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Thomas P. HarmonOctober 16, 2020
Photo: franckreporter/iStockPhoto: franckreporter/iStock

Everything is strange. Our routines have been disrupted. Many of us are not going to work, the playground, the ballpark. We have lost jobs or have been forced to take pay cuts. Many of us have not been to Mass or confession for months; some poor souls have been left to die alone in hospitals because of fear of the disease, and their families have been forbidden to be with them for comfort and to grieve together.

In such peculiar times, it is natural to take a hard look at our priorities. Do we prioritize differently now because of the change in circumstances? Has the change in circumstances revealed to us that our priorities were previously askew? It seems that the virus has made concern with our health much more urgent than it was before the outbreak. The effects of our new priorities are visible everywhere, codified in the new labels “essential” and “nonessential.” Maybe the starkest example for Catholics is the disorienting classification of in-person worship as “nonessential.” 

The question Lewis proposed is analogous to the one we have to deal with now: What use is it to study during wartime? 

C. S. Lewis gave a sermon called “Learning in War-Time” in the fall of 1939 to the congregation at the Oxford University church of St. Mary the Virgin, which addressed an analogous, and analogously disorienting, shift in priorities. The date is important because he gave the sermon at the outset of World War II. The question he proposed to take up is analogous to the one we have to deal with now: What use is it to study, that is, to carry on with an activity that seems at best not a matter of urgency and at worst a costly and distracting luxury, during wartime? After all, academic study, especially the sorts of studies that Lewis was most familiar with, the study of the liberal arts and humanities, is one of those higher goods of the soul that is almost never a matter of urgency and is always vulnerable to getting bumped down the list of priorities when life and limb are at stake.

Lewis’s talk provides much-needed perspective in light of circumstances that then, as now, seemed to turn normal priorities on their heads. He observed that it seemed strange, in the face of such urgent threats, to embark on academic study without interruption—just as it seems strange to us to continue some of the activities we were busy with before the outbreak of the pandemic, even if they seem to be very important—academic study included. Here is how Lewis addresses the strangeness of the situation:

I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates absolutely no permanent human situation; it simply exaggerates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to live under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. 

He goes on to say:

We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.

What is exaggerated? Our perception of the importance of death. War changes our perspective by bringing what is potentially very far from us potentially very close to us; so does a pandemic. But the relative proximity of a thing does not radically change its nature. War and disease do not change whether we are going to die; they only change when we might die. 

Without the threat of imminent death, we can delude ourselves into thinking that death is not going to happen, or we can simply neglect to think about death at all. If death is decades away, it is not urgent. If it is potentially only two weeks away, then all of a sudden death becomes an urgent concern for us. The question is: Does that make sense? After all, viewed from the standpoint of the lifespan of nations, or civilizations, or species, or Earth itself, the difference between two weeks and a few decades vanishes into nothing. 

Without the threat of imminent death, we can delude ourselves into thinking that death is not going to happen.

I say this not to frighten, but rather to embolden. If a thing is worth doing outside of Covid-time, it is still worth doing in Covid-time. As Lewis said, “The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and, therefore, intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.” The same can be said of disease. Learning and study, to be sure, have at their highest point the fixing of our attention on the infinite: God and the things of God. Those are things most worthy to absorb our whole attention, whether we are under imminent threat of death or not.

There are many factors that lead to our ordinary situation of death-forgetfulness, which allows us to misapprehend and misjudge the value and the urgency of things. Some are common to human beings everywhere, and some are specific to us in our time and place. One of Blaise Pascal’s most famous essays, which can be found in his Pensées, focuses on the subject of “diversion.” There he tells us how so much of our lives is caught up in pursuits that, at bottom, have no other purpose than to keep us from thinking about our own mortality. He talks about the bizarre spectacle of men hunting a fox. Why do they hunt the fox? Are they made happy once they capture it? No; it is a diversion, an activity that allows them to avoid the contemplation of death, to stave off anxiety about their mortality for a time. These are features of human beings that will not change.

Death stands as the ultimate rebuke to our thinking of ourselves as radically free. How can we be free when we live under the unchosen necessity of death? As the Catholic political scientist Peter Augustine Lawler observed, “The world won’t really be governed by choice unless we can become pro-choice on death itself.”

War—or disease—really just exaggerates what is already the human condition, a condition that we normally succeed in not thinking too much about.

As a result, we have become a culture of death-deniers. You can see this everywhere. Whereas we used to put our churches in the middle of our towns, and our graveyards right next to our churches, we now bury our dead at enormous graveyards far from the center of our lives. We color our hair, trying to eliminate signs of aging from our bodies, and if we are wealthier, we turn to more sophisticated methods, from Botox to plastic surgery. 

War—or disease—really just exaggerates what is already the human condition, a condition that we normally succeed in not thinking too much about. As Lewis himself says, “Do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your predicament more abnormal than it really is.” As to equipping ourselves to face the moment, Lewis mentions “three mental exercises which may serve as defences against the three enemies which war raises up.” It should be profitable to go through those exercises ourselves, with appropriate adaptations to our own time of pandemic from Lewis’s time of war.

The first enemy Lewis mentions is excitement: “the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work…. There are always plenty of rivals to our work…. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other before we can get down to our work.” Nowadays, we might say, “Professor Lewis, if only you had known about Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour cable news!” How many more enticing objects we have within such easy reach! 

Lewis advises us to leave “futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not.” 

There is no doubt that living in the midst of a pandemic is frightening. But we also have omnipresent media blaring dread signals into our brains constantly. We may pay attention because of what, at least at the beginning, is a responsible desire to be well-informed about the virus, how to keep ourselves and others safe and how to gauge risks. But the feelings those stories provoke can soon become an end in themselves. We can soon begin to relish them: horror at the looming threat, outrage at people being irresponsible, sadness at the deaths and sufferings of so many, anxiety about the future. It may be useful to examine whether what seem like urgent distractions are really urgent. Lewis admonishes, “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.” 

The second enemy Lewis talks about is frustration, “the feeling that we shall not have time to finish.” Covid-19 brings with it the threat of death. In addition to fear of death for ourselves and our loved ones, many of us are worried about what tomorrow will bring: How will the pandemic change our lives? Our country? The church? The world? Here too we can benefit from Lewis’s advice. The internet encourages us to take global views on things. But the problem is that while we can have, or can at least deceive ourselves into having, a global view, we certainly cannot act in any way proportionate to that global view. The internet has monstrously increased our vision while giving us only a tiny increase in the power to act and affect things. 

That lack of connection leads to a feeling of horrified powerlessness to change the evil things we can now see. Lewis advises us to leave “futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for.” In other words, do not worry so much about the future, or global problems. Do the best with what is at hand now and is in our power to do.

According to Lewis, “What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.”

The third enemy Lewis mentions is fear: “War threatens us with death and pain.” According to Lewis, “What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that is what we fear.” So what do we fear from Covid-19? After all, most deaths involve suffering, even suffering as acute as that experienced by those who contract Covid-19. Our lives may be shortened by the virus; but it is unlikely that at the point of death, many of us would have found death to be more peaceful simply because we had lived longer. 

Will Covid-19 leave us significantly less prepared to meet our maker? Surely the pandemic ought already to be encouraging us to make our peace with God. If we have taken seriously the proximity of Sister Death, as St. Francis of Assisi named it, we may be in a better state, because more clearly prepared, to meet God’s judgment now than in non-Covid times. 

So what does Lewis say that war—or disease, in our case—changes? “Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good to be always aware of our mortality.” 

We should, therefore, at least try to take one positive thing from the pandemic: We are forced in a salutary way to see our mortality close at hand. That ought not only be a helpful thing personally but also something that those involved in religious studies and theology ought to take advantage of—not in a crass way, manipulating people through their fear, but instead offering consolation, hope and the good news of the savior who defeated sin and death. Now more than ever, a strong interior life of friendship with God through prayer will help us to counteract the baleful effects of the pandemic.

Let us conclude with Lewis’s own words at the close of his sermon: 

We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Sometimes suffering has the power to show us the truth that is hard to see in times of prosperity.

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