Arts & Humanities Faculty Research in the time of COVID-19

June 16, 2020
Suzanne Toczyski

Dr. Suzanne Toczyski, PhD

When did you first start thinking about COVID-19? I mean, beyond responding to it in your daily life, sheltering in place, and in your professional life, reconfiguring your classes for remote instruction?

St. Francis de Sales
St. Francis de Sales

As the reality of sheltering in place for an extended period hit home, I began to think about the primary figure of my research, 17th-century bishop, theologian and saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and how he must have been an encouraging voice during times of plague in his era.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, much of France, and particularly the city of Paris, was hit with plague almost one out of every three years; Francis’ spiritual directee, Jane de Chantal, with whom he founded the Visitation Order of Holy Mary, would put the convent’s financial resources and womanpower into efforts to help victims of the plague. While I don’t know that French residents sheltered in place during such times, they surely craved comforting words and useful strategies for coping with death and disaster, especially in the spiritual realm.  Francis de Sales was a powerful and compassionate orator who spoke to the hearts of his listeners, offering them down-to-earth advice, helping them to understand how to ground themselves in mindful meditative practices in order to combat the anxiety and fear they must have felt as death took their loved ones, friends, family and neighbors alike.  For his Catholic listeners, Francis de Sales’ advice would have helped them find peace in troubled times:  Do not look forward in fear to the changes and chances of this life; rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God, to whom you belong, will in his love enable you to benefit from them.  He has guided you thus far in life, and He will lead you safely through all trials; and when you cannot stand it, God will take you lovingly into his arms.  Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day.  He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.  

What were the research questions you were asking beforehand and when did you first start connecting COVID-19 to these questions?

Before the pandemic and still today, my research focused on representations of women in the work of Francis de Sales, particularly in his Traité de l’amour de Dieu.  While I am continuing that line of research, I have been thinking a great deal about how people today are finding solace through the more difficult moments of this pandemic (and all of the political and social upheaval of these last weeks as well).  Solitude can be frightening, but it can also be a place for growth in wholeness; on the other hand, community, our communal existence, feeds us – how, then, do we continue to connect while staying physically isolated, removed from friends and family?  how do we maintain the ties that bind without physical presence, without each other’s concrete company?  to what inner strength or outer resources do we turn when we really just want to weep and despair?  In the time when many of us are plagued with fears of death, job loss, isolation and more, how can we adapt to the changes and remain compassionate, other-centered individuals?

What questions do you think you’ll be asking six months from now?

To me, personal and spiritual connection is a lifelong endeavor, one that requires openness to change and transformation, and a willingness to accept what we are given and work for the good of others.  While I don’t know that my research focus will change radically, I am now investing a great deal more time educating myself about racial and social justice, as well as learning more every day about how to maintain psychological and spiritual well-being in times of crisis and, hopefully, helping others to do the same.

The art and literature of the 17th century – particularly the Baroque era – was a direct product of the ever-present fear of death and destruction; artists and writers portray vividly, sometimes ostentatiously, the sufferings of humanity, depicting passion (suffering) with passion (energy).  But they also capture the human need and capacity for intimacy and relationship.  A personal and spiritual life grounded in mindfulness and generosity and justice may be the unexpected results of the sufferings endured in times of plague and difficulty – certainly, for Francis de Sales, for whom close, personal friendships were essential to human well-being, these elements bind us to one another in ways that are life-giving and transcend our daily plagues, furthering our efforts on behalf of our neighbors, a possible silver lining to what has been and continues to be a time of great strife in our world.