The Hard Road Ahead
I’m sorry I’m late to post this morning. Apparently I have relapse with Epstein-Barr Virus (mononucleosis), which I fought for around three years straight, but which hasn’t been a problem since around 2014 or 2015. With me, it’s triggered by intense stress. Can’t say I’m surprised, given events of the last three weeks. But here we are. I couldn’t get out of bed this morning till around noon. Two doctors have told me I need to take a break to rest, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll post a Pandemic Diaries entry later today, but this is going to be my big post for Friday.
I was moved by apiece in The Spectator, by the science journalist Matt Ridley, titled, “We are about to find out how robust civilization is.” He writes:
Until this year I thought this kind of infectious pandemic could not happen today. The defeat of infectious diseases as a cause of death has been so complete as to seem invincible: plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio, whooping cough and many more eradicated or nearly so. The failure of terrifying new animal-derived viruses like Hanta, Marburg, Sars, Mers, ebola, swine flu, bird flu and zika to cause more than a local or temporary interruption of the march of progress left us complacent. (Only HIV went global.) The advance of science allowing the rapid reading of the genome of the new coronavirus gave us false confidence: we would know how to beat it by the time it got out of China. It seemed that only the most innocuous of common colds, and milder forms of flu, seemed capable of remaining ubiquitous. And coronaviruses are a common cause of the common cold, so (despite Sars) they seemed like pussy cats, not tigers.
It turns out that I and many others were badly wrong. The human race has been playing epidemiological Russian roulette all along. It has taken Mother Nature a long time to put a bullet in the right chamber, combining high contagion with asymptomatic carriers and a significant death rate, but she has done it.
It is just now beginning to dawn on many of us that we face economic devastation of the sort not seen since the Great Depression. The Wall Street Journal editorializes that we cannot sustain a long siege. The Journal makes the necessary point that this is not just about abstract numbers on a balance sheet, and it’s not about “corporate greed.” Excerpt:
If GDP seems abstract, consider the human cost. Think about the entrepreneur who has invested his life in his Memphis ribs joint only to see his customers vanish in a week. Or the retail chain of 30 stores that employs hundreds but sees no sales and must shut its doors.
Or the recent graduate with $20,000 in student-loan debt—taken on with the encouragement of politicians—who finds herself laid off from her first job. Perhaps she can return home and live with her parents, but what if they’re laid off too? How do you measure the human cost of these crushed dreams, lives upended, or mental-health damage that result from the orders of federal and state governments?
Some in the media who don’t understand American business say that China managed a comparable shock to its economy and is now beginning to emerge on the other side. Why can’t the U.S. do it too? This ignores that the Chinese state owns an enormous stake in that economy and chose to absorb the losses. In the U.S. those losses will be borne by private owners and workers who rely on a functioning private economy. They have no state balance sheet to fall back on.
The politicians in Washington are telling Americans, as they always do, that they are riding to the rescue by writing checks to individuals and offering loans to business. But there is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks. After the first $1 trillion this month, will we have to spend another $1 trillion in April, and another in June?
I have friends who lost their jobs this week, and a friend who is having to sweep up the ashes of the business his family has built over three decades. It’s not coming back after this, most likely. Two weeks ago, everything was fine, for all these people. Unless we’re in the health care field, none of us can count on having jobs that last for the duration of this crisis. The Journal says we can’t sustain the economic damage of a long lockdown, and that the government needs a different strategy. They might be right. Read it all.
But then I read articles like this dispatch from Sky News, reporting from inside a hospital in northern Italy, and I see something that’s worse that poverty: death. Excerpts:
Masked, gloved and in a hazmat suit, my team and I are led through corridors full of gasping people who look terribly ill.
I ask what ward I am in.
“This isn’t really a ward, it’s a waiting room, we just have to use every bit of space,” my guide, Vanna Toninelli, head of the hospital press office tells me.
The medical teams are fighting a war here and they are losing.
The arrival of people here is an absolute constant. This killer pandemic is virtually out of control.
We have all heard what has been going on here, but no journalist has been allowed in here to see it, until now.
The city of Bergamo invited us in to show everyone what a catastrophic emergency, that nobody has ever experienced before, looks like.
They want you to see it. They want the world’s population to question their own governments’ responses.
Because there can be no excuse anymore that nobody knew. Italy did not. Now everyone else does.
He, like every other doctor and nurse I spoke to, urged the UK to follow the example of China and Italy, and lock down everything straight away.
It is, they say, the only way to slow the virus down: not beat it, slow it.
“I have never felt so stressed in my life, I’m an intensivist, and I am quite used to intense moments, and the choices, and people are critical and die without any treatment, and you [usually] make the difference,” he told me.
The Italian doctor’s message to the rest of us: “Get ready.” Read or watch the whole thing here. Here’s the embedded version:
We are all looking for a middle ground here, between the Scylla of mass death and the Charybdis of economic apocalypse. At this stage of the crisis, it looks like there is no middle ground. This is an intolerable thing, but it might well be reality. The Washington Post has a sobering piece on the costs, physical and otherwise, of this crisis. I think it still has not sunk in with most of us how terrible this situation is, and how it’s not going to be resolved quickly, without an extreme amount of pain all around.
Right now we’re all going stir-crazy from being stuck in the house. The economic pain has only hit some of us this week — those who have lost their jobs, or who are losing their businesses. It will be less abstract for all of us soon enough. So too with the virus — most of us don’t know anybody who is sick with it, much less who has died of it. We will, and sooner than we imagine.
These weeks of confinement can be seen also, it seems to me, as weeks of a national retreat, a chance to reset and rethink our lives, to ponder their fragility. I learned one thing in my 20s and 30s in the AIDS epidemic: Living in a plague is just an intensified way of living. It merely unveils the radical uncertainty of life that is already here, and puts it into far sharper focus. We will all die one day, and we will almost all get sick at some point in our lives; none of this makes sense on its own (especially the dying part). The trick, as the great religions teach us, is counterintuitive: not to seize control, but to gain some balance and even serenity in absorbing what you can’t.
There may be moments in this great public silence when we learn and relearn this lesson. Because we will need to relearn it, as I’m rediscovering in this surreal flashback to a way of living I once knew. Plague living is almost seasonal for humans. Like the spring which insists on arriving.
He’s right about that. We really are in an apocalypse, a word that means “unveiling.” This plague shows us who we really are. It first reveals to us that we have far less control than we thought, and the things we believed were permanent are not permanent at all. It can all be taken away from us in a matter of days and weeks. If someone had told you in January that before the end of March, you would not be able to go to church, and receive communion, you would have thought they had been reading too many dark fantasy novels. Yet here we are.
A lot of people are still in denial about the apocalyptic nature of this thing. They won’t be for much longer. The denial is part of the apocalypse, in that it too shows us who we are. So does the self-sacrifice and charity it has drawn out of others. As Camus’s great novel The Plague, which I cannot recommend strongly enough (I will soon finish the book club here; I apologize for having gotten behind), tells us, the “plague” of death is the human condition. How we respond when faced with suffering, finitude, and death all around, reveals the nature of our character. In the novel, there’s a character, a visitor to the town caught in the quarantine, who spends much time and energy trying to get himself smuggled out of the city, and back to his loved ones. Eventually he realizes that his place is there, struggling to ease the pain of the suffering, and to do his part.
All of us have to do our parts, even if right now that means just sitting at home quietly. We could read. We could pray. We could write. I’ve told my children to keep journals, because the things that they see over the next year will be with them all of their lives. If we are blessed to still have a job, or to have extra financial resources, we can give to those who are suddenly without either. Before long, there will be other things for us to do. But for now, if all you can do is stay home and keep calm, and stop complaining, then do that. It may be the most you can do, but it certainly is the least.
Y’all know that religion means more to me than anything else. I was thinking this morning about The Benedict Option, and the words in the book from Father Cassian Folsom, who at the time he said them to me (2015) was the prior of the monastery in Norcia. He said (I paraphrase) that those who don’t do some version of the Benedict Option will not make it through what’s coming. At the time I took him to mean the erosion of religious belief, and perhaps even a future persecution. Maybe that’s all he meant; if so, that’s still frightening but galvanizing. Now, though, I’m thinking about his words in light of this global pandemic. It will reveal to us, apocalyptically, what our faith is made of. The happy-clappy entertainment-focused Christianity won’t survive this test. Neither will Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Only a hard charity, based on deep repentance, self-sacrifice, prayer, and spiritual discipline will. I know well that I am failing at that; this pandemic is a call to conversion. None of us know when we will be able to get back to our churches, or to assemble together again for corporate worship. (In Italy, a shocking number of priests are dropping dead from this thing.) We don’t know how many will have fallen away from the agonies of this trial. Now is the time to be serious like we have never been serious in our lives. The plague has forced us all into a kind of monastic living. Let us make the best of it.
To that end, here is a fantastic message of strength and consolation from Archimandrite Zacharias, a Greek Orthodox abbot living in England. He’s addressing in part Orthodox faithful angry at the government for closing churches. Excerpt:
We must see the goodness of God in all the things that are happening now. The Holy Fathers did see His lovingkindness. A similar epidemic occurred in the 4th century in the Egyptian desert, which harvested more than a third of the monks, and the Fathers were saying with great inspiration that, ‘God is harvesting souls of saints for His Kingdom,’ and they did not waver. The Lord Himself speaks in the Gospel about the last days, about the trials and afflictions which the world will go through before His Second Coming. However, we discern neither morbid sadness nor despair in His words. The Lord Who prayed in the garden of Gethsemane with a sweat of blood for the salvation of the whole world, says that when we see the terrible things that precede His Second Coming, we should lift up our heads with inspiration, for our redemption draws nigh (cf. Luke 21:28). Some tell me, ‘May God extend His helping hand.’ But this is precisely the hand of God. He desires and works our salvation ‘at sundry times and in divers manners’ (Heb. 1:1): ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work’ (John 5:17). This virus may be a means that God uses in order to bring many to themselves and to repentance, and to harvest many ready souls for His eternal Kingdom. Therefore, for those who surrender and entrust themselves to the Providence of God all will contribute for their good: ‘All things work together for good to them that love God’ (Rom. 8:28).
Thus, there is no room for morbid dismay. Neither should we resist the measures that the government is taking in order to diminish the spreading of the afflictions we see in the lives of so many people. It is wrong to go against the authorities. We should do whatever the Government says, because they are not asking for us to deny our faith, they are only asking us to take a few measures for the common welfare of all people, so that this trial may pass, and this is not at all unreasonable. Some people take it too confessionally, they raise flags and play the martyrs and the confessors. For us there is no doubt: we shall show pure submission to the orders of the Government. It is unfair to disobey the Government since, when we fall ill, it is to their hospitals that we run and they are the ones who undertake all the expenses and our care. Why not listen to them?
This is the ethos of Christ that God showed in His life on earth and this is the apostolic commandment that we have received: ‘…be subject to principalities and powers, obey magistrates, be ready to every good work, speak evil of no man, be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men’ (cf. Tit. 3: 1-2); and ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme…’ (see 1 Pet. 2:13-17). If we do not obey our governors who are not asking much, how will we obey God, Who gives us a divine law, which is far more sublime than any human law? If we keep the law of God we are above human laws, as the apologists of the 2nd century said during the Roman Empire which was persecuting the Christians. It is surprising to see in the country where we live, in the United Kingdom, that the footballers show such understanding and discernment so as to be the first to withdraw from their activities with docility towards the indications of the Government to take prophylactic measures. It would be sad for us, people of faith, to fail reaching the measure of the footballers and showing the same docility towards the authorities for which our Church prays.
If they ask us to stop our Church services, let us simply surrender and bless the Providence of God. Besides, this reminds us of an old tradition that the Fathers had in Palestine: in Great Lent, on the Sunday of Cheese fare, after the mutual forgiveness, they would go out in the desert for forty days without Liturgy; they would only continue in fasting and prayer so as to prepare and return on Palm Sunday to celebrate in a godly way the Passion and the Resurrection of the Lord. And so, our present circumstances force us to live again that which existed of old in the bosom of the Church. That is to say, they force us to live a more hesychastic [contemplative] life, with more prayer, which will however make up for the lack of the Divine Liturgy and will prepare us to celebrate with greater desire and inspiration the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Thus, we will turn this plague into a triumph of hesychasm. In any case, whatever God allows in our life is out of His goodness for the well-being of man, for He never wants His creature to be harmed in any way.
Certainly, if we will be deprived of the Divine Liturgy for a longer period of time, we can endure it. What do we receive in the Liturgy? We partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, which are filled with His grace. This is a great honour and benefit for us, but we also receive the grace of God in many other ways. When we practice hesychastic prayer, we abide in the Presence of God with the mind in the heart calling upon the holy Name of Christ. The Divine Name brings us the grace of Christ because it is inseparable from His Person and leads us into His Presence. This Presence of Christ which is purifying, cleanses us from our transgressions and sins, it renews and illumines our heart so that the image of God our Saviour, Christ, may be formed therein.
If we shall not have Easter in the Church, let us remember that every contact with Christ is Easter. We receive grace in the Divine Liturgy because the Lord Jesus is present in it, He performs the sacrament and He is the One imparted to the faithful. However, when we invoke His Name, we enter the same Presence of Christ and receive the same grace. Therefore, if we are deprived of the Liturgy, we always have His Name, we are not deprived of the Lord. Moreover, we also have His word, especially His Gospel. If His word dwells continually in our heart, if we study it and pray it, if it becomes our language with which we speak to God as He spoke to us, then we shall have again the grace of the Lord. For His words are words of eternal life (John 6:68), and the same mystery is performed, we receive His grace and are sanctified.
Furthermore, each time we show kindness to our brethren the Lord is well-pleased, He considers that we did it in His Name and He rewards us. We show kindness to our brethren and the Lord rewards us with His grace. This is another way in which we can live in the Presence of the Lord. We can have the grace of the Lord through fasting, alms giving and every good deed. So, if we are forced to avoid gathering in Church, we can also be united in spirit in these holy virtues which are known within the Body of Christ, the holy Church, and which preserve the unity of the faithful with Christ and with the other members of His Body. All the things we do for God is a Liturgy, for they minister unto our salvation. The Liturgy is the great event of the life of the Church, wherein the faithful have the possibility to exchange their little life with the boundless life of God. However, the power of this event depends on the preparation we perform before, through all the things we have mentioned, through prayer, good deeds, fasting, love for neighbour, repentance.
Therefore, my dear brethren, it is not necessary to make heroic confessions against the Government for the prophylactic measures that it takes for the good of all people. Neither should we despair, but only wisely devise ways so as not to lose our living communication with the Person of Christ. Nothing can harm us, we must simply be patient for a certain period of time and God will see our patience, take away every obstacle, every temptation and we shall again see the dawn of joyful days, and we shall celebrate our common hope and love that we have in Christ Jesus.
Please read the whole thing, and pass it around to all. We faithful struggling in the world need these words of monastic wisdom. More than we need them, we need to live them. This is hard road ahead, but we are walking it together. If you are not a religious believer, and do not wish to seek God out during this apocalypse (alas), then at least read Camus’s The Plague, which shows what heroic self-sacrifice in a time of pandemic looks like from the point of view of humanists who don’t have God, but who live by a higher code all the same.
Remember, there is no way to avoid walking this road. It will either lead us to God, or to condemnation. It’s the same road, but the destination at the end depends on us.
UPDATE: A reader who is a Czech-born emigrant to America sent me new photo that I lead this item with, and these words:
When I mentioned that I would touch on “I have never been calmer in my life”, I was going to say something along the lines of Archimandrite Zacharias (obviously not in his eloquent language but in that spirit). It came to me when I was sitting on the steps of a monastery called Marienberg or Muttergottesberg in German (Mountain of Mother of God). It is located in Czech border mountains about two miles from Poland. The history of the monastery is interesting and tumultuous but not important here. My father used to teach in the town bellow (Králíky) in the 50’s when he was banished from the place he used to live (nobody wanted to live in the emptied Sudetenland so he was shoved there). Anyway. Looking at the path pilgrims used to walk up to plead their cases before Mother of God, the Monastery behind, I suddenly reevaluated everything. I could hear the gears shifting. What seemed important five minutes ago lost all its significance and meaning. What I have tried to hide from most of my life, as many of us have, suddenly presented itself as the only reality — all encompassing serenity. I took a picture of it.
That is the new photo above.
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