There are a few things someone in the United States can safely say in favor of ‘the novel Coronavirus’ (CoViD-19). On the plus side, there’s little traffic and it’s been a long time since a gallon of gas cost $1.56. For another, obsessive news coverage of the virus has displaced obsessive news coverage of the presidential election, which was growing very tiresome indeed. For another, at least in my town I expect the summer’s gardens to be spectacular, as bored people work with great and often unwonted diligence in their yards. My next door neighbors are busy at the moment building a chicken coop. I am not much of a gardener myself, but my income taxes are finished early, I have cleaned out several cupboards and closets, the shrubs are pruned, and I am exercising and reading and writing with unusual diligence.

That is some of the good news. Next, a minor complaint. The prefix ‘pan-’ means ‘universal’ or ‘exceptionless’, from the Greek word ‘pan’, meaning ‘all’. The ‘pan-Hellenic games’ represented all of the Greek cities. ‘Pandemonium’ means all the demons have been unleashed. A ‘pandemic’ is, therefore, a universal or virtually universal illness that sickens everyone. I know the powers-that-be have decreed that the new coronavirus is pandemic, but in point of fact it is not. Not everyone has it. It is a widespread epidemic, meaning it is ‘upon’ (epi-) ‘the populace’ (-demos). An illness that circulates in a populace at a low level is endemic; an illness commonly or widely spread is epidemic; an illness that everyone gets, such as the common cold, is pandemic. But don’t mind me. What words actually mean seems to matter little: not once the bureaucrats and news media have settled on a label.

All of that said, I have no wish to make light of this disastrous illness, about which complaints are not minor at all. And it is a disaster, whether you are the sort of person who is treating it as if it were the Ebola or Hanta virus or cholera or whether you are a calmer sort who primarily is dismayed as millions of people are thrown out of work, lose businesses they have spent a life building, or face grave poverty and distress because commerce has shut down. Whether deaths from the virus itself will be somewhat above the level of a severe seasonal ’flu (from which 20,000-60,000 Americans die annually) or will be much more serious and kill as many as one person in one thousand (which is what 350,000 American deaths would amount to) remains to be seen. But damages of many sorts there will be and already have been.

For traditional Anglicans the coincidence of the virus and Lent is hardly accidental. I read someone this week who wrote, ‘This is the Lentiest Lent I have ever Lented’. I knew exactly what was meant. Perhaps we began with a lax and lazy Lenten rule (e.g., giving up brussels sprouts and fortified wines). Or perhaps we had a good Lenten rule which we kept in a lax and lazy fashion. It matters not: with the new virus we have had Lent firmly visited upon us. We may not go to the library to check out books or videos. We may not go to shop without careful planning or, at a minimum, second thoughts. We are compelled to forego parties and public entertainments. Willy-nilly, we are now all observing a good Lent, and if we are good Christians we should, even if only belatedly, will to offer up the things from which we must abstain by government fiat. We can make a virtue of necessity, and we should do so.

But, oh, Holy Week….  I have attended or celebrated the great liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, beginning with Wednesday evening Tenebrae, since I was in seminary. The darkening church on Wednesday evening and the chants of the Tenebrae lessons and responds; the amazing flowers in the Garden at the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday; the bells rung during the Gloria in excelsis on Thursday and then again at the first Mass of Easter on Saturday night; the cantor’s voice breaking with emotion as he sings the narrator’s part in the Passion; the bare altar on Good Friday; the Paschal candle on Saturday and the Exsultet and then the simplicity of the Vigil Prophecies; the drama of the veils flung aside and the bringing forth of the flowers and the carpets and the altar furnishings during the organ’s improvisation on the Gloria on Saturday night: and, especially, the booming forth of the Salve, Regina, and then the singing of ‘The Day of Resurrection’ at the end of the Vigil Mass. All of that beauty, all of that glory, all of that splendor in the mighty recapitulation of salvation history: all this year to be omitted or much reduced. Well, that is the virus reaching into Holy Week, and it is Lent reaching into Easter. I suppose Easter reaches also into Lent, so we mustn’t complain too much: our Lenten sorrows are moderated always by the joy that lies before. Even on Christmas we are reminded of Good Friday, as the Babe is wrapped in linen and laid to rest by others. This year on Easter we will be particularly Lenten, as our joy is subdued, though of course only in part and for a time.

I myself feel very blessed. I have a job, I have a house, I have food.  I am not sick nor are my friends and family. But I know, with millions of others, including you, that I shall be very glad when this disruption has passed.

You will read this in Eastertide. Permit me to wish you a blessed Eastertide and accept my prayers for your good health and good spirits. Lent’s long shadows will depart. Christ is risen, our joy that has no end.

————-

On several occasions since March I have seen the same quotation from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. The quotation is from a long pensée on diversion (number 139), which in turn is one of a series of thoughts on the same basic subject.  Pascal writes, ‘I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.’ All of those quoting this sentence that I have read recently take it no further than its current, obvious applicability: social isolation and ‘lockdown’, as imposed by the public response to CoViD-19, can be irksome. In context, however, Pascal’s observation is part of his larger diagnosis of human misery apart from God, which in turn is a preliminary to showing the ‘Happiness of man with God’ (Pensée 60).

Pascal argues that most of the activity of most people most of the time is a pursuit of diversion and amusement. Repeatedly Pascal returns to this theme and argues that people seek diversion to avoid self-reflection and self-knowledge. Such avoidance is sought because our true state apart from God involves misery and death, and we prefer not to think about these ultimate realities. But diversion itself becomes our greatest misery (171), because its whole point is to evade rather than resolve our fundamental problem and need. As another pensée puts it, ‘We run carelessly to the precipice, after we have put something before us to prevent us seeing it.’ (185)

A time of enforced isolation and relative quiet, therefore, at least in this respect, might be for Christians a literal God-send: a blessing and an opportunity to consider our deepest need and the only Source of its satisfaction. Of course, the blessing is heavily disguised for the woman who has lost her job, or for the man who has lost his wife, or the parents who have restless children to deal with 24 hours a day. But to learn to stay quietly in my home and room is a very great good.

————

In the midst of staying put, as my travel calendar filled with cancellations, my own blessings included greater regularity in sleep, in exercise, and in prayer, all of which tend to be disturbed by the irregularities of travel. I have also enjoyed an extended time of re-immersion in the pro-cathedral’s liturgical and pastoral life.

Among other duties, I was glad to be in Athens to see on his last day in this world a long-time parishioner, Richard Henry Timberlake, Jr., who died on May 22nd at age 97. Dick and I enjoyed an unusual number of connections, despite our substantial age difference. We both grew up in the same town. We also grew up and were confirmed in the same parish (Saint Paul’s, Steubenville, Ohio). My parents as a young couple knew his parents as an older couple in the parish. We both went to Kenyon College. We both ended up in Athens, Georgia, and at Saint Stephen’s Church there. I was even surprised to find sitting one day in my office my childhood dentist, who, unknown to me at the time, was a very good friend of Dick’s from their school days. (As my childhood dental hygiene was spotty, and Dr. Rhinehart discouraged frivolous use of Novocain, our meeting here was more pleasant than some of our earlier encounters.)

Dick also was a major economist: student of Milton Friedman, doctor of philosophy in economics from the University of Chicago, teacher of many including Phil Gramm (and therefore, indirectly, an inspiration for the economic side of the ‘Reagan Revolution’), professor at several colleges and universities, author of well-regarded works on monetary history and theory, former parish treasurer, believer in the ‘spontaneous order’ of free markets, and husband to Hildegard (herself a Chicago economics Ph.D.). And so much more: World War II pilot, three-time Purple Heart recipient, father of five, author of an engaging book about his war experiences, opponent of big government and big spending (including by his parish!), tennis player, restorer of old cars, daily walker, bridge player.

For people of my generation there is a phrase in a Billy Joel song that is usually applicable: ‘our fathers fought the Second World War’. For me men like Dick, my own father, my uncles Walter and Lathrop, and the fathers of most of my childhood friends were in the early 1940s boys who found themselves pulled, more or less reluctantly, into a dangerous and vast world historical event. My father was drafted into the army one week after his high school graduation in 1943. That young man, who had hardly ever been out of Ohio, found himself on an all-expenses, no-frills tour in the company of General George S. Patton through England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He spent the rest of his life reading about the causes, strategy, politics, and history of that bewildering event and NOT discussing the experience except around the edges.

Dick Timberlake was the last of that cohort well-known to me. They were an admirable generation, the products not only of war but also of the deprivation of the Great Depression. They will be missed. I am glad I was able to see Dick the day he died. If not for CoViD-19, I would have been in England: so I take that as another blessing of this odd season of Coronatide. I am very glad that my last words to a man God obviously wanted me to know were the familiar blessing from the Prayer Book that we loved and love.  You know the one: ‘The peace of God, which passeth all understanding….’ Now, I trust, Dick’s peace and his understanding both have grown greater still.

[The foregoing are two columns from The TRINITARIAN newspaper.  Copyrights retained by the author.]

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