I stood at the bathroom sink early Friday morning and felt tears welling in my eyes, fought them, and then finally relented and let them flow. A short while later I emerged sweet smelling but a tad puffy in the face, ready to push up my sleeves and start the workday.
Italy has a population of roughly 60,000,000; to date, COVID-19 has claimed about 20,000 lives there. In the last couple of days, the United States’ mortality rate from the virus has surpassed Italy’s and right now hangs around close to 32,000—but there are 328,000,000 of us. The horror of this loss is still a thing I’m trying to grasp; it is simply unfathomable.
As I stood there at the sink Friday morning, I listened to a radio interview with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who would give a live performance for a world in isolation when so many should have been celebrating Easter or Passover together any other year. Maybe you heard it, too. His mood struck me as so positive and hopeful; when asked whether it would be strange to stand alone and sing to an empty cathedral, with only the pipe organist there to accompany him, he said no—this would be a prayer, at a moment when the entire world needs it. The hymnody broadcast live today from the Milan Cathedral, Easter Sunday, was to be “a message of love, healing and hope to Italy and the world.”
I’ve never been good at prayer, probably because in my heart of hearts I question (and doubt) whether anyone’s actually listening. I’m a lifelong Episcopalian, a practitioner of liturgy I consider thoughtful and beautiful. But I’ve never been especially good, you might say, at ‘repping’ the brand.
When my kiddo was tiny, the two of us took riding lessons at some stables in the beautiful rural countryside about 45 or so minutes from our midtown home in Knoxville. This dovetailed more or less with the opening of the Episcopal School of Knoxville, a school his dad and I had been deeply involved in founding with a handful of other like-minded families.
The woman who owned the stables often asked me about the school, in part because she was raised Episcopalian (in the very cathedral we attended), and because she had once taught English at a local high school and so was interested in academics. But she had also suffered through a painful disconnect with her parents as a teenager, or possibly as a young adult, and ultimately abandoned the church. We talked about all the reasons people send their kids to a religious school, and I said I imagined for many the big one was indeed the faith tradition.
But because the multi-year effort we undertook to found ESK was still so fresh, I went on to explain in the case of Episcopal schools in particular, only 25 percent or so of enrollees come from an Episcopal faith tradition—for the overwhelming majority of families in Episcopal schools across the country, the main attraction is the rigorous education, a thing the church does exceedingly well.
“I attended two Episcopal schools growing up,” I explained. “The entire school enrollment at each of them was required to attend a half hour of chapel each weekday morning. There were kids from all traditions—evangelical Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, Hindu, probably others—and all of them went to chapel, because they had to. But nobody was ever browbeaten into ‘believing’—they stood out of respect during moments when standing occurs traditionally during the liturgy, but no kid was ever forced, for example, to recite the Nicene Creed.”
She listed intently, this woman with a wicked sense of humor who didn’t suffer any fool gladly. Then her face lit up, and she began to recite the creed: “Y’all believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth….”
And then we both collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. I might in fact be the worst Episcopalian I know. But back in those days, when we were knee-deep in founding the school, I recall a church campaign as shown in a series of thoughtful posters. One in particular grabbed me; I can’t quote it verbatim, but its message went something along the lines, Thomas doubted—why can’t you?
I mentioned the Bocelli performance to Chef David and asked if he would listen to it with me, and he said sure. “I’m a little afraid I’ll cry,” I told him.
He just shrugged and said, “Maybe you should let yourself.”
At a time when nothing seems to make any sense at all, this somehow made all the sense in the world to me. We watched together, were deeply moved. To all the other lessons we seem to be learning right now, or re-learning—how to be kind to one another; how to reinvent ourselves in our work lives; how to make do with only a little of some things, and maybe even do without some others; how to reconnect to the people we love; and on and on—I’ll add, permission to be sad sometimes. It somehow seems a fitting salve, if you can find a jar of it, one that finally helps you push up your sleeves and stay focused on the important things when you must. “We’ll get through this together” is a chorus that seems to echo all around us right now; some of us will. I leave you with Andrea Bocelli and his message of hope, whatever your faith tradition.