it time, given the last 50 years, that Catholics once again resolve not to give over control of their relationship with God to priests and bishops. The Catholic Church is not the Kingdom/Empire of God; the pope is not an emperor, priests and bishops are Servants of the People of God not “Christ” among us. Hardly! The faith of those present welcomes our child into the church community not a particular pronoun, not a clerical costume.
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet Whose hands can strike with such abandon That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness That the haughty neck is happy to bow And the proud back is glad to bend Out of such chaos, of such contradiction We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it We, this people, on this wayward, floating body Created on this earth, of this earth Have the power to fashion for this earth A climate where every man and every woman Can live freely without sanctimonious piety Without crippling fear
When we come to it We must confess that we are the possible We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world That is when, and only when We come to it.
We are beginning to re-enter the world, but are we ready?
It’s wonderful, right? We’re talking face to face, meeting up and eating out with friends and families once again. We are striking up conversations with total strangers. (I say “we” because I don’t think I am the only one doing that.) As we try to return to “normal” I am increasingly aware of not being my normal self. But then again, what exactly is my “normal”?
I am from New Orleans and, for years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians needed to share Katrina stories. Standing in the newly opened grocery we would turn and ask: How much… (water in your house); Where… (did you evacuate to); When … (did you come back). Family members or total strangers would act as our in situ therapists, listening to our stories just long enough to give them the social permission to jump in with their own stories. But that actually made them really bad therapists because therapists don’t insert their own stuff into the therapeutic conversation. So these unsatisfactory attempts at having a “good listening to” left us still needing – neurotically and compulsively –someone to “hear us”. Someone to give witness to the chaos of words, fears, memories, and emotions swirling around in our inner cyclone.
This must be the same following any natural disaster: people need to talk. People need to share their horror stories about danger, rescue, and death. And they need to share them over and over. Having lived through the same Covid 19 crisis as others in our community, just like after Katrina, we can feel assured of a certain degree of commonality, of innate understanding. The locals will believe us. So, even though they may not be very patient listeners – waiting to jump in with their own trauma stories – they are nonetheless in the same metaphorical or literal “storm” if not in the same boat exactly. And there is comfort in that. We are not alone.
It is very different when the trauma or tragedy is personal. Although we have probably greater need to share, we are much less likely to risk it. Being vulnerable enough to tell our personal story of abuse or sexual trauma makes us vulnerable to re-victimization by having our memories denied. What if they don’t believe me? And that’s a valid concern, because without a shared experience it can be very difficult for outsiders (or even other family members who were not abused) to believe in the horrors you share. I have walked that uncomfortable and lonely path.
But here we are now living through the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Hurricane Katrina it is a shared experience so there’s an inherent understanding, we won’t be denied our reality, we are sympatico with our neighbors, or at least that’s what I thought. Appearing among us in large numbers are people denying our reality. Just like in a sexual abuse scenario where siblings and parents may tell us we are crazy and deny what we remember clearly and have always known to be true, so now the country is full of conspiracy theorists, covid deniers, and anti-vaxers. They are telling me that what I lived through as a chaplain in a large city hospital didn’t happen. The two overflowing 18-wheeler freezer trucks parked by the morgue loading dock filled to capacity with covid victims was a hoax. There are people who are willing to physically attack someone who threatens their right to be stubborn, to be stupid, to risk their lives and those of others by not wearing a mask. After all it’s just the flu. An abyss of reality and loss separates these individuals from those of us who have left a loved one to die alone in a nursing home or ICU surrounded by indistinguishable alien look-a-likes in white body suits and masks. Or those of us who have been working inside these organizations trying to communicate some humanity and compassion to the sick and dying and to victims of dementia for whom pre-covid reality was already fraught with fear and confusion.
This is bad. This is awful. But Covid-19 is not just a shared city or state experience, or even a national one. This is a WORLD. WIDE. EXPERIENCE. As a human community we haven’t had an experience like this since the 1918 flu which took about 1.5 million lives. As of June 17, 2021 Covid-19 deaths are estimated at 3.84 million. How in heaven are we supposed to process that number. To give a comparison, referring to 2018 statistics, that’s more than the population of Detroit; or it’s more than the population of Cincinnati and Cleveland combined.
I can understand the attraction of denial. If you haven’t personally lost a family member and been unable to visit them to say goodbye, then denying the existence of this horror is perhaps a form of self-care. You can sleep easier if Covid isn’t real.
I don’t have that luxury. I worked in a local hospital and one Sunday in early March 2020 I spent hours on the phone begging funeral homes and coroner’s offices to please take some of the deceased patients who lined our hallway outside the morgue and post-mortem suites. This wasn’t in my chaplain’s job description. But our Spiritual Care Department had inherited management of the morgue and had been left with it because we did such a good job. The curse of competence. Our secretary was the de facto morgue manager, and the on-call chaplains backed her up. We eventually had to resort to two refrigerated container trucks for a morgue back-up system.
My primary job as a chaplain was to offer spiritual companionship to the sick and the dying and to their families and to console and support the staff who shared in the grief and shock of their patient’s death. Because of their age or lack of experience with acute care floors many nurses I worked with in early 2020 had never had a patient die. As the pandemic kicked up there were nurses on the ICU’s who were losing two patients back-to-back in one day. Sometimes two at the same time next door to each other. It was devastating, overwhelming, unthinkable.
A year later I am only now beginning to write about what happened and how it felt. I am only now telling my Covid survival stories as I venture out into “normal” places where talking to strangers is acceptable – the hair salon, the spa. I haven’t swapped Covid stories in the grocery checkouts, though. Stories of morgues and refrigerator trucks are a bit too heavy for those few minutes. But in the hair salon and spa I had a captive audience for more than 30 minutes last month and stories just came gushing out along with the “dark” humor we shared privately in the Spiritual Care Department that had helped keep us sane – until it didn’t.
Now there is a fourth wave in Louisiana and people are still refusing to get vaccinated. Around the country individuals are being thrown off planes for refusing to wear a mask. Business owners are being harassed for attempting to maintain mask safety. The unvaccinated are dying in increasing numbers as the Delta variant rampages through summer vacation spots, family reunions, weddings. And the vaccinated are becoming infected. Remember, 94% efficacy means 6 in 100 are statistically likely to get sick anyway but are still much less likely to be hospitalized or die. I’ll take those odds. What about you?
It’s wonderful. We are talking, meeting, eating with friends and families once again. We are striking up conversations with total strangers – at least I don’t think I am the only one doing that. As we are trying to return to “normal” I am increasingly aware of not being my normal self. Two years of isolation, restrictions, separations have weighed heavily on me. I’m not sure I know what my normal self is any more.
I am from New Orleans and for years after Hurricane Katrina we needed to share our Katrina stories. Standing in the newly opened grocery we would turn and ask: How much.. (water in your house); Where… (did you evacuate to); When … (did you come back). Family members or total strangers would act as our in situ therapist, listening to us just long enough to give them the social permission to jump in with their own stories for us to hear.
I am confident this reaction is the same following any natural disaster: people need to talk. People need to share their horror stories about danger, rescue, and death. And they need to share them over and over. Having lived through the same natural disaster we feel assured of a certain degree of commonality, of innate understanding between us and other disaster survivors. They will believe us.
So here we are now. Covid-19 is not just a shared city or state experience, or even a national one. This is a WORLD. WIDE. EXPERIENCE. As a human community we have never had an experience like this, maybe since the Flu pandemic of 1918 that caused 60 million deaths. For two years all over the world people have been sharing their horror stories of multiple deaths in the same small community, sometimes in the same family. Of being cut off from the dying, unable to say goodbye. This has been a worldwide shared trauma. And it’s been too much. We don’t want to talk about it anymore. At least I don’t. And I think the feeling is common – in New Orleans anyway.
It’s 2023 and here in New Orleans we’re done. Covid might not be but we are. We’ll just add another inoculation to our yearly booster for flu. We are out and about. Breathing freely. Meeting and greeting. We’ve stopped reading Covid updates. We’ve stopped telling our lockdown stories and tragic death stories. We are in Mardi Gras season now, and then we’ll gear back up for French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest. We don’t want to hear about stats anymore unless it’s where the best King Cakes are, or how many new brew pubs have opened. lol Just let us have our Fest season in peace. Our hospitality based economy has suffered and we are all ready to eat out and support them. No meat on Fridays? No problem! There are Fish Fries in every parish and Lenten specials at all the restaurants.
After Mardi Gras comes the season of Lent for Christians where we start in ashes and end up with a resurrection. I think we’re all tired of the “ashes” of burnt dreams, burnt relationships, burnt hope. So let’s not linger in the ashes, let’s look to the future and new dreams, new hopes, and new restaurants. Can I have an Amen?