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On Hope and “Getting Back to Normal” by Ben Jaros

It seemed like a combination of slow-motion and whiplash.  In an email to the  University Community on Tuesday, March 10th, President Nyre announced to all students that classes would be canceled for the remainder of that week, and that classes would “resume online beginning on Monday, March 16th, through at least Sunday, March 22nd.” The announcement was met with a mix of disbelief, of euphoria, for what some saw as a “Second Spring Break,” and of a pervasive ambiguity about what this would mean for the future of the semester.   It also raised a faintly guilty suspicion: Did our Administration, and every University Administration in the country, over-react?

We had no way to really know, at the time, nor, candidly, did they. Many students either briefly went home with the intention to come back, “after everything had passed.”  Or, having just been home for Spring Break decided to “wait it out.”

Then, on Wednesday March 18th, one week later, in an announcement from the University’s Health Intervention and Communication team, all students were informed that remote learning would continue for the rest of the Spring semester and that, unless granted an exception, students living on campus had three days to move out.  In one moment, all of the future semester’s ambiguity had been transformed into a concrete reality that hit like a punch to the gut: The Spring Semester of 2020, as we had known it, was over.

However, canceling in-person classes was just the beginning.  Commencement would be postponed.  In-person Masses at Seton Hall and broadly throughout the country were canceled.  State and local governments ordered the closure of all “non-essential” businesses.  Many companies put some freeze on hiring, leaving many graduating Seniors extraordinarily anxious about their immediate future.

All of these changes have left many feeling despondent in their day-to-day lives, anxious about the future, and wondering, “What will it look like once we get back to normal?”

This normal will look different for the members of our administration, of our faculty, of our priest community, and of our student body, in particular, our graduating Seniors.  Yet, we are not just anxious about what getting back to normal will look like, we are also anxious about “when” that return will take place.  This uncertainty about the timeline seems to be a greater cause of the anxiety and fear affecting our community.

This anxiety has, if nothing else, revealed how the “ordinary” and “mundane” moments of our lives are anything but “ordinary.”  Having talked with many faculty members who have been here over twenty years, they have told me it is easy to fall into a year-to-year rhythm.   The Summer ends, students come back to campus, classes begin, Christmas break comes, spring classes begin, and before one knows it, commencement happens, and the process starts all over again.

Yet, this year, in 2020, God brought a different plan for the school year.  No in-person classes.  No casual Dunkin with friends.  No rushed, or skipped, meals between classes.  No Commencement in May.  No “non-essential” work.  The cycle was broken.

Thus, the closures and the virus allow us a unique opportunity, no not just unique, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rediscover the importance of all these run of the mill, mundane, and ordinary moments.  We have an opportunity to recognize the ordinary for what it actually is: extraordinary.  This rediscovery is not just a solitary exercise, rather, it is an opportunity to rediscover more poignantly who we are as Seton Hall.

The Ordinary is Extraordinary

Considering that opportunity, let’s start our rediscovery with our namesake: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Elizabeth experienced her own fight with infectious disease.  Her husband, William Seton contracted tuberculosis.  So, in 1803, Elizabeth and William journeyed to Italy from New York City, with their five children, hoping the climate would help William’s failing health.  In anticipation of the challenges ahead for her life, she wrote, “resign the present and the future to Him who is the Author and conductor of both…”

Despite the journey, the family would be quarantined in the lazaretto at Livorno for several weeks.  William Seton would die from tuberculosis before the year’s end.  In an instant, Elizabeth became a widow with five children solely dependent upon her.  She was far from home.  She was unemployed, and she had five kids to feed.  She was anxious about the future with no way of knowing what “normal” would be for her again or when it would arrive.

Does any of this sound familiar?  A quarantine?  Death? Unemployment?  Uncertainty about the “normal,” and anxiety about the future?  This couldn’t only be in 1803, because it sounds an awful lot like our situation in 2020.  But it is.  And her response in 1803 is just as momentous then as it is for us today.  In this moment she wrote, “My God, you are my God, and so I am now alone in the world with you and my little ones, but you are my Father and doubly theirs.”

One can feel the brokenness of her heart, as she exposes not only her dependence on “our” Father, but her children’s dependence on Him as well. Yet, in this moment, does she despair or act out of fear?  No.  In this moment, she acted courageously.  She knew, and internalized, what every member of this community sometimes needs reminding of: that she would never be alone.  She writes, “I have been in a sea of troubles…But the guiding star is always bright, and the master of the storm always in view.”

Nonetheless, in her pain, suffering, and anxiety, what did Elizabeth direct her attention towards?

She attended to the ordinary.  When she returned home to the United States, she recognized the “ordinary” need of education.  Up until the mid-1800s, there was no “public”, elementary school system in the United States.  Rather, all primary and schooling beyond that was run through various Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or other Protestant denominations.  These schools refused to serve the needs of the increasingly growing Catholic population in the United States.

Elizabeth recognized this ordinary need.  The need for an education.  The need for the unification of faith and formation of mind.  In so doing, she founded the Sisters of Charity and gave the impetus to what became the Catholic, parochial school system.  She recognized that the ordinary needs are actually extraordinary.

Members of the Seton Hall community, and in particular members of the Class of 2020, this Covid-19 virus and its impact are not the cause of OUR despair. Rather in the words of Winston Churchill, they can be the cause of our “finest hour.”  It is easy to be afraid of the uncertain in an era when we are so used to having control.  It is even more difficult when your peers and the leaders (in the media, politics, the Church, etc.) seem afraid as well.   But ultimately our hope for the future rests on something surer than all the experts who advise our policymakers or on all the hard, serious efforts of all the leaders in government, business, and culture.

Rather, in this hour, our hope for the future comes from the moment that each of us recognized that in-person classes and casual coffee with friends were not just events, but occasions of grace.  Our hope comes from the recognition that for all there may be said for technology and online courses, we have, paradoxically rediscovered through them at the end of this semester what matters most for the foundations of this campus community- real interpersonal society.

May you take this to heart and remember today and for the rest of your days, that the ordinary moments are not so ordinary. Rather, the ordinary moments are extraordinary.

Congratulations Class of 2020 and remember as we go out into a sea of troubles, “the guiding star is always bright, and the master of the storm always in view.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pray for US.

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