A number of years back, I visited the building where I went to grammar school in the East New York section of Brooklyn. St. Rita’s was, at that time, packed with children. Almost every classroom had a Sister as a teacher who belonged to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. There was a very distinctive smell in the school, similar to soap of some kind.
I went to school there for 8 years, and it is in that building that I made friends, learned about my faith and got acquainted with the English language. I had many memories of the place, most of them wonderful, some of them scary!
As I went into the building in my recent visit, many feelings rushed out at me. The actual building seemed to hold the past in the walls. It was no longer a Catholic School, but was going to be leased. I will never forget the onrush of feelings that overwhelmed me as I entered what seemed to me a building that had shrunk! It was me, of course, that I had gotten bigger!
I think about the importance of place as places are beginning to be abandoned through fear of illness and everyone is doing everything from home and working remotely. Kids are now learning at home. But I cannot help thinking how much they are losing by not being in an environment of learning, in front of a teacher who could ‘exude’ the passion for learning. Some things are like radiation: you have got to be there and, if you are not there, one encounters a loss, and maybe a large one.
Let us say that, for instance, this education at home through computers becomes permanent. One can cite on the positive side that there are great savings. We don’t need a building with all the headaches it brings: boilers, repairs and cost. It seems like a win-win situation. But is it the same? Being in a classroom with other students, absorbing the heat and passion of the teacher’s love of the subject, seeing first-hand the enthusiasm around one, being present to the reality of the smells and sounds of the place: these things are non-tangibles but irreplaceable. In short, being surrounded by the reality of place and the synergy of the community of learning is an important reality that should not be given up. Can we quantify adequately the advantages of real presence to one another for the education not only of the mind but of the heart?
Even in business, working from home may incur losses. Being tied to a screen does not include the friendships developed and the insights attained by the proximity of others trying to find common solutions for the business at hand.
And in all this, we must factor the importance of variety and getting out of the usual that movement makes. It is healthier and may have other very positive results.
In the realm of the spirit, place has an even greater impact. When we opened the Church last week for the first time since it was shuttered due to the Pandemic, the faces of the people told a wonderful story. They were ‘home’ again! While it is true that one can pray to God anywhere and that God is not limited by geography, the Church building is a positive and powerful symbol of the spiritual quest and the reality of it.
Likewise, Spiritual Communion has many benefits, but it is not the same as actually receiving the very Body and Blood of our Lord. All who have been fasting from the Holy Eucharist may never take for granted actually receiving Holy Communion again!
What I am trying to say is that virtual communication and virtual presence are a very important benefit in these odd and difficult times. They allow us to continue with the work of the Lord and the education of our children, but we must never be complacent about the long-term deficits of living like this.
Children should be in an environment of education as worshipers should be in a total sensory ambiance of devotion. Virtual is not real. It is only a simulation, a kind of presence but not the real thing.
Hopefully there will be many things that we will never take for granted again. Perhaps that is the ultimate message to us in adjusting to this Pandemic: don’t take the ordinary for granted. It is a gift.