The Miraculous Draught of Fish (1618-1619) by Peter Paul Rubens (b. Siegen, Germany, June 1577; d. Antwerp, Belgium, May 1640), at The National Gallery in London
Dear Peregrinus (A Sunday in June):
Hello, my wise old friend. It is I, Tara of the House of Ludwig, writing to you today, and a full year has passed since we last corresponded. I began this letter on what was the hottest afternoon ever recorded in my part of the world, when temperatures reached an astonishing 115 degrees. It was a fierce, searing heat, too oppressive for even a dedicated sun worshipper like me. So, I thought it the perfect time to recline in an air-conditioned room and craft my reply to your letter.
I was profoundly thankful to hear from you, and to know that you are healthy and well as the shadow of COVID-19 continues to wane. My family, too, has managed to make it through the pandemic uninfected. I am acutely aware of what a gift that is, Peregrinus; my husband Matthew, of whom I am so proud, is a nurse on the front lines at Providence Hospital and has worked hard to heal many COVID-ravaged bodies. Or, when healing was impossible, done his best to help his COVID patients die a good death.
And it is heavy on my heart today, Peregrinus, remembering that so many of our fellow pilgrims did not make it to the other side of the pandemic. Over four million people infected by COVID-19 did not live to see this day, when the virus would finally begin to loosen its tyrannical grip upon the world, allowing us to regain some semblance of our “normal” lives.
But I wonder if you have observed, Peregrinus, as I have, a pervasive uneasiness in people as COVID restrictions lift and we discover that returning to our “normal” lives is not quite as simple as we had imagined. Though my family, like many others, has longed for a return to normalcy, I have found that the comfortable habits and familiar routines of our pre-COVID lives no longer seem comfortable and familiar; in fact, they feel distinctly uncomfortable, woefully unfamiliar. “Normal” life is now strange, fraught with apprehension and uncertainty, and nothing seems the same as it was before. Even our unmasked reunions with friends and family, which we expected to be raucous, joyful celebrations, have felt oddly subdued. Though science has tamed the coronavirus, I cannot help but wonder: will we ever reclaim what it has taken from us?
The truth is that I do not think we will, Peregrinus. We cannot erase the last year and a half, and there is no “going back” to pre-COVID life. Our lives are now irreparably different because we are different. This global calamity we have suffered together has changed us, and we are not the same as we once were:
The Return of the King: “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”[i]
Yes, Peregrinus, this hurt has gone deep, deep into the heart of the world. And we, the lucky ones (is that quite the right term?) who have outlasted the pandemic have been transformed forever by what we endured. Even if the coronavirus never took hold of our bodies, still, we have been wounded by it, and by the shockwaves it caused in our lives.
And so I have been asking God: what do we do now, if we cannot be who we were before?
Wendell Berry, Our Real Work:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.[ii]
I think our real work has begun, Peregrinus.
Often when I need wisdom, I look to what my children Cirocco, Sabina, and Gesumina are up to. And it has been interesting to observe how naturally our little ones (who are, as you may remember, 7, 4, and nearly 2, respectively) have adapted to the pandemic. They are so young that they cannot clearly remember a time when the world was not preoccupied by COVID. Therefore, they have no attachments to “who they were before”, no desire to return to “normal life”. For them, this is normal life. So while Matt and I have struggled and fumbled and blundered our way through the pandemic, our children have just gone gracefully about their work of growing up, accepting easily that the world is always changing, and that they must change along with it.
But then, changing, evolving, is the business of children. They understand better than we do that growing pains are a part of life. Growth is much harder for us big people; even the very title, “grown-ups”, fools us into thinking that once we are adults our journey of growth is complete, that we have reached our enlightened destination. As if such an achievement was possible, Peregrinus! No, life still challenges adults to grow and change, we are just more skilled than children at resisting it.
And many of us have resisted, fought tooth and nail, against being changed by the pandemic. We want to be who we were before, go back to regular life, and forget all this ever happened. We were very comfortable with our status quo, and when COVID ripped it away from us, all we could think about was getting it back.
Except, do you see Peregrinus, it is not enough to just “go back”. We have been through too much, borne too much heartache, to be content with a reversion to the status quo. If all the pain of the COVID era does not change us into more beautiful human beings, then we have suffered for nothing.
But I am comforted when I remember that God is not in the habit of letting suffering go to waste.
I have learned from my husband and his experience with the sick and dying that people can learn from their wounds if they are willing to let those wounds speak. And I believe now, though it is not easy, we must let the wounds we have suffered in the pandemic speak to us. It is time to incorporate our painful memories of the COVID era into the narrative of our lives, rather than imagining that they are something separate from our “real” lives. We are now the survivors of a global pandemic; we need to get accustomed to this new identity and accept that we have changed.
My sense of what God is up to in the world right now is the work of convincing us that our hope for this last year—the return to “normal life”—was a hope that was too small. And I suspect that his dream for humanity right now must be something bigger than what we have been dreaming for ourselves.
This is a spiritually profound moment in history, and I think God has us right where he wants us. Mankind, in all its vulnerability and anguish, is ripe for the Spirit of God to go to work:
John 4:35: “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”[iii]
Something is happening, Peregrinus[iv]. The trauma of the last year and a half has left our hearts raw and open, and we are ready for an evolution in our way of being human. There is no going back; our experience with COVID has already changed us. The question is, who can we become because we have suffered it?
The next step in discovering who we can be in the post-COVID era is allowing ourselves to be sad that it happened in the first place. Perhaps this sounds obvious Peregrinus, but in my experience, most of us have not had time to do this yet. We have been so busy putting all our energies into simply surviving the pandemic that we have not been able to begin the work of grieving it. Now that the disease is more under control, we can breathe a little easier and reflect on all that has happened. We have journeyed together through something terrible, and I think we do humanity a disservice if we do not allow ourselves, and each other, some time to mourn that. Because it is only once we have fully grieved the pandemic that can we begin to understand what it means for us, as individuals and as a society, to have lived through such a calamity.
Unfortunately grieving is not something our culture knows how to do very well.
We approach grief as an obstacle, not as a worthwhile process that helps us grow and make meaning out of loss. There is shaming around the experience of grief that creates immense pressure in people to “move on” as quickly as possible, lest we seem unhinged or make others uncomfortable with our emotions. Regardless of whether we feel ready or not, many of us eventually just stuff our pain down and do our best to forget about it. But ignoring our pain does not make it go away, Peregrinus. The only true way to relieve grief is to do the hard work of grieving:
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: “All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But, what I’ve discovered is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place, and that only grieving can heal grief. The passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”[v]
Indeed, we cannot be healed by forgetting what we have lost to COVID. The only way forward is through the grief.
I have learned much from my small children about what it means to grieve a thing well. When they are sad or hurt, they do not hide it. They allow themselves to feel whatever it is they actually feel without shame. They cry, and continue to cry, (unless an adult admonishes them not to), until they are ready to be done. And then, if the experience was a minor one, they happily move on. The tears will have healed them, and the pain does not fester because they have fully grieved it.
The (mercifully few) times when my children have suffered something more significant, it is remarkable to watch how they grieve and make meaning out of their experience. The story of their wound becomes a legend that is important to them, and they tell and retell the story so that they do not miss what it has to teach them:
Cirocco, age 7: “Mom, do you remember that time when I was little, and I was throwing rocks into the Columbia River, and I fell in face first and Dad had to jump in and save me, and when he pulled me out my legs got scraped over all the rocks, and they were bleeding?”
This story looms large in the Ludwig family canon, and we have revisited it many times. But it is not because we are “stuck” in it; Cirocco re-grieves this experience as a way of reinforcing what he learned that day: that it is not wise to stand too close to a high riverbank, that nature is wild and untamed, and most importantly, that the adults in his life are trustworthy and will jump into a river without hesitation to protect him. He reaffirms these lessons every time he tells the story. See Peregrinus, my children do not work hard to forget their wounds; they work hard to remember them. They want to remember what their suffering taught them, and how it helped them grow.
The grief we experience around the COVID crisis indeed has enormous potential to invite us into beautiful and profound growth. Sadly, though, our culture, so ruthlessly fixated on self-improvement and advancement, behaves as if grief represents a regression of self, rather than a maturing or deepening of who we are. We are taught that grief holds us back from our full potential, so if we desire to better ourselves, we must be rid of the pain that keep us stuck. Therefore, wounds become problems in us that need to be fixed.
And yet Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, he who had nails driven through his hands and feet and a spear run through his side, still bore these gruesome wounds on his glorified body after the resurrection:
John 20:19-20: Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side.[vi]
God himself suffered wounds here, but he chose not to heal them, or fix them, or hide them. He earned those wounds, and the marks on his hands and his side were a tangible reminder of how the crucifixion had changed him. Notice, Peregrinus, that Jesus embraced the wounds, both visible and invisible, as a part of his resurrected self, his best self. The pain Jesus had endured did not impede his glorification, it deepened it; his woundedness was integrated into the wholeness of his resurrected life. Do you see, Peregrinus? The grief we experience around our wounds only keeps us stuck if we do not allow it to change us.
So how are we meant to be changed by the wounds inflicted upon us by the COVID pandemic?
The late writer, researcher, and grief counselor Dr. Lois Tonkin developed a bereavement model she called “growing around grief”, that I have found very meaningful, Peregrinus, and I wanted to share it with you. Dr. Tonkin’s theory is that we do not “get over” the wounds of our lives, but rather, that we grow larger around them:
In both my work as a spiritual director and in my personal experience, I have found Dr. Tonkin’s theory to be much more real (not to mention, more humane) than the conventional notion of “moving past” grief. Even now, at 35 years old, I have never found “closure” or “gotten past” the greatest losses of my life, Peregrinus. They are still a part of me. But I have grown bigger around the wounds. I have been stretched large by them, stretched until I am big enough inside to build a new life with room for the wounds.
This is what God is so good at Peregrinus; giving our wounds the capacity to stretch us, so that we are deeper, wiser, and more beautiful because we have them. We can grow to be greater, not in spite of what we have suffered during the COVID crisis, but because we have suffered it.
I am curious what you would make of these two scriptural passages, Peregrinus, both about miraculous catches of fish, but from quite different periods in the lives of Jesus and his disciples. The first, from the Gospel of Luke, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the second, from the Gospel of John, after Jesus’ resurrection. I wonder if you will notice what caught my attention:
Luke 5:4-6: “When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.”[viii]
John 21:5-11: “[Jesus] called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish… Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.”[ix]
Do you see what I see, Peregrinus? In the first passage at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when the disciples were so new and unformed, they have fished all night and caught nothing. Christ says to them, “trust me, and try again”, and when they obey their nets begin to break under the weight of all the fish; the disciples were not yet big enough inside to hold the fullness of what Jesus desired to give them. But when we visit them in the second passage after the resurrection, after they have traveled with Jesus for many years and have endured the agony of watching their beloved friend suffer and die, they are changed. They have grown bigger inside, have been enlarged by grief, and when Jesus guides them towards a miraculous catch of fishthey have a greater capacity to hold such abundance, and their nets do not break.
This is what I believe God seeks to accomplish in the post-COVID world, Peregrinus. His dream for us is that we will be changed because of what we have suffered together, and that all the wounds the pandemic has dug into our hearts will help us to grow big inside, to be filled, and to expand without breaking. This is who we can become, as survivors of this global tragedy: human beings whom, having experienced the growing pains of being stretched and deepened by sorrow, have discovered a wild vastness inside of us that we never knew existed. May we fill the space with an abundance of all the best and truest things: more compassion, more love, more life, more God.
Peace be with you Peregrinus, my dear friend. I leave you with these words from the poet Kahlil Gibran:
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.[x]
In the light of Christ,
[i] Jackson, Peter. 2003. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. United States: New Line Cinema.
[ii] Berry, Wendell. “Our Real Work”, Standing by Words: Essays. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1983.
[iv] Another way I might put this, to fans of the Chronicles of Narnia series: “Aslan is on the move”.
[v] Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Pantheon, 1999. Print
[vi] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004. John 20:19-20
[vii] Image from https://whatsyourgrief.com/growing-around-grief
[x] Gibran, Kahlil. “On Joy and Sorrow”, The Prophet. Alma Classics, 2020.