By kind permission from Father Alexander Lucie-Smith
Is there anything about the Covid Pandemic that can help us understand ourselves better and our relationship to God better? In other words, is there any theological insight to be gleaned from our current predicament?
The first lesson, surely, is that we are all going to die, and to die is the lot of human beings; life is precarious. The Ordinariate prayer in time of plague (taken from the Book of Common Prayer) is made on behalf of those ‘who now are visited with great sickness and mortality’; sickness and mortality being the natural lot of humankind, we do not ask them to be taken away, rather it is the magnitude of the sickness and mortality. This prayer effectively asks God not to close all intensive care units, but to flatten the curve. Intensive care units are a permanent part of the landscape for those lucky enough to have them. Many of us will depart this life from one of them.
Contrasted with the common sense that underpins this prayer, which reflects human experience as it was once, we have the assertion, made by government ministers, that ‘every death is a tragedy’. No, it’s not. Some deaths are: premature deaths, unjust deaths, deaths brought about by human wickedness or extreme bad luck; but death in itself is not tragic, and the sooner we realise this (given that all of us must face death sooner or later) the better: for it will not help us to die if we think that death is per se an unjust sentence. The truth is that death in old age is a fitting end to a good life. Read the Bible and see the descriptions of the passing of the Patriarchs who die full of years, honoured and appreciated. This lesson is reprised in the excellent but neglected Book of Tobit. Death is not an outcome to be avoided at all costs, which is just as well, as it is not an outcome that can be avoided. Given that we have no choice but to die, we should live our lives with the hope of dying well, and we should live in the hope of eternal life. If Covid forces us to think of death, and reverses the trend to refuse even to acknowledge mortality, then it will have done us all a favour, in so far as it will have tilted the balance back towards the practices of our ancestors, and made a useful correction.
Covid also underlines the frailty of human life. Covid attacks those with comorbidities, we know, and the arrival of the pandemic reveals to us just how unhealthy we are as a people, and how good health cannot be taken for granted. Nowadays the sick and the frail are often housebound, or in care homes, or in hospitals on the edge of towns; in the time of Jesus the sick were at the centre of his ministry. Of the various walk on characters in the synoptic gospels, the majority are the sick, the halt and the lame, and Jesus spends most of his time curing them. This of course is a distortion, in that every narrative chooses to focus on one thing rather than the other; but it is a deliberate choice by the evangelists to put those in need of healing at the centre of the story. And as they do, so should we. Covid has revealed the deepest incoherence in our attitude to the sick, the weak and the frail. The settled belief of our society is, we are told, that abortion should be legal; the belief of society is tending towards legalised euthanasia; and yet we see Covid as a terrible evil. It is, all sickness is, but it is a natural evil, not a moral evil. We rightly need to minimise the harm the virus will do, in so far as we are able; but how can this be reconciled with actively promoting harm to the unborn, and allowing harm to the terminally ill through euthanasia? There is something that does not add up here. Surely killing off old people is wrong across the board? Letting someone die of Covid is wrong, when you can prevent it; letting someone die in the Dignitas clinic is wrong too.
Finally, what does Covid and the attendant lockdown tell us about the importance of the tie that binds? The lack of sacramental life, which depends on social closeness, is something that many outside the Church do not understand. You can indeed pray anywhere, but it is not the same. We are praying everywhere we find ourselves, I hope, but paraliturgical prayer depends on liturgical prayer. In other words, our private prayer is a preparation for and thanksgiving after our public prayer, above all the Mass. Private prayer alone is lacking something. Without the Eucharist, we feel ourselves grow faint. Before second miracle of the loaves Jesus is concerned for the crowds and says: ‘I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.’ (Matthew 15:32) This recalls the incident in the first Book of the Kings, where Elijah is fed by an angel who ‘came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”’ (I Kings 19:7). This very first (in modern times), not Eucharistic fast, but fast from the Eucharist reminds us of the centrality of the Mass in Catholic life. No Mass, no Church. The Church is from the Eucharist, as Saint John Paull II reminded us in a 2003 encyclical ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’.
This incarnational aspect of the Church can best be seen by us slow learners in the importance of relics, of which we have been reminded several times recently, in particular when the Turin Shroud was exposed at the height of the pandemic on Holy Saturday. While all media outlets, everywhere, more or less, have been indulging in shroud waving of the other sort, the Holy Shroud reminded us of something foundational: He lived, He suffered, and He died. These things really happened, as Helena learns in the book of the same title by Evelyn Waugh. Like the Cross, the Shroud states a fact. He lived, He suffered, He Died, and above all He rose again.
A Coronavirus Prayer
Loving God, Your desire is for our wholeness and well being.
We hold in tenderness and prayer the collective suffering of our world at this time.
We grieve precious lives lost and vulnerable lives threatened.
We ache for ourselves and our neighbors, standing before an uncertain future.
We pray: may love, not fear, go viral.
Inspire our leaders to discern and choose wisely, aligned with the common good.
Help us to practice social distancing and reveal to us new and creative ways to come together in spirit and in solidarity.
Call us to profound trust in your faithful presence,
You, the God who does not abandon.