Despite appearances, there have been many other times like these (famines, wars, plagues), though none perhaps that has so effectively brought the entire globe to so nearly complete a standstill. But there are parallels, instructive parallels.
Just over 1600 years ago, for example, Catholics had their world – a world they shared with numbers of non-believers – rocked. In 410, the Vandals, whose name has become synonymous with “marauding thugs,” sacked the city of Rome, which had stood largely untouched and untouchable for 1000 years. This crisis produced, among believers and pagans alike, deep existential angst, questioning, and insecurity.
In God’s Providence, a man addressed this crisis and its fallout: the bishop of a rather small diocese in North Africa named Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.). Through the lens of a seamless scriptural and sacramental (which is to say, Catholic) faith, he composed, over the course of thirteen years, a response in the form of a winding reflection on both history (ever in flux) and human nature (unchanging since the Fall).
Reading his City of God is still worth the time and effort; it richly repays both. Besides the pagans who identified the cause of the world’s demise with the abandonment of the pagan gods (and the ascendance of Christians), Augustine also had to contend with many troubled fellow Catholics, some of whom had presumed that, now that the empire was officially “Christian” (since the early 380s by an imperial act), God would naturally protect them from such calamities. They had imagined that this betrothal of Church and state signaled the beginning of constant progress, prosperity, and divine protection. Their weak faith (in a weak idea) was unsettled by the events unfolding daily, well beyond their control.
Early in the first book of City of God, Augustine observed (referring to the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5) that both the good and wicked experience the vagaries of this life: its ups and downs, inconveniences and annoyances, joys, misfortunes, bitterest sorrows.
The difference is not that the virtuous are shielded from such tragedies while the wicked are left to undergo them. The difference lies in the one who experiences them: “the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.”
Augustine brings into relief the fullest meaning of life and destiny, which transcends the here and the now, the current historical or temporal order. Christians, living in the here and now, do not live simply for the here and now. Those who lament life’s miseries (the world is indeed rife with sadness and suffering) as if this temporal order were all that Christians possessed or could hope for are themselves suffering from spiritual myopia. The virtuous will make good use even of the inconveniences and misfortunes of this life, growing in patient endurance, hope, and charity. The wicked will simply grow more bitter, resentful, suspicious, and ill-tempered by the same experience.
I discovered early on in this now-global drama, largely from living in a community of about 170 rather tightly packed seminarians and priests, that trials like this quickly reveal the weaknesses and flaws in our character; our worst selves tend to be manifested in moments of heightened tension and stress.
Anger, resentment, impatience, willfulness, intense self-absorption, and emotional fragility were just some of the less savory aspects of fallen human nature that I encountered in the past few weeks (some in myself!).
One way to make “good use” of the current calamity is to identify what darker aspects of our fallen personality have emerged during the uncertainty and stress of the past few weeks. And then name them and repent of them.
In the face of famines, wars, and plagues throughout history, the Church has regularly exhorted us to repentance, the first and most basic element in Jesus’s preaching. In this life, we will never (unless we’re fools) be able to say to ourselves, “I’ve mastered the Christian life; my work is done.”
We are always, as Augustine teaches, peregrini, pilgrims or wayfarers, or, as Thomas Aquinas was fond of saying, in via, on the way. The “there” where we are headed cannot be found simply in this life. But at the same time, the life to come is not remote; it begins here. It began at our baptism.
We began living now as if it were then, so to speak, by our baptismal configuration to Christ, the risen and glorified Lord, to whose Body we have been associated by grace and whose glory we are called to manifest in this temporal order, here and now, through the charity which is his own at work in us and through us. But the age to come, while breaking forth into our own fallen order by the Risen Lord’s glory manifested in his Church, is not yet fully achieved in the here and now. We still contend with sin, sickness, suffering, and death.
We know that sickness and death, like the sin that infects us all, are the Lord Jesus’s enemies. We also express, in our Paschal faith and worship, that he has conquered them. While we share already, here and now, in that victory, we also know that the full experience this victory will not be attained in this life. We are made, by grace, for more than this life.
As Augustine reminded his stressed and confused contemporaries: “Real and lasting happiness is the distinct possession of those who worship that God by whom it alone can be conferred.” As we prepare to enter the holiest week of the year, let every one of us identify and repent of our sins, grow in charity and in hope, build one another up, and reach out in whatever way we can to those most hurt and affected by this current scourge. And in so doing manifest the victory and the glory, even here and now, of the Risen Lord Jesus.
*Image: Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo by the Master of St. Augustine, c. 1490 [The MET, New York]