“I don’t want to live in 28 Days Later!” my friend lamented over the phone from Colorado. “If my life is going to be a movie, why can’t it be a rom-com?”
I laughed as she expanded on this point with exasperated eloquence—prompting me to agree that romantic comedy tropes, such as the meet-cute, are much easier on their protagonists than those of the post-apocalyptic genre, such as the roving bands of bloodthirsty marauders.
And so I mentally discarded another approach at reassurance. After some failed attempts to turn her mind away from doomsday, I’d half-jokingly suggested she cope with a worst-case scenario by embracing the adventure as if living in a movie. That clearly didn’t help.
After that backfired, I returned more emphatically to an earlier theme. That very morning, before March Madness had been officially cancelled as a particularly clear illustration that life was not going to continue as normal for the foreseeable future, when the coronavirus’s implications were cloudier, the first reading for Mass, still seemed pretty apt:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings
Who seeks his strength in flesh,
Whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season. But stands in a lava waste,
A salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
Whose hope is in the Lord.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
That stretches out its roots to the stream:
It fears not the heat when it comes,
Its leaves stay green;
In the year of drought it shows no distress,
But still bears fruit. (Jeremiah 17: 5-8)
About 36 hours later, I was exchanging messages with another friend, a Brit who lives about an hour outside London. He had sent me a gloom and doom video that, although cynically astute in numerous respects, had aroused more pity than panic, more empathy than anger.
“Plenty of truth here,” I responded, “but I still say prayer is powerful and trust in God is better than trust in human beings.”
My friend, who though not religious is at least more respectful of believers than many educated modern Englishmen, expressed admiration for my commitment before voicing his own doubts about how, if someone up there really is looking after us, that being could permit so much suffering. Instead of trying to tackle theodicy in a Facebook Messenger conversation, I quoted John MacMurray:
The fear of illusory religion runs: “Fear not, trust in God, and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That of real religion, on the contrary, is: “Fear not, the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”
Another quote that keeps leaping to mind is William Goldman’s quip, “No one knows anything.” Goldman, of course, was referring to how experienced, skilled, and savvy people in Hollywood’s film industry often struggled to identify which film projects would prove successful. Now, in the COVID-19 era, many people are pontificating about the future with cocksure self-assurance, when (unlike the Tinseltown decision makers with a couple box-office hits) none of these would-be oracles have experienced anything quite like this. They talk, write, tweet, and post as if they know exactly what calamities await, but the fact remains that no one knows anything about what the future holds.
No one this side of heaven, at least.
Our faith is a source of consolation, but it’s no “get out of suffering free” card, nor is it any sort of figurative narcotic that melts away life’s pain in an artificial haze. In a letter to a friend, Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
Often, that cross means squelching one’s natural desire for revenge against an enemy, turning the other cheek, and extending forgiveness. Opportunities large and small for loving and praying for one’s enemies pop up almost every day. This particular cross, though, is unprecedented for most modern American Christians, inasmuch as social distancing even keeps us from worshiping together in church. For Catholic laity, the sacrifice is particularly acute. We have lived all our lives with ready access to the Eucharist, and suddenly even the bread come down from heaven, which is supposed to sustain us during our journey through the wilderness, is beyond our reach.
And yet, God—who not only knows best, but loves best—is still in charge. He has never assured me, nor any of his followers, an easy path. Quite the contrary, he promises that discipleship often will make our paths particularly treacherous. We are to keep putting one foot in front of the other and embodying Christ’s love to everyone we encounter, even if our social distancing changes the nature of many interactions. And at home, we have an opportunity to be Christlike to our families, who often are the people who see our worst sides. For me, this means striving to bring the amiability, positivity, forbearance, and consideration for which I strive out in the world back into my home, where my wife and children know I am more likely to give free reign to impatience.
And yet, there’s something else. I must remember that hope is actually one of the great theological virtues, right there between faith and love, in St. Paul’s inspired exhortation. It is easy to gloss over hope as universally reflexive: I hope the weather improves, I hope I get a raise soon, I hope that sound from my car is nothing serious. Presumably all people spend considerable portions of their lives hoping in such ways. Christian hope, the sort that Paul upholds, is both similar and distinct. A theologian friend summarizes the point exquisitely, noting that, regardless of how a human being meets his or her end, the death rate remains 100 percent.
“Theological hope is that death is not our dissolution into chemicals and dust, but our birth into eternal life and ultimately the resurrection of the body and creation of a new heaven and a new earth,” she reflects. “We hope that the narrow cruciform path we are on leads to heaven.”
As for this life, Christian hope also aspires for something better, but entrusts that aspiration to the Lord, knowing that his will is perfect, loving, and holy. Moreover, it holds onto that hope even in the bleakest of circumstances. But to get there, sometimes things really must unravel.
No one this side of heaven knows if the repercussions from COVID-19 will worsen before they get better, but we can know that no scenario is so bleak that God cannot overcome it and bring much greater good in its wake. We who are Christians are disciples of a master who was dead for three days, after all.
You can’t have the empty tomb without the cross.
Moreover, as a theological virtue, we need not, perhaps cannot, rely on ourselves to just take a deep breath and muster the necessary hope on our own. As the father of the possessed boy in the Gospel tells Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief,” so too can we implore the Lord: “I hope, grant me ever more hope.”
After all, Chesterton tells us, “Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”
Now is the time for such hope.
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