Spiritual Journeys in the Time of Coronavirus: How are people of different faiths dealing with isolation?

“The shock of coronavirus has a lot of spiritual potential, leading us to ask, ‘What is real? Why did it happen? Does it matter why it happened? What is the reason for suffering?’” Shana Klinger poignantly stated via Zoom one quarantine afternoon. I asked if she would share a bit of her spiritual journey in the midst of coronavirus because — as a Christian — I was aware of how the church has adapted, but I was curious about those who have different spiritual or religious practices from my own. What has their experience been like?

Klinger and I met five-and-a-half years ago. She was looking for someone to sublet her apartment while she attended an annual Buddhist meditation retreat in Whidbey Island, and I needed a temporary home. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I thought of her as someone who might be able to speak about Buddhist meditation.

“As a Westerner, I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture. For me it’s been about meditation, looking deeply into what causes suffering and happiness, to understand the nature of what it means to be a human being and how to relate as a human being to others. The practice of meditation is about transforming your mind in a way that leads to greater wisdom, patience, kindness and compassion.”

Theran Van Ostrand, vice abbot at Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, is one of 15 residents who live at the Zen Buddhism center. Life for them has proceeded normally, with the exception of no outsiders being allowed in. Soon, however, they are hoping to open the wrap-around porch for others to join in meditation (with masks, at a safe social distance). Due to the insulated nature of the residency program, Van Ostrand has experienced relief from thinking about what his next move ought to be. “It feels like my life has gotten easier because there’s an extra layer of safety — and I don’t need to go out. I’m less restless, and I’m feeling the freedom to settle in.”

I spoke to Elisa Heath, a member of the Jewish community, on Shavuot, the holiday that is celebrated on the 50th day after Passover on which Moses received the Law (also referred to as Pentecost). Although she doesn’t belong to a synagogue in Rhode Island, she works for Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), part of whose mission is to create robust Jewish communities — of particular relevance in the midst of coronavirus. “The need to create platforms for community gatherings immediately became clear. As early as March 20, we were offering Shabbat candle lighting and prayers via Zoom. As a way to personalize it, we asked different people to host. They would be given a prompt such as, ‘What are you thankful for?’and after the ceremony, we would open the floor to others. After the first couple went, I was so teary and choked up. It was a meaningful way to connect.”

Normally, Heath commutes to and from Boston every day. Her schedule is packed with back-to-back meetings, so this time of working from home has afforded her opportunities to have morning workouts, to study and take classes from Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Beth Sholom, and has allowed greater time to reflect. “I can practice full immersion: flip my phone over, focus on the present, I even bought a special journal to use just for this class.” 

Since Passover occurred in the midst of coronavirus, and it is a holiday that emphasizes communal gathering at a time when many young people couldn’t go home or be with friends, the CJP sent Seders in a box. “We are constantly thinking in the present as well as the future. How can we provide the essential need of eating and being fed, both physically and as well as feeding the soul?”

Meanwhile, Lisa Roy considers herself to be pagan, but an “eclectic pagan.” “I follow what draws me, what speaks to my soul,” she said, having discovered this practice as a high school student and developed it on her own. “I’ve joined groups occasionally, but I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” she laughed.

Although quarantine has come with its share of anxieties, it also allowed her time to quiet down, listen to nature and be immersed in it. “We’re typically living in a world separated from nature, so this allows a return to the outdoors. Nature provides sanctuary,” Roy said. “It offers peace. I’m able to meditate. I’m making that time for that now. And I’ve been able to explore what paganism means to me and why it’s part of my life. I can see how it has evolved for me, that how I practice now is different from when I was in high school. I feel like I’m in a transition period, looking to the future.”

Samir Soulaiman is the assistant Imam of the Islamic Center of Rhode Island and the co-founder of Rhode Island’s Americans Helping Others ProspEr (AHOPE). He explained to me that the Quran gives instructions for how to respond in the time of plague: Do not leave your city or homeland, but remain there and demonstrate confidence and faith. Soulaiman was one of the few people who was allowed to be in the mosque at the time of Ramadan — the holiest month of the Islamic calendar — but this year the majority of everyone’s time was spent at home praying together as a family. “We turned our houses into little mosques,” he said. 

His mosque did begin broadcasting services, and some teachers had special programs and teachings (particularly during Ramadan), but it was difficult to not be able to see loved ones, particularly those who are in an assisted care facility that doesn’t allow visitors. “I come from a culture where if I don’t see my mom or dad every day, I feel my day will be ruined. The phone is not the same as being physically present.” 

But ultimately, these challenges were considered more of a test for the believers to see how they respond. “God is not contained in a place,” he said. “It has been a time for us to stay at home, to stop the wheel of life. When there are circumstances that prevent us from meeting, we are still supposed to fast. It doesn’t make our worship any less.”

It’s safe to say these weeks of quarantine disrupted everyone’s routines and prevented religious and spiritual gatherings in the “normal” sense, but a common thread emerged in everyone’s experiences: the time to examine what we believe and its importance to us. There’s an opportunity to dig deeper and, as Klinger said, “examine the inner level. This shattering can be a good thing, if we use it to consider the kind of person we want to be.”

One thing Shana Klinger felt inspired to do was offer her unique gifts, such as meditation classes, for free. She began hosting “Circles of Connection” that allow people to listen to each other, and she teaches people how to listen from a mindfulness and goodheartedness perspective. “Listening can be a form of spiritual practice,” she said, which seems necessary now more than ever. 

“The challenge of the virus has triggered challenges that we haven’t examined before: economic strife, death, the fragility of our circumstances (that it can change in an instant) — and not on an isolated scale, but a grand one,” Klinger concluded. “If there’s anything that shows you what’s most important about being a human being, it’s this. And it’s a choice we have, whether to go back or not.” 

Indeed. What will you choose?

To participate in Shana’s “Circle of Connection” or learn more about her offerings, visit heartmindspace.com

If you’re curious about Zen meditation in a group setting or would like to take an introductory class, visit providencezen.org

For more information about the initiatives of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, you can visit jewishboston.com (or, for RI-based programming: jewishallianceri.org)

To connect with a RI mosque, please visit ricma.org/mosques-institutions