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The Present Apocalypse

This unveiling might not be the end of the world, but it's the end of a world -- and churches will be shaken to their foundations
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The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word meaning “to uncover,” or “to reveal.” In English Bibles, the word we use for the final book of the Bible is “Revelation,” which is to say, “Apocalypse.”

Cards on the table: I’m not saying that we are now in the Apocalypse. No man knows the day or the hour. But we are undoubtedly in an apocalypse, and the most serious of our lifetime. We Christians need to talk about this. The fact that there are always Christians ready to scream their heads off about the End of the World doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider the meaning of what’s happening now. It may not be the end of the world, but it is without question the end of a world.

Two things this morning prompted me to think along these lines. The first was last night’s earthquake in Croatia. A friend in Zagreb sent me this image of the inside of the city’s Jesuit church:

The second thing was this report on the economic catastrophe overtaking the world. Economists have nothing to compare it to:

Today came news from Italy that the state has ordered all non-essential factories closed, in a desperate bid to slow down the disease. The government is sacrificing the national economy to save lives. Nobody can imagine that any government would choose that path unless it were absolutely necessary. And nobody should imagine that the Italian government will be the last one to take this extreme move.

We should all prepare ourselves, psychologically and otherwise, for the coming chaos. We are going to be poor. We should do this as soberly as possible, but we should do this. Economic collapse is the kind of thing that can bring down a political system. When Russia collapsed after the fall of communism, the economy, already weak, was absolutely crushed. People suffered terribly. This is what eventually brought Putin to power, democratically: the suffering Russian people could not bear the incompetence of the state’s response under Yeltsin.

It is extremely difficult for Americans, who have known no other form of government than liberal democracy, to conceive of our constitutional order falling apart. This could do it. Mass death and economic collapse could create the conditions under which most Americans would accept some form of strongman rule as a better alternative. We have to hope and pray that it doesn’t get so bad, and work against that possibility, but it could happen here. American exceptionalism will be a victim of this pandemic. If the present government is revealed to be looking after patrician interests over the interests of the common people, God help them. I’m thinking about Sen. Burr, with his stock trades, but I’m also thinking about President Trump and Steven Mnuchin. This tweet from a left-wing activist may not be reliable, but if these people are even thinking about this, it is time to crush those thoughts now. The fury that will be unleashed on these leaders will be straight fire:

Again, this may not be true, but it is certainly plausible. If the Republicans think this is going to pass muster with the American people, especially after most of us have been made poor, they are deranged.

I have been thinking for a while now that something catastrophic would come along that would empower the State to crush Christianity. I have not been able to imagine realistically what that might be. Well, now I know. It is not that the State will immediately turn to persecuting believers. It’s that a prolonged emergency, if it produces an authoritarian system, and a caudillo, will have the power to do exactly this.

All around America, and in Europe, churches are closed for the second Sunday running. I believe this is the right thing to do. I strongly commend to you David French’s essay about the difference between Christian courage and Christian vainglory. He begins by talking about a Christian school in Nashville that held a fundraiser on March 7 — an event that ended up spreading the virus to a lot of folks. Excerpt:

There exists within Christianity a temptation to performative acts that masquerade as fearlessness. In reality, this recklessness represents—as the early church father John Chrysostom called it—“display and vainglory.” Look how fearless we are, we declare, as we court risks that rational people should shun. In the context of a global pandemic followers of Christ can actually become a danger to their fellow citizens, rather than a source of help and hope.

Or, put another way, reckless Christians can transform themselves from angels of mercy to angels of death, and the rest of the world would be right to fear their presence. [Emphasis mine — RD]

But just as Christ rejected performative displays, he also rejected cowardice. He demands sacrifice even unto death. Yet taking up one’s cross in imitation of Christ means engaging in purposeful sacrifice. This is the risk of the doctor or the nurse who possesses the courage to continually expose himself or herself to deadly disease to care for the sick and dying. This is the risk of the faithful believer who sheds personal protection to care for the least of these so that they are not alone.

And this person does not then walk into church or to church events—or even surround herself with her own family—to prove God’s divine protection. Were the men and women who were infected at a church event in Nashville not faithful Christians who were fearlessly serving the Lord? Yet one man’s infection still became their infection, and now dozens of people are paying a steep price.

A nation that has seen mass death, and widespread impoverishment, and all of it coming down suddenly, will be a nation susceptible to scapegoating. There will be bad actors from all places — the left, the right, religious, secular, of all races — taking advantage of fear and pain to bring harm to those they hate. All of us have to fight back against this, even if the scapegoating doesn’t affect us. My point is that it is completely possible that the scapegoating can turn against Christians. We have to prepare ourselves for that possibility. The best way to prepare for it is to behave now as the Christians did in the early church: by being of service to the sick and the suffering. But even that might not be enough. In the year 64, Nero scapegoated Rome’s Christians to shift blame for the devastating fire. The historian Tacitus wrote:

Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition – repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, – where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”

This might not happen to us in the days to come. I don’t think it will. But things are happening today that few of us could have imagined as recently as last month. I don’t say these things to frighten my fellow Christians, but only to make you aware of how quickly the situation could get very dark indeed. We need to make ourselves ready.

This crisis will likely last a year and a half, which is how long it may take to come up with a vaccine, barring some miracle. I anticipate that the crisis will result in a vastly more powerful state, one that follows China’s example in using information technology and advanced artificial intelligence to monitor individuals much more closely. The justification will be to be alert for recurrence of disease. It will also, though, empower the state — as in China today — to monitor all our activities. For a preview of what China can and does do right now, I strongly encourage you to read journalist Kai Strittmatter’s book We Have Been Harmonized: Life In China’s Surveillance State. When I wrote my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, I drew on Strittmatter’s reporting. The only reason the US Government doesn’t do the same thing here is not technological limitations, but political ones. Americans wouldn’t stand for it. But we Americans have already welcomed monitoring into our lives via our smartphones, smart speakers, and many other aspects of our consumer lives. The questions is not whether or not Americans will consent to be monitored. The question is whether or not we will consent to the government taking a controlling hand in it.

A prolonged crisis that kills hundreds of thousands, and impoverishes hundreds of millions, could change a lot of people’s minds.

This current apocalypse reveals to us how fragile our way of life is — and always was. From a Christian point of view, this is unquestionably a call to repentance and conversion. 

Here are the final paragraphs of my 2017 book The Benedict Option (here’s a Kindle link):

The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray Matins, and fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza. Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night.

“The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of St. Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”

The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside of the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery, and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.

The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi, and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”

“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”

Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s façade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The 14th century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its façade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.

With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, prayed. Later, amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.

Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake.

“Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.

“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are OK. Much to tell you but just pray. I am well and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”

The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors, and left town.

“[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.

Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years – not days or months – to understand.”

Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the façade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin the rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.

“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat”.

Let it be. Let it be.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

It was true then, it is true now. This sickness and poverty overtaking us offer us a chance to purify our lives. In a message today, the Orthodox priest Father Andrew Stephen Damick urges the faithful to use this time away from church to strengthen ourselves in the habits of spiritual discipline. Excerpt:

So, what do we do? How do we make sure that we take up this cross in such a way that it is in fact joined with the Lord’s cross? How do we prepare now for the return to church?

First, it is utterly critical that you are practicing daily prayer, at least every morning and, God willing, every night, as well. It is hard to establish this habit, I know, but do it now. You may not be able to participate in the sacrifice of the altar right now, but you can offer up the sacrifice of praise and asking for forgiveness and mercy at home. And pray those pre-communion prayers even if you don’t know when you’ll receive communion next. I’m serious about that.

Second, if you live with a family, pray together. Read the Scriptures together. Talk about your faith together. Right now, the community with whom they usually do these things cannot come together. But you are together. Do this together.

Third, set a schedule to practice care for your neighbor—your family first, then the people near you whom God has given you. Check in with them, ask what they need. If you don’t make that into a habit now, you will be neglecting someone God gave you—and you should not be surprised if, when you are in need, you are also being neglected.

Fourth, figure out a way to be consistent in giving to God both through the church and also through other worthy outlets. Mail it in, give through PayPal, automatic bank draft—whatever it is you need to do. If you neglect this habit now, then you will be the kind of person who is not giving as God commanded. Your belief in supporting good works will be eroded by your failure to support good works.

Finally, connect to church life in whatever way you can right now—live-streaming services, reading or listening to good things sent out from church leaders, spiritual books, etc. These things are not substitutes for being there in-person, but they are at least stop-gaps for the moment.

In short, develop habits of worship, education and outreach that you can do at home and that shape your daily life.

If you do these things, then when the time comes to return to church, it will be with rejoicing. If you do not do these things, then there is a very strong possibility that you will have become conditioned by the “new normal,” becoming the kind of person who believes that the norms for Christian life in the New Covenant are not actually really the norms. I mean, I can love God and believe in Him anywhere, right?

I will leave you finally with this thought: Here now is where taking up this cross is not actually just a temporary set of measures to get us through until we can come back to church. Here now is where taking up this cross actually is going to make us stronger, holier, more Christ-like people. How?

When we do come back to church, keep doing these things. That’s right. Keep up the daily worship at home, keep up talking about the faith at home, keep up outreach to your family and neighbors at home, keep up your giving to Christ at home, keep up connecting to good materials at home.

Why? Because that is what we should have been doing all along anyway! This crisis we are now in has revealed to many of us—including myself—how weak we are on the home front of the spiritual battle. Now is the time to become strong. Now is the time to sanctify our homes. Now is the time to commend ourselves and each other and our whole life unto Christ our God.

Read it all. Father Damick is right: this apocalypse reveals how weak spiritually we are, and gives us the opportunity to rebuild ourselves and our families. We are all forcibly cloistered these days. Let’s turn this time to the good by developing monastic habits. These habits will help build us up to endure whatever persecutions may come. The Benedict Option gives you more specific ideas.

Three years ago, Patriarch Kyrill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that the Apocalypse was drawing near. Well, maybe. We know from Christian history, there have been people saying the End Times are upon us since the first generation of Christian. One of these days, though, these doomsayers are going to be right. To repeat the message with which we started: we don’t know if this is the End of History, but we can say confidently that it is the End of a period in history, and the start of something new. The easy, comfortable Christianity that most of us have been living will not endure this time of testing. I am thinking right now of this line from The Benedict Option, referring to my first meeting Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Norcia monastery, in 2015:

When I first told Father Cassian about the Benedict Option, he mulled my words and replied gravely, “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”

Handwriting on the wall, my fellow Christians. Handwriting on the wall.

UPDATE: This is what the new technology will mean. Now imagine an anti-Christian state doing this if they track you to church:

UPDATE.2: At the height of the Great Depression, 1933, the unemployment rate was 24.9 percent: