Right before Chicago shut down in March I went to the theater. I had tickets for three shows that weekend. Two of them had to be cancelled due to the mayor’s orders closing large venues. The third, in a storefront theater on the very northern edge of the city, was small enough to remain open, at least for the weekend. I still didn’t fully understand how COVID-19 spread, so I wasn’t worried about the fact that a group of strangers would be singing at me for two hours. With two other Jesuits from my community, I bravely (or maybe stupidly?) attended the (unbeknownst-to-us) final performance of Theo Ubique’s Grey Gardens. Despite my ignorance about the virus, I did appreciate the irony of watching a show about two women who live alone in their house, cut off from the outside world, and skeptical about strangers coming inside.
Just a week prior to Grey Gardens, I had been in New York City. Even less conscious of the raging pandemic, I had attended another musical, the still-in-previews production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. I definitely did not appreciate the irony of watching a show in the epicenter of a global health crisis about how our lives are not fully lived alone, but when we can depend on one another.
As you may be able to tell from my (in hindsight) very rash behavior in the early days of the pandemic, I love musicals. I love watching them, discussing them, debating about them, criticizing them, comparing them. I work out listening to soundtracks from esoteric musicals from the 1960s. I appeared in musicals every year from when I was 5 to 22, and wrote a musical in lieu of a philosophy final.
But musicals are not merely a passion of mine, they were often my most profound experiences of prayer. Before I became a Jesuit and really learned how to pray they were a quick route to the divine. The sustained attention, collective effervescence, heightened emotions of a good show meant Jesus often found me in those cramped seats. Plus, it was one of the few places I turned off my cell phone, for fear of an angry diva yelling at me if it went off.
I went to see Dear Evan Hansen, in its Off-Broadway run. A friend of mine had seen the Washington, D.C. tryout and insisted that I get tickets before it became a runaway hit. (She was right, by the way.) I knew very little about the show, except that the songwriters had produced a small musical that my theater camp friends liked to listen to on repeat.
I was already a Jesuit when I attended an early performance with two dear friends. I had recently made our 30-day Silent Retreat, the Spiritual Exercises. In making the retreat, St. Ignatius instructs retreatants to imagine themselves in Gospel scenes with Jesus. Walk with him, talk with him, see who he sees, and eat what he eats. In those imaginings, Jesus performs miracles for us and heals us from our ills and casts out our demons just like those of the people in the stories.
On my retreat, I spent many days exploring my strained relationship with my deeply troubled younger brother.1 Jesus told us the story of the prodigal son together. We experienced His knowing us intimately in the way he described the relationship of the brothers. I stood as the older brother, resentful of the second and third and fiftieth chances he had been afforded. Still, it was abundantly clear that Jesus would continue to give him chances and hoped I would move in that direction too. In the weeks and months after the retreat, I was still unpacking exactly how Jesus was calling me to love my prodigal brother.
As the musical started, Jesus came alive in my prayerful imagination as the character of Connor Murphy, a troubled teen whose suicide sparks the events of the show. Much like my experience on the retreat, I re-experienced moments of my life in a new context. At the Second Stage Theater on 43rd Street, a group of actors seemed to know us intimately as well, portraying fights that so closely resembled our own. As Connor’s sister sang about how he had so disrupted her life, it felt like they eavesdropped on conversations I’d had with my sister. For years, we struggled to find a way to love someone who had caused so much strife.
Tears overwhelmed me. The song named and crystallized the acute pain I’d carried for years and thought I had resolved on the retreat. Such pain doesn’t get resolved so easily, though. My sobs started to distract other audience members.
And as He is wont to do in such moments, Jesus showed up.
My friend rummaged in her purse for a tissue and grabbed my arm in support. With her touch, He told me, “I know, I’m here.” He stood with me, like He had so often on the retreat, amidst the anguish that I feared would overwhelm me. I made it through the rest of the show, barely.
After Company and Grey Gardens, I knew it would be a while before I saw another show. Sitting in too-small seats while people spit on you is a recipe for disaster as a respiratory virus is raging. I have happily made do with filmed productions and obscure soundtracks and YouTube wormholes of actresses belting. It hasn’t been quite the same, of course, but it’s a necessary sacrifice.
Then I got vaccinated last month, and I realized: musicals are coming back soon.
Jesus has shown up for me in countless, unexpected ways since everything shut down last March. I have no doubt he’ll continue to. Still, I’m eagerly awaiting the day he finds me again in a dark room surrounded by strangers experiencing something transcendent together.
- I’ve written about my relationship with my brother before: https://thejesuitpost.org/2018/03/harry-potter-and-the-prisoner/ ↩