Christianity is a historical religion in the sense that Christians believe God is at work not only in Creation in general, but in every individual life and in the broad sweep of time. He has been specifically and specially active in the history of the chosen people – Israel – and in the life of the Church – the New Israel, both of which have changed the course of the human race. The meaning of his actions is, to be sure, not always immediately apparent. And when it becomes clear is not always welcomed (See Old and New Testaments). A French poet even had the Israelites lamenting to God, “What did we ever do to You that you had to ‘choose’ us?” But He’s always at work. And He knows what He’s doing.
Which, in this troubled season, leads straight to the question: So what is He doing with the multiple waves of this COVID thing? For some people, even for some Christians, sad to say, it’s only an occasion for getting hysterical over partisan politics. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke was hospitalized with the virus this weekend and at the time of this writing is on a ventilator. When he announced that he’d been infected, he wrote in classic Christian terms, “Please pray for me [Author’s note: Please do.] as I begin my recovery. Let us trust in Divine Providence. God bless you.” But instead of solidarity with a fellow Christian who may be on the brink of eternity, the National Catholic Reporter highlighted that he was a “vaccine denier.” At the opposite extreme, some supporters of Burke claimed: Well, it’s the vaccines that are deadly.
The good Cardinal commended himself to Providence, as should all of us given that no one really knows at this point what the important data about the pandemic are, what they would mean if we had them, and what to do with that information to lessen the pandemic’s impact. Infection and mortality rates differ among states and foreign countries, for various reasons. But other than basic prudential steps, it would be hard to say that anyone has figured out the ideal approach to stopping the virus. You can mouth “Follow the science” until you’re blue in the face. But the science is constantly changing, along with the virus – Iceland, for example, seemed a haven but recently “spiked.” The “Science” does not and cannot provide real-time solutions.
This state of things is not so unusual in human affairs as it may seem. Anyone who has been involved in, say, political or military crises in Washington knows that you’re always operating with incomplete information, conflicting interpretations, and the need – still – to make decisions.
So as a first approximation to what He’s doing with the pandemic waves, you might conclude that He’s making it repeatedly clearer to our postmodern technocratic Tower of Babel that we’re not as much on top of things as we thought not so long ago. Also, that the widespread fear of death – which we should know will come in some form someday anyway and should be preparing for – and our anger at medical and political leaders – as if they are minor deities who only need to take our advice to bring the pandemic to an end, are emotions born of our illusions of mastery. Instead of fear and anger, the pandemic should be teaching us humility.
And a certain bravery in the face of death. There’s an old saying: “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Cowering in fear or with your face half-covered is not a life for a human being. It’s shocking that our public discussion of the pandemic focuses almost exclusively on preventing more cases – which is fine so far as it goes. But it’s increasingly evident that we’re going to have to decide at some point, since the virus variants will never go away now, that we have to live our lives anyway, and accept certain levels of risk and death. That’s our situation on earth anyway, virus or no virus.
It’s not surprising that people who don’t believe in Divine Providence give in to illusory and self-destructive emotions. But it’s distressing that most Christians don’t seem to have reacted much differently.
Besides realizing we are not in control, the pandemic might teach us Who is. C.S. Lewis, who after his conversion became Christian to the core, once observed: “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day.”
That sounds quite Christian, and reasonable, and easy enough, except when it’s not – like the present when life and death, freedom and unfreedom, are the stuff of that daily life. But all the more reason to draw away from what anyone can see is mere thrashing around and to seek the peace of our mortality.
Yes, peace and freedom in the understanding that we will die. That used to be a profound truth the Church taught when it was less focused on the horizontal dimension of worldly affairs. Remember thou art dust. Ars moriendi (“The art of dying”). Jesus has conquered death. It sounds like capitulation. But it’s in recognizing that we will die someday – and that dying is not the worst thing that can happen – that we become free to live.
Why has virtually no one in the Church – no bishop (except Burke commending himself to Providence), priest, spiritual director – reiterated that wisdom of our Faith. And called for recollection and calm – even as we work hard at fighting the pandemic? Have we all now become that worldly?
*Image: Noli Me Tangere by Janssens and Wildens, c. 1620 [Museum of Fine arts, Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France]. Abraham Janssens painted the figures of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and Jan Wildens painted the landscape.