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Christian Hope and Covid-19

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.

A sign outside of St. Matthew Church in Allouez, Wis., March 13, 2020. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

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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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 36 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

6 Comments

  1. Dr. Randall Smith turns to C.S. Lewis to link the spiritual and civilizational challenge of Covid-19 to the uncertainties of wartime England, and reminds us of the meaning of Christian Hope.

    As of one week ago well over 200 Covid-19 cases were known in my King County in Washington state—Ground Zero in the state and nationally. Plus, at the time, most of the state’s 29 fatalities (nearly all of these from one suburban nursing home). Numbers are climbing.

    The county and now the entire state are in LOCKDOWN. Closed schools, no large groups. No Mass. And nationally, no athletics (the dominant Sunday religion!). The preventive is “social distancing.” St. Ambrose even advises: “Let us take refuge from this world” (Liturgy of Hours for Second Saturday of Lent).

    Covid-19 cases are increasing geometrically, doubling every six days, maybe. To date the real numbers seem a bit ungrounded since we don’t really know the “denominator”. With better detection, what is the actual fatality rate, really? Three percent or maybe only 0.3?

    From the WHO, now a “pandemic”—with more than 125,000 cases worldwide and 4,600 deaths. (For comparison, the Spanish flu of 1918 eventually tallied 500,000 deaths in the United States alone, and 70 million worldwide with ten times that number infected.)

    Dr. Smith’s WARTIME CONNECTION in England bears parallels to many episodes military, including this U.S. Navy story from late April 1969. . .

    North Korea had shot down a large American electronic surveillance plane (EC-121) in international waters, with the loss of all 31 American lives (nearly coincidental with the 29 fatalities, above). The selected response was a “show of force”—a total LOCKDOWN of sorts—with the largest Navy task force since the Korean War. (In all, four aircraft carriers, a battleship and three cruisers, twenty-two destroyers, a few supply ships, and five submarines.)
    On board my aircraft carrier (I was a very junior officer), and like today, lots of HYPE, even without any market-share media talking heads. At first, the Pentagon War Room prognosticated a 50/50 chance of a North Korean tactical nuclear attack within 24 hours (!). With Smith and wartime England, the crews were “anxiously wondering what was in store for them.” My ship was the most expendable of the four carriers, and therefore took the point as guinea pig, some twenty miles ahead of the SEPARATED formation. . . Another version of today’s Covid-19 “social distancing”? (“Good fences [separations] make good neighbors,” Robert Frost).

    In a condition-of-readiness only a notch below General Quarters, there was a new daily ROUTINE, but now especially with heightened bonding. And then nothing happened—just another day at the office!

    So, with Lewis’ sermon, AS A CHRISTIAN “one hopes, in a new spirit, but still [does] the same things […] we are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’”; these are the same.

  2. Wow! Wow! Wow! What a powerful and SO VERY HEALTHY dose of REALITY for this moment and always! Thank you SO much, Dr. Randall B. Smith!! You allowed Jesus to speak unfiltered through you. Again, thank you!! “A wise person thinks about death, but a fool thinks only about having a good time”, (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

    The real crisis is about what is the definition of a REAL human being, and this manufactured crisis is designed to push us away from it and into total criminal selfishness, self-justification and self-absorption, becoming easy-to-control, compliant beasts. When you can easily induce panic in someone, their rational brain, common sense and decency shuts DOWN.

    Jesus is the Guardian of our TRUE Identity. To HIM we must go in all good days and when fear, panic and death come knocking! “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.…”, (Matthew 11:28-29).

  3. “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.”

    The state has done its part to destroy communal bonds, and identity politics has fragmented the precarious situation of mass population areas. Early Christians in the Roman Empire more likely than not at least knew their neighbors and had had some sort of common political identity with them.

  4. Thank you for the reality look and for the great comments. There is a reality also that our bodies listen to our mind. Once I had stage3 cancer and had to travel on very crowded, busy, public transportation to and from treatments (over 40 miles one way) for an extended time, for toxic chemo and radiation. I was advised of my vulnerability and lack of defences. My immune system was destroyed and it was winter and coughing and sneezing were all around me.
    However each time I had to board the standing room only transits I said to myself “WOW what an opportunity to create antibodies!” I also tried to assist those in need around me. I tell you I have never been healthier than then. I did not catch anything except the love of GOD. We have the power of the Almighty, let us behave like it and extend love and care. I also received the sacrament of the sick several times.

    • Wow!! Thank you, “innocent bystander”, for sharing that! Yes, the power of True Faith manifests most times in many other ways than the very showy, spectacular, earth-shaking miracles. Indeed, the very best miracles are quiet and internal, like yours. Like you said, you did give REAL, political-gluten free, “love and care”, even though you had cancer yourself. Wow!! You took care of God’s caring business and God took care of your health business! I rejoice for you! Glory be to GOD!!

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  1. Christian Hope and Covid-19 - Catholic Mass Search
  2. Plagues, Wars, Facebook, and Hope - CatholicMom.com - Celebrating Catholic Motherhood
  3. Catholic Mom: Plagues, Facebook and Hope | JOY Alive in Our Hearts

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