“A furious plague . . . burst like a blast on the land, thinning the population and throwing the work of the world into ruin. There was a shortage of labour; a difficulty of getting luxuries …”
That is G.K. Chesterton in his book, A Short History of England, talking about the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, which spread through Europe the middle of the 14th century.
The phrases sound familiar: furious, bursting like a blast, thinning the population, throwing the work of world into ruin. And a difficulty in getting luxuries.
And how about these lines from The Ballad of the White Horse:
As the tall white devil of the Plague
Moves out of Asian skies,
With his foot on a waste of cities
And his head in a cloud of flies…
Also sounds familiar: out of Asian skies, a waste of cities. And the bit about flies reminds me of this passage from a 1932 column in the Illustrated London News:
A fly is a small thing, but flies can be a very big thing. In some tropical countries, I am told, they can appear like great clouds on the remote horizon or vast thunderstorms filling the whole sky. The plague of locusts which afflicts many lands is something much more destructive than the passage of a pack of wolves or the ruin wrought by a stampede of wild bulls or wild elephants. So the seemingly insignificant individual irritation produced by these insignificant individual perversities may be, in its cumulative effect, more corrupting to a whole culture than the great heresies that have been hardened and hammered into a certain intellectual solidity. The spirit of anarchy does not work only by monsters. Even the sages and visionaries of the East have seen a spiritual significance in the fact that even almost invisible insects can be a plague or carry a pestilence; and the ancient name of Beelzebub has the meaning of the Lord of the Flies.
Again, Chesterton fittingly describes the plague that has transformed our lives in recent weeks: more destructive than the ruin wrought by a stampede, a spirit of anarchy, invisible insects. The Lord of the Flies. The Devil.
Unless we are talking about the events leading up to the original Passover, or the aforementioned Bubonic Plague, we don’t usually use the word “plague” to refer to an actual plague. We use it as a metaphor for something else that is sweeping society in a bad way. Perhaps something grotesquely and grippingly evil, such as pornography, abortion, or terrorism. Or something subtly and irritatingly and invisibly evil: rampant consumerism, pervasive materialism, spiritual apathy, the unspoken acceptance of the godless philosophies that have taken over our schools like a disease.
But now we’re dealing with an actual physical plague, a pestilence, a fast-moving and highly infectious virus. And people are dying. Our official strategies to deal with the disease involve isolation, where we have all been sent to our rooms like naughty children, and purification that is anything but a ritual cleansing. But a Christian should be able to see the significance of 40 days in the wilderness. Or 40 years. There could be a major turnover in population.
A society that knows that it is sick, and knows what the sickness is, is suddenly very careful. It is when we are ignorant of the sickness – or choose to ignore it – that we are careless. And with the metaphorical plagues such as pornography and abortion and materialism and godlessness, we have been careless, and the soul of our society has been devastated. But now that our comforts are being threatened, our money, even our very lives, by a physical disease, we are taking notice. We may recover, we may not. Everything could be very different very soon.
Chesterton points out that the Black Death brought that era known as the Middle Ages to an end. It had been a time of great learning, great growth, great stability. It saw the rise of the cathedrals, the universities, the hospitals, led by religious orders in a society that was knit together by one faith and one morality. And then 100 million people died, including the best people, good priests and leaders and solid citizens. Then, Luther and Calvin and Henry VIII led their rebellions against the Church. Western civilization has never recovered. Christianity was torn apart by factions, the Enlightenment did open war on the faith, skepticism and materialism permeated the academy, the humanities became separated from the sciences, the arts became separated from theology, theology became separated from philosophy, philosophy became separated from common sense, and everything became separated from everything else. The world, says Chesterton, has become one wild divorce court.
A little microbe did that.
But I’m hoping this latest plague has the opposite effect of its famous predecessor. I’m hoping that people facing death will start thinking about that thing that is worse than death: damnation. I’m hoping that people will start caring for their souls more than their bodies.
I’m hoping that if our society is really facing ruin, we might consider what a better society looks like, an economy not built on greed and lust and envy, but on virtue. A government not built on legal minutia but on the principles of justice decreed by the Decalogue. Schools that teach Truth. Strong families that honor the sanctuary of the home and the Church, spreading to the whole world a deeper appreciation and adoration of Christ on his throne of glory and in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar.
That’s what I’m hoping the microbe might help bring about. G.K. Chesterton says, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”
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