St. Mary's Seminary & University

What Shall I Do With My Time?: Thinking About Hospitality In The Time of the Coronavirus

The following is taken from Dr. Arthur Sutherland’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

 Arthur SutherlandAs we all know, these are indeed extraordinary times. I want, however, to use caution in how far I go in affirming this idea. I want to be careful with my words. These are extraordinary times for some people, but not for everyone.

Let me explain. Like yours, my life is interrupted. Over the past several months, my routines, my abilities, and my desires have become out of sync with my expectations. My new language includes words and metaphors that I did not plan to use, and some I didn’t know, before March. The COVID-19 virus has brought words like “sheltering in place,” “social distancing,” and “Instacart.”

More disturbing to me is how often I hear people talk about “feeling imprisoned” or “going stir-crazy.”   These words, phrases, metaphors, and others like them, trouble me. It is the language of incarceration. When we say, “stir crazy,” we are using a slang term coined by prisoners in the 1850s to describe their feeling of mental imbalance. When we use these words, we are speaking like the condemned. We are protesting our lack of freedom. When we use these words, we are robbing the jailed to pay for our self-pity. In contrast, listen to how an actual prisoner, the Apostle Paul, described his life:

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12)

In this passage, Paul has not wrapped his face with a crying towel. There is no sense that his imprisonment was going to overturn other ways of viewing his life.

I recently read an article by Jerry Metcalf, a man incarcerated in Michigan who writes for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. In his essay, “No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison,” he sets us straight:

For those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you—as someone used to suffering in long-term confinement—is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for.

And for some reason if you still find yourself going stir-crazy after all the deep breaths and the journey inwards, then try more straightforwardly considering my situation. I’d give anything to trade places with you right now.

I’m scared to death. I may die all alone in prison without any of my loved ones around to comfort me and send me off. I don’t want the last faces I see to be those of the two cruel prison guards assigned to watch over me while I slip away.

It’s almost as if the coronavirus were specifically designed to kill off those locked away from society. I know this isn’t literally the case. But this is a virus that is airborne and most affects people in confined, overcrowded spaces.

There is no place for us to hide. We have no home to sequester ourselves in. It is physically impossible for us to separate.

In considering Metcalf’s rejoinder to our self-pity, I looked back at my own research and interest in theological hospitality in search of how to rethink my language use during this pandemic.

How do prisoners think about time?  As I wrote earlier (before COVID 19 started jumping from cage to cage in Wuhan), the interplay between faith, hope, and time is more heightened for prisoners than for ordinary folk. In fact, next to the concept of space, time is the critical element in understanding the metaphysics of prison life.

Contemporary prisoners have developed their own language for this: they speak of “doing time;” “serving time;” “passing time;” and “hard time.”  And then there is “Buck Rodgers Time”– a parole date so far into the next century, a prisoner cannot imagine release.

In the New Testament, Christian prisoners fend off this despair by making use of three perspectives of time: the chronological; the ritualistic; and the imperatival:

You might pause to think about how you live out these three types of time:

Let me add here that no amount of binge watching on Netflix is going to stop the terror that domestic abuse victims have of another day at home and no place to get away.[2]  My “imprisonment” is not like theirs.

There is a second way to rethink our language. This way is an action that breaks out of self-pity and into the Gospel. “I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.”  The boredom and tedium of prison life is well-documented. What is less known is how rarely prisoners are visited. A 2014 study published in the journal Crime and Delinquency found that Florida inmates, on average, received only two visits from friends or family during the entire length of their stay behind bars.[3] 

As for the ancient world, visiting a prisoner was a difficult and life-threatening risk. Visitors often had to navigate horrid conditions, hold their breath against stench, hear the sounds of executions, recognize that they might not be able to leave once inside, and all people–but especially women, as the 3rd Century document The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas shows–had to protect themselves from abuse and rape.

Craig Wansink, in his book Chained in Christ, points out the one’ s ability to visit a loved one or friend could require bribing a judge or jailer.[4]  He quotes a section of Pliny’s Natural History where a woman who, shortly after giving  birth,  went to visit her imprisoned mother and kept her from starving by breastfeeding her. The most stunning quote is from Chrysostom’s On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, in which he says, “If one wanted to study horrible or unique diseases, one should visit prison.”

It will be difficult, if not impossible during this time of COVID-19, to visit prisoners. However, it is not difficult to visit them through the mail. You might want to investigate how letter-writing can be life-giving.[5]  

What all of us can do is to visit those right next to us. Yesterday, I got two phone calls. Both came from friends I had not spoken with for a while. We had great conversations and reconnected, discovering new interests we had in common. In one of the calls, my friend Timothy Cannon issued a challenge: “Make a list of the people that you have not spoken with in two years,” he said, “and then decide to call them.”  I think he is right. The fastest exit out of self-pity is through the door marked “self-giving.” 

In this time when our language is changing–when we talk about sheltering in place, quarantine, and being imprisoned–let me introduce another word: “propinquity.” The word means “nearness,” and in social psychology it describes how close we are to each other either physically or emotionally. I’d like to hear a little less talk about the troubles of social distancing and a little more about joy of social propinquity. After all, propinquity is just another word for incarnation, and incarnation is God imprisoned in flesh.

[1] A. Sutherland, I Was A Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Abingdon, 2006).


[3] J Cochran, et. al, “Who Gets Visited in Prison? Individual-and Community-Level Disparities in Inmate Visitation Experiences,” Crime and Delinquency (July 2014).

[4] C. Wansink, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).



Associate Dean Pat Fosarelli has just published a timely booklet, How to Talk to Children and Teens about COVID-19.” Drawing on her expertise both as a pediatrician and as a practical theologian specializing in faith development and spirituality, Dr. Fosarelli has provided a needed resource for anyone engaging with children and teens during this time.

“This pandemic can be a time of emotional and spiritual growth for us all,” says Dr. Fosarelli, “but that will only happen if we choose growth rather than denial.”

The downloadable booklet is inexpensive, and can easily be purchased for an entire church or school. Even in the midst of our own fear, suffering, and anxiety, we can have honest and compassionate conversations with children and teens about this worldwide tragedy and provide hope for a better future. The book contains activities for helping children of all ages explore their own reactions and consider what they can do for others right now. Brief, authoritative, and filled with wisdom and guidance, it is available immediately for download.

“A virus that human beings have not seen before is now infecting millions of people all over the globe….If this is difficult for adults to fathom, it is nearly impossible for children and teens to understand.”

How to talk to children and teens about COVID 19 book cover

Pat Fosarelli


Please find the attached release that has been issued by the Diocese of Buffalo.

St. Mary’s Seminary – Buffalo

Think about the phrase ‘marking time.’ In common usage, it denotes waiting idly, nothing much happening, or even soldiers marching in place. But both Jews and Christians mark time according to the story of our faith. Last week Jews kept Passover, and Christians in the west passed through Holy Week into the great 50 days of Easter. We mark time by what we remember and what we anticipate in the stories, prophecy, and poetry of our faith. The fourth virtual #TheologyTownHall, held Wednesday, April 15, 2020, marked time with a performance (by Dr. Radosevich) of the story of three strangers walking to Emmaus , and interpretation (by Dr. Hancock) of Isaiah’s imaginative hope that death—the swallower—will be swallowed instead, and the psalmist’s confident assurance—despite apparent scarcity—of divine presence and provision. The following is taken from Dr. Rebecca Hancock’s presentation. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

Grocery store aisle with empty shelvesI imagine that the feasting imagery of Isaiah 25 may sound a bit incongruous in a time when the Coronavirus pandemic has led to problems with supply chains, empty shelves, and long wait times for grocery delivery service.

For some, this is more than simply a question of whether food and other products are available, but whether or not they have the financial resources for necessities. We are faced daily with our communal lack of resources: lack of protective equipment; ventilator shortages; not enough tests; and the absence of a vaccine to name just a few. As we hear daily reports of death tolls—in the world, in the country, in our state, and in even in our own zip codes—the image of death’s destruction may also seem far removed from our everyday experience and worries.

But the prophet’s words in Isaiah 25 are not meant to be heard as descriptive of the contemporary reality, but rather as a hopeful proclamation of a future dramatic reversal. This text is situated in the midst of several chapters in Isaiah that take a cosmic focus and emphasize YHWH’s universal kingship. Often called a “little apocalypse,” these chapters point beyond the immediate experience of the community toward a realm of divine activity that has both spatial and temporal dimensions.

In the verses here, the text describes a celebration following divine deliverance from oppressive forces. In the first verse, wine is mentioned twice. Throughout Isaiah, wine and vineyards often served a metonym, a stand-in for a wide variety of food sources. Here, wine and the rich foods listed recognize God’s provision of sustenance while also emphasizing that the food here is no paltry offering, but a lavish banquet. In an interesting contrast, the image of feasting also has a figurative counterpart—the swallowing up of death.

A few textual details stand out:

The prophet also uses highly symbolic language to underscore the ultimate power of God over death. In the background, we hear echoes of ancient myths, now transformed. The Canaanite god of death and the underworld, Mot, is often described as having an insatiable appetite—a mouth that stretches open to devour, lips stretching open to consume. It is Mot’s mouth that swallows the Canaanite god Baal “like a dried olive.”

In the Old Testament, death is also often personified. Very frequently, the Bible depicts death and Sheol, the place of death, as “swallowing up” its victims. For example, in Isaiah 5:14 (NRSV) we hear:

“Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure.”

In a surprising reversal, it is not death who swallows in Isaiah 25, but God who consumes. Death—so often personified as hungry, insatiable, and active—is here the passive recipient of God’s final action. Immediately preceding Isaiah 25:6-9, the prophet recounts God’s action on behalf of the poor and needy, providing a shelter and refuge to those in distress. The destruction of death in this text, then, is closely connected to the establishment of God’s justice and the celebration of God’s kingship.

The other text before, us, Psalm 114, is a hymn celebrating God’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s provision in the wilderness. The opening verses focus on God’s past action on behalf of Israel, juxtaposing two images of Israel’s crossing a body of water: first crossing the sea as they fled Egypt; and second crossing the Jordan River as they entered the promised land. In this psalm, we encounter highly symbolic language as the physical world is personified: the sea looks back and flees; the Jordan turns back; the mountains skip like rams; and the hills skip like lambs.

Like Isaiah 25, there are allusions to ancient mythological traditions, once again transformed. In both Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths, the sea is a deity with which the chief god does battle. In the psalms, the sea, and water in general, are often personified, serving as a frequent metaphor for any chaotic or destructive force, both human and cosmic.

In Psalm 114, those forces that represent opposition to God are portrayed as cowed by God’s mere presence. No battle is waged between YHWH and sea; the sight of the divine warrior is enough to cause the water to retreat. The rest of the physical landscape also reacts viscerally, leading the psalmist to call for a communal response to this theophany: “Tremble, o earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” The psalm’s final verse reprises the theme of God’s mastery of water, here not as a conqueror, but as a provider: God provides water where there was none. God’s presence transforms the physical world in ways that are both awe-inspiring and a life-giving.

In both Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114, two central themes are important for us to hear in this particular Easter season:

Both of these central foci are manifestations of a root metaphor—that of divine kingship. Employing ancient myths in texts about divine rule makes a polemical claim: God’s rule is universal and neither imperial powers nor destructive natural forces pose any threat. The establishment of God’s reign results in death’s destruction and the provision of generous, life-giving abundance for all.

Dean Laytham’s Introduction:  

Every week a preacher asks her- or himself, “How do I proclaim the Good News for this people, gathered in this place, at this time? What is the Good News here and now for us?”

That perennial question is peculiarly focused this Holy Week, as the now has been exponentially magnified by corona-crisis, as the us has been radically diminished—even dismembered—by social distancing, and the here has been displaced and destabilized by migration to virtual platforms.

This Holy Week, preachers bent on proclaiming Good News face a particular version of the perennial question: “How do you proclaim the empty tomb … to an empty room?” 

Three EI faculty shared their answer, each focusing on one phase of the Easter Triduum:

Dr. Janyce Jorgensen, pastor at Zion Lutheran in York, PA, addressed Maundy Thursday, asking how can we “get real” with a service that is so tactile and sensory.  In a year when we will not gather together to take, bless, break and give bread, Jorgensen reminded us (quoting Henri Nouwen), that this year Jesus is taking us, blessing us, breaking us, giving us. Here is the full text of her talk, with the Nouwen references:  Jorgensen on Maundy Thursday

Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel, spoke of the “existential texture” of Good Friday in the Black Church, which finds hope in surprising places–even a condemned man’s cross. He then referenced the ‘glad surprise’ of Easter, as illuminated in this quote from Thurman:

“… if stumbling in the darkness, having lost his or her way, one finds the spot at which they fell is the foot of a stairway that leads from darkness into light.  Such is the glad surprise.  This is what Easter means in the experience of the race.  This is the resurrection!  It is the announcement that life cannot ultimately be conquered by death, that there is no road that is at last swallowed up in an ultimate darkness, that there is strength added when the labors increase, that multiplied, peace matches multiplied trials, that life is bottomed by the glad surprise.” (Howard Thurman – “Resurrection: The Glad Surprise” in Meditations of the Heart)


Dr. Dave Greiser, pastor of North Baltimore Mennonite Church, reflected on preaching bodily resurrection this Easter, focusing on 1 Corinthians 15. He ended with three tips for how virtual preachers might handle the ’empty room.’ Full text: Greiser – preaching Easter – EI Town Hall 

View full Town Hall
(forward to about the 3:25 mark for the formal beginning)

Please take comfort in this original piece from our faculty member Jennifer Miller.

Following are notes from Dr. Pat Fosarelli’s presentation, as well as a poem shared by Dr. John Hayes, for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 1, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

What is stress?

What is the body’s response to negative stress?


As members of the Body of Christ, each one of us is important in the overall health of the Body.

Fear is the Cheapest Room in the House
by Khwaja Hafez Shirazi (q.s.) (1326-1389 CE)

Fear is the cheapest room in the house
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,

for your mother and my mother
Were friends.

I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse tomorrow.
We’ll go speak to the Friend together.

I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Somewhere in this world-
Something good will happen.

God wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Him.