Back to the basics: the Principle and Foundation in a time of pandemic

In times of crisis, I find myself and others going “back to the basics.” People everywhere are stocking up on food, basic medical supplies like Tylenol, and household goods. If we are working remotely from home, we are thinking about what the best way is to use our available resources to accomplish the tasks that we need to do.

I am also finding myself going back to the spiritual basics: gratitude, taking care of others, taking care of myself through prayer and attending to beauty, too. My husband and I have been on a 14 day self quarantine after he developed a fever and dry cough our last day in Paris just over a week ago now, and while he may have had the flu, or the new virus, recovering / working from home has been the best option for the common good. Now our son has returned from his study abroad in Paris (why we went there in the first place), as his university there has been shuttered, and he has been asked to self quarantine for 14 days, and anyone living with him.

In the midst of quarantine, I’ve found it helpful to go back to the basics, and in what looks more and more like a monastic life, taken a kind of guidance from the lives of monks. I’ve developed a schedule and rhythm of work, prayer, meals, time to walk (an empty cemetery half a block away provides a space where any germs can’t hurt the residents). On my walk, I try to find something beautiful every day, and spend at least a few minutes just contemplating it. My work as a professor allows me to teach remotely, and while it’s been lots of hours learning the tech and adjusting the syllabus and my approach, it’s also fulfilling to know that I can approach the challenges creatively and still serve my students in this time of crisis.

Although I am frankly consumed with reading news about the virus, I’ve also been deliberate about building in times of recreation free of concern. Friday night, I texted my brother in law and his girlfriend, who are both self quarantined due to his fever, and asked them if they wanted to watch a silly disaster movie for some catharsis and community. We rented and started the same movie at the same time, and joked back and forth by text. (PS, the movie “The Core,” about something inexplicable and definitely unscientific gone wrong with the earth’s core that is causing problems like lightning and exploding buildings on the surface is a delightful romp through bad movie land.) We played online bridge, with the audio from our phones on, with another couple with whom we often play bridge in real life. Even social life can continue through quarantine.

Ignatius grounded his Spiritual Exercises in what’s called the Principle and Foundation. It goes like this, in a modernized translation by David Fleming, SJ;

Principle and Foundation

“The Goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life
to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts from God,
Presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
Insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
They displace God
And so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
Before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
And are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
Wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
A deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
To God’s deepening his life in me.”

(adaptation of St Ignatius, Principle and Foundation, as paraphrased by David Fleming SJ, found in Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits, ed. Michael Hartner SJ)

For me, this passage is a “back to the basics” passage. How do I live my life in self quarantine in a way that makes it still a life of self-gift? The big challenge for me is thinking about those phrases “health or sickness” and “a long life or a short one.” Those are hard to consider, but important challenges for me. What does that really mean to live those out?

I don’t think that Ignatius meant that we ought not care at all about illness or health, or protecting the lives of others around us. After all, my family and my students depend on me, and I likewise depend on others whose health and well being affect me. We are all interdependent, and social distancing goes a long way towards care for one another. Staying home and away from crowds benefits everyone, by “flattening the curve” of the rate of infection, protecting the elderly, and allowing hospitals a slower rate of influx into hospital beds.

For me, though, the passage means something different. It means that protecting my own health is not the only or even the main goal. My son stood in a long line in Dulles airport awaiting a screening and customs check upon his return. For all we know, he has picked up the virus among the hundreds of people crowded there, but he’s my kid, so we all love without fear. It means that if someone on my block really needs something, we have to look out for each other and not act in fear.

It also means stepping back from my own life and considering: how do I want to live these days I have ahead, whether they are many or few? What choices do I want to make in the day to day of life that make my life the kind of meaningful life that I wish I would have had when I am finally at the end of my days–whenever that is? And so I am: teaching my students, contemplating graceful trees and tiny flowers that even grown in cemeteries, playing bridge, cooking nice meals, and laughing at bad movies.

And practicing the rock solid foundation of prayer, to a God who never fails to be present to us, though whatever else we are experiencing. It’s back to the basics.

Wishing good health to all of my readers. Be well.

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