“I can’t wait until things get ‘back to normal’.” If I had a dollar for every occasion I heard this lament over the past year, I would be rich.
Pastorally, I get it. It’s been a crisis of suffering. Lockdowns and confusion over what to believe. Disrupted routines and isolation from family and friends. Not to mention those who have lost loved ones and have been unable to collectively grieve.
As our nation slowly becomes vaccinated, we look forward to gathering in our parishes again, even if relegated to taped pews and masks that obscure our physical identity. We long to share a meal with others without the anxiety that a virus is lurking in our midst.
But nostalgia for pre-pandemic life?
Theologically, I confess I find it difficult to reconcile this attitude with what we believe as Catholic Christians.
Liturgically, we’re in the Easter Season. As St. John Paul II declared in 1986, we are “Easter people”:
“We know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection.”
This mystery is about transformation! Notice how, for example, in the days following Easter Sunday, the Mass readings reflect Jesus’ appearing to the women and the disciples. In each of these stories, there is confusion over his identity. His physical body has changed.
Transformation is likewise interwoven into all of Creation. As I look out my home office window, the leaves on the trees are just beginning to bud. Daffodils proudly sway in the spring breeze and tulips are poking out of the ground. Soon the caterpillars will be inching along the milkweed plants I sowed in our garden last fall. Our bodies too, following in the pattern of Christ, will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Clinging to the Past
So why do we cling, like Mary Magdalene, to what is ‘old’?
Perhaps because it is familiar. Or we took for granted what was good in our pre-COVID way of life? Essayist and novelist Leslie Jamison argues that nostalgia for pre-pandemic life is partially a “barometer” of how well our behaviors and thoughts were serving us.
She goes on to distinguish a kind of “restorative nostalgia [that] wants to create an idealized past” versus a “reflective nostalgia [that] interrogates the very image it longs for.”
Jamison raises some good points. How we interpret the events of our lives and how we draw meaning from them can be often binary. However, an ‘interrogation’ or reflection that recalls the events of the past and our feelings about them is a healthy ritual. The practice comes from our own spiritual tradition of the Examen. Through it, we can discover what the Lord may be calling us into as part of our own transformation as Easter people.
Consider how, in the period of mystagogy, we encourage our newly baptized and confirmed neophytes to reflect on what just happened to them in the Easter Vigil. It’s an initiation into what has yet to be revealed. What does what their experience mean for them in the future?
Three Questions for Finding Meaning
I’d like to share three questions as prompts for how I have found God and meaning during this so-called plague. Obviously, my responses will likely not be yours.
First, what did I have control over? As the lockdown progressed and days turned into weeks and then weeks into months, without physically gathering in our parish, I recognized that I needed to be actively responsible for my own spiritual growth. One way I discovered was sitting with Jesus in live perpetual Adoration streaming from London’s Tyburn Convent.
Second, what did I most fear? In January my mother went into the hospital and then rehab for a period of nearly three months. Because the vaccine had not yet been rolled out, I feared my mother dying alone, not being able to be with her. This revealed to me how much I value the relationship with my mother.
Third, what has brought me comfort or joy? Because we were not able to travel to see my mother for holidays, my husband and I celebrated Easter and Christmas alone. More simply and humbly. As things began to open up, we delighted in hosting small gatherings with close friends. Our social circle narrowed but the friendships deepened.
I certainly did not miss the freeway commute, especially during bad Michigan weather. In contrast to Zoom fatigue, I looked forward to meetings with my students and colleagues around the world.
And, while I was a bread-baker pre-pandemic, our elderly friends became regular beneficiaries of rye and cardamom loaves at their doorsteps.
Moving forward as Easter People
As we begin to emerge from this pandemic in baby steps, don’t forget to reflect on what the time has meant for you.
It would be disingenuous to ignore our grief and what we miss. Pay attention to these things. At the same time, perhaps the meaning has been there all along and you haven’t seen it?
Transformation means renouncing the old way of life and embracing the new. Jesus reminds us that “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)
What is the Lord calling you to leave behind? How can you create meaning now? And, like Mary Magdalene, what will be your mission?
Tamra Fromm is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. Her first manuscript "Pre-Evangelization and Young Adult 'Native Nones'", is available for purchase via both Wipf and Stock and Barnes & Noble.