I have no wish to overdramatize our current challenges, but since many people are reading multiple articles daily about the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps this would be a good time to recall C. S. Lewis’s profound little sermon titled “Learning in War-Time”, preached at Oxford in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the Autumn of 1939. It is a wonderful little piece, and I recommend finding it on-line and reading it whole. But of course Lewis was addressing people who were anxiously wondering what was in store for them in the coming war, whereas we are anxiously wondering what is in store for us if the coronavirus pandemic worsens. Even the most fearful among us would probably be willing to admit that Lewis’s audience had more reason to be anxious than we currently do. They were looking at the very real possibility of nighttime terror bombing, the destruction of entire cities, the deaths of thousands, and possible defeat and enslavement at the hands of Hitler and his mechanized military forces.
And yet Lewis’s lessons still remain relevant and invaluable today as we face our own lesser, but still significant anxieties.
Might we not say about the pandemic, for example, what Lewis said about the war? “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Things like pandemics and wars make death real to us, whereas before most of us keep that thought only abstractly in some back room of our minds. “War makes death real to us,” wrote Lewis, “and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
“Do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is,” Lewis admonished his listeners. Are we not always living in the shadow of death — we just don’t realize it? Hasn’t human culture “had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself”? Did we really think we would be insulated from all the world’s sorrows and troubles if we just kept enough money in our investment accounts or had the right political leaders in charge? If we were laboring under such illusions, it is undoubtedly better for us to be free from them.
Better to realize right now that no matter who is in charge and how much technology we have, what we most must depend on is each other. And when the crisis has passed, we need to remember that our greatest treasure and the most reliable resource we can draw upon are the relationships we have established with others and the common devotion we have to the common good of the community. We are soon going to be topping off the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That’s good, I suppose, although I lack the expertise to know for certain. But I am quite certain that we should be continually topping off our reserves of social capital.
“We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life,’” writes Lewis. “Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil … turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.” The question, of course, is how we face them. You gauge the character of a person, or a people, by how they face adversity. Who doesn’t shine when times are flush and things are going well? It is only when danger threatens that we are tested. Are we up to it? Did we make sufficient investments in our relationships, in our social capital bank accounts? I guess we will find out.
Early indications are that the American people are doing pretty well, at least at staying away from one another; not so well when it comes to hoarding supplies. But all will be well and all manner of things will be well if the hoarders end up sharing graciously with their neighbors if the need arises.
The media, by contrast, have been a hot mess, as everyone suspected they would be. Thank God for the internet; it propagates plenty of rotten information, but at least there one can find solid, reliable information if one searches diligently and intelligently. One might have wished that the mainstream media sources would have called a time-out from their habitual custom of acting like wrestlers shouting at the camera before a WWE smack-down, but people develop habits. When everything is a crisis, you have nothing new you can say and no new habits to call upon when an actual crisis rears its ugly head.
What T. S. Eliot said of the press decades ago remains true:
To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.
True enough. “But to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time,” writes Eliot, “is an occupation for the saint —
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
Are we saints? To whose tune will we choose to dance? We might prefer to say, “My own,” but this is another dangerous illusion. None of us lives alone. I got word today of the death of an old friend whom I have not seen in years who died on a flight back from India. Was it the coronavirus? I have no idea. But whether it was or was not the virus causing all the current panic that caused his death, he is still gone. His family and colleagues suffer the same grief. His life was just as precious, and just as fragile.
Times like these should reveal to us ever more clearly why libertarianism and socialism are both specious systems based on inadequate accounts of the human person. No one’s life ought to be or ultimately can be disconnected from the lives and well-being of others. And yet the State cannot be all things to all people. The State has its role, but it cannot ultimately replace the care and concern of neighbors, any more than any “system” can obviate the need for virtue, for kindness, compassion, courage, generosity, and self-discipline in the face of adversity.
Allow me to end, then, if I may, with a story beautifully recounted in a wonderful article by Providence College Professor Holly Taylor Coolman entitled “Amidst Plagues”, which, in spite of the title, was about foster care and not about our current pandemic, and yet whose lesson is completely relevant nonetheless.
“Between the 2nd and the 6th centuries,” writes prof. Coolman, “when Christianity was still new, a series of devastating plagues struck the Roman world. Sweeping across the Empire, they took the lives of as many as one-third of the population, devastating families and cities. In the 3rd century, one particularly vicious outbreak appeared. At its height, from 250 to 262, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in the capital city of Rome. Those struck down suffered a horrible, painful death.
“Even in an age that did not understand the details of germ theory, the danger of contagion was well-known. Many of those who could, fled, including pagan physicians and priests who abandoned major cities during significant outbreaks. Those who were most able to assist the victims, then, abandoned them. Those suffering were left to suffer alone. In the midst of this many Christians took a different path. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria reported that:
Many of our Christian brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbor and cheerfully accepting their pains.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, said explicitly that he regarded the situation as a test of sorts.
What a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick.
“What sort of people … were these early Christians?” asks Prof. Coolman. “What conception of justice could impel them to rush to serve those who suffered—even at profound risk to themselves? And, perhaps most importantly, what would it mean for us to imagine them as our standard and guide? We would have to imagine a people so deeply committed to their neighbors that they would risk their lives for them—and risk their lives perhaps not even to save them, but simply to be present and perhaps to speak to them of another life.”
The question Christians must ask themselves today is: can we still imagine such a people as our standard and guide? Or are we going to continue to have our imaginations filled with the ghosts and ghouls and terrors fed to us daily by the media, who feed off our anxiety and panic like a vampire feeds off blood? Christian hope is bolstered by the blood of a different kind of death, a sacrificial death by which death was destroyed. “Human culture,” as C. S. Lewis told his audience of frightened British citizens who would soon face the terrors of the Blitz, “has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”
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