Of the Plague that Stalks in the Darkness: What Coronavirus Taught me About Faith and Fear
I faced the first weeks and months of the COVID-19 crisis with a combination of steely eyed defiance and glib dismissiveness. The media never lets a crisis go to waste, I said, and this was just another lost Malaysian airliner on which CNN was capitalizing. I blamed social media for contributing to hysteria, and for promulgating false information. I cited statistics about how many people die from the flu in America (80,000 in 2019) and obesity (18% of all deaths among Americans between the ages of 40 and 85). I quickly rejected numbers that came from China by pointing out the high smoking rate (50% of adults in Wuhan, including those over 70 years of age), as well as concerns about diet and medical infrastructure. I rolled my eyes at the runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I accused those schools that were canceling classes of virtue signaling—showing how seriously they were taking the threat at the expense of education. Even after the CDC and WHO declared a pandemic, I wasn’t swayed. I knew that the disease was far from a “hoax,” but I simply refused to believe it was something worth spending so much energy on. While I didn’t say it out loud, my general attitude was that anyone under age 70 who was scared of the Coronavirus was either an idiot or a fearmonger.
Some of the things above are true. The flu is deadly (we probably should have started washing our hands this much long ago) and I have yet to see a crisis to which the media doesn’t overreact. I have yet to find a serious global situation that is improved by social media. I am definitely still confused about the toilet paper thing. But as more and more of my own life was impacted by the crisis, I was forced to confront what was really behind my own attitude.
For me, the moment of reckoning came as Episcopal Churches across the country—from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to the small diocese in California that oversees my ordination process—suspended all public worship. When this happened, my attitude transformed from defiance to outrage. Are we not people of faith, I asked? Do we not believe in God’s providential care? Why were we acting scared of a little flu when Christians around the world risked their lives witnessing every day? I called the decision cowardly, and insisted that the Church was caving to secular social pressure by abdicating her one responsibility: to provide an alternative vision of the word by offering the Sacraments to the people of God.
The more things escalated, the more my defiance and dismissiveness turned to anger. And the more precautions that were taken, the angrier I became. But after one heated argument with someone I love, my house of cards came crashing down. As I snapped and raved, batting aside every piece of evidence and reason with a shout rather than a reasoned rebuttal, I suddenly realized that I had heard my own angry tone before. It was the tone that a father to whom I’d ministered over the summer had used when the doctors told him that the cancer had spread to his daughter’s brain. It was the tone of a young mother when she shouted at the social worker preparing to remove her daughter from her custody. My anger, like most anger, was actually a thin veneer to cover a deep-seated fear.
This sickness forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that I am not in control of my own life. Until now, things were going very well for me. I was on track to finish school and be ordained. My fiancé, Joshua, and I were on top of everything we needed to do for our impending wedding. He had an offer for a good job starting in the fall, which would allow us to pay off student loan debt quickly while I finished at the seminary. I had leads on ministry positions that may be open after my ordination.
COVID-19 had the potential to disrupt everything. It asked me questions I didn’t want to face and couldn’t answer. How long will we have to live like this? Will people be able to travel to our wedding? Will the church even be open to marry us? Will we be able to go on our honeymoon? Will Josh be able to travel for work and, if not, will his position be eliminated? Will closing the seminary put me behind for graduation? Will my community be able to gather for Holy Week liturgies, which I (as head sacristan) am in charge of planning, directing, and executing? Will members of my family or parish get sick, and if so, will it be safe for me to visit them? What will the long-term economic impacts do to our ability to buy a home or start a family in the coming years?
I am one of the lucky ones: I am not sick and probably won’t get seriously ill. But even from this privileged position, I was having to face a situation I could not control. When everything was going well, I was careful to tell myself that this was not my own doing and to thank God for his grace and blessings. But once my best laid schemes were at risk of being wiped out, I discovered that my thanksgiving had been hollow. The only reason this COVID-19 disruption to my life all felt so unfair was because I, at some level, believed that I had earned my good life, and that it was not contingent on anything outside my control.
So long as I could blame the disruptions on other people’s overreaction, news media, and mass hysteria, I could tell myself that this was a non-crisis, which meant it couldn’t impact me. I wasn’t overreacting, so I had nothing to worry about. Defiance turned to anger when, despite my refusal to give into the panic, the epidemic started impacting me anyway. My outrage at the leaders of the church was not because they were being cowardly, but because I was. I was a frightened child, and I desperately wanted my spiritual parents to tell me it was going to be OK. I wanted my leaders to assure me that I could keep going to church because that meant that my life would keep going according to my own plan.
Intellectually, I know that my own existence is contingent. I did not call myself into being and I do not choose when I will die. I am comfortable with and accept these facts on face value. What I have had a harder time accepting, it turns out, is that I don’t even have control over what happens in the middle.
My own experience is analogous to what our society at large is now facing. We have become so good at programming, controlling, and deciding that we have been tricked into thinking we have control. We “plan” families and cities, “control” healthcare and housing costs, “organize” for political change. We have weight loss “programs” and financial “planning” services. But for all our programs, policies, organizations, and plans, we don’t get decide what happens in the middle.
This is especially true with a sickness like this one. There is no simple policy, program, or funding source that we can tap to stop it in its tracks. We can’t impeach COVID-19 or vote it out of office. We can’t fire it for underperforming. We can’t direct it to only infect the people that seem guilty or inconvenient to our own goals. We couldn’t keep it on the other side of the world in a culture and people who seem so different from us. It is the plague that stalks in the darkness, and the sickness that lays waste at mid-day. It moves though our well planned lives like a phantom. It has effects that we cannot anticipate, plan, or prepare for. We cannot control or contain it. It is—to quote Flannery O’Connor—an Evil Intelligence; it acts with a mind of its own, outsmarting us at every turn. Like all wasting powers that seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, it entered the world as a consequence of Sin, and like all those powers, we are incapable of freeing ourselves from it. Sickness and its disrupting effects reminds us that, even as modern people, the we are dependent on something outside of ourselves and that we desperately need a Savior.
But recognizing our inability to save ourselves never means that we should give into Evil. On the contrary: we have a Savior who gave His very life to free us from the Powers of Sin and Death, and we are called to resist them at every turn. The point is not to give up the fight, but to recognize that we cannot win it on our own, and to put all our trust in the One who can. To ask Him for the strength to fight another day.
Once I realized this, my stance on the suspension of worship services changed. For Christians, Death is always the enemy. While we cannot control or stop this disease, we may be able to slow it enough to save lives. Everyone of us who does not get sick saves a hospital bed, ventilator, and medical staff for someone who will. I go to church so that I can love God and my neighbor more. During this season, I will stay home out of love of neighbors I have never met. Every life saved is a blow to the Adversary. To fight to save lives, even if it means temporarily closing the doors of the church, is not an act of cowardice, but of resistance.
There is a time, of course, for every Christian to face death, and it is true that there are Christians around the world who worship in situations more deadly than our own. The witness of the martyrs reminds us that when we offer our time and money to God, we do so knowing that we one day may offer our lives. They have gone where we may be called to go: and we should not forget it. But even as we praise those who wear the martyrs crown, we know that God does not delight in their deaths, but in their faith in the face of death. Christians (especially clergy) must continue to minister to the sick and dying, even if it means putting themselves at risk. But prudence is also a Christian virtue, and recklessness in the name of bravery isn’t brave, it is just reckless. Instead of being reckless, let us be as Our Lord commanded: wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Most importantly, this crisis reminds us that nothing can change the truth of Jesus Christ. The gospel is true in sickness and in health. It is true whether we worship God in a beautiful building full of people, or in our kitchens with our prayerbooks and our families. Angrily shouting “This church will remain open come Hell or high water, and anyone who tries to close it is a fool and a coward” is not a statement of Christian courage. As always faith does not speak with a shout, because it can be heard at a whisper: “God will be glorified, no matter what.”
The temporary closure of our churches is a chance to recognize our own fallenness, and to put all our trust in God alone. It is a chance to participate in the 600 years long tradition of praying Morning Prayer and the Great Litany on Sunday morning (the invocation: “From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us” has never felt more prescient). It is an invitation to see what happens when we strip away everything non-essential. It is a chance to practice death to self—giving up activities that give us joy in the hope that we can give our neighbors life. It is a chance to face our fears, not by lashing out in anger, but by placing them all at the feet of Jesus Christ. It is a chance to slow down and to focus on what really matters: prayer, praise, scripture, family, and faith. It is a time to remember that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the same: yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and that while Death will always be the Enemy, it will never be the victor.