In Spiritual Company

April 23, 2020
Kerry Maloney
Kerry Maloney, HDS chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life. Photo: Brian Tortora

Kerry Maloney, chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life at Harvard Divinity School and Affiliated Minister in the Memorial Church, reflects on the combination of hope and lament that thread through our days in lockdown and reminds us to find shelter in the spiritual company of those who have weathered past storms.

The coronavirus raced toward its peak this week in many cities across our country, including our own, taking lives at a speed we can scarcely comprehend and with a discriminating cruelty we all could have predicted. Communities of color, particularly those of African and Latinx descent, are becoming infected and enduring death rates at appallingly disproportionate rates due to white supremacy’s long reach into the health of—and lack of access to adequate health care in—these communities.  
And amid this horrifying, mounting death toll, countless people around the world turned toward the deepest paradoxes of their faith. In the past two weeks, Jews celebrated the festival of Passover, honoring the triumph of freedom over bondage; and Christians observed Holy Week and Easter, proclaiming the ultimate victory of life over death. These ancient rituals emerged from the trauma of communal devastation. They distill the wisdom of those who survived to discover meaning in their sorrow and to piece together hope from their shattered histories. At sundown tonight, Muslims begin the observance of the holy month of Ramadan, commemorating Allah’s first revelation to the Prophet. Through fasting and prayer, Muslims will feast on the riches of their spiritual heritage; and this year, though isolated, they will once again deepen their communal solidarity.

As we mourn together the incalculable losses of this week and tremble at those to come, may we find ourselves in the spiritual company of those who have gone before us, those who have given us the possibilities of holy paradox. May we too one day find life triumphing over death, feasting rising from fasting, and freedom defeating every kind of captivity. 
And, yet, as we live in and toward that hope, meanwhile—meanwhile—we lament. Emily Dickinson’s plaintive poem “Will there really be a ‘Morning’?” captures some of the grief and anguish of days like ours. In the early years the AIDS pandemic, grief and anguish were in no short supply either. In the midst of that tidal wave of death, Memorial Church’s late Assistant Organist Harry L. Huff, the late HDS director of music (piano) and Tom Bogdan (tenor) recorded a particularly poignant setting of that poem. It sounds the notes of lamentation as clearly today as then.   
Will there really be a “Morning”?
Is there such a thing as “Day”?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?
Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?
Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the Skies!
Please do tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called “Morning” lies!

May Grace, Mercy, and Peace be with us all.

This piece appeared in the April 23, 2020 edition of "On Pilgrimage," the daily newsletter of Harvard's Memorial Church. To subscribe, visit the Memorial Church Website.