By Father Neil Vaney
Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has made many of us sharply aware of something we thought we knew but largely ignored.
It is the omnipresence of microbes. They dwell on our hands and faces. They can live briefly on doorknobs and railings. They may congregate on an apple that we pick up at the supermarket. Many are friendly; without them we could not live. Others like Covid-19 are concealed weapons able to penetrate nearly all human defences.
As we have become aware of these tiny lethal creatures we have been brought short by this reminder of human frailty and vulnerability. We are journeying creatures, destined to death. We have seen two extreme reactions to this truth. The first has been to try to close oneself off as much as possible, in an effort to construct a fortress around ourselves and our families. The second is to accept paying a price to cling to the lives that prosperity has brought. Those who adopt this position argue as follows: certainly, many of the vulnerable will die but in time a vaccine will appear or herd immunity will gradually develop. Fear lurks unacknowledged behind both these options, as well as an unspoken denial of human fragility.
What the Scriptures may tell us
Our memories are short. Few of our generation have lived through an epidemic but the Bible reminds us that the people of God have lived through many a plague. Psalm 91 of the Hebrew scriptures meets the reality of plague head on; it names the ‘destroying pestilence’ (Ps 91.3) that sees “a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right side” (17). It guarantees, nonetheless, that “because he clings to me, I will deliver him; I will set him on high because he acknowledges my name.” (14) This is not to claim that God-fearers will be immune. Psalm 73 acknowledges that the faithful may endure great suffering while the wicked seem to prosper; “Is it in vain that I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands as an innocent man? (Ps 73.13) Jesus himself insisted that it is often the innocent that die in disasters (cf Lk 13.4).
As so often, it is St Paul whose vision penetrates the apparent meaninglessness of such suffering:
“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.” (Rom 8.35, 38-9)
Pestilence as a time of Grace
What might this mean for us concretely at this time of plague? First of all, has this been not just a time of disaster but equally a time of grace. Each of us has been invited to see this time of confinement not just as a restriction but as a gift. The first element of that gift was the lesson of how much we are indebted to others, many unknown to us. Essential workers such as doctors, nurses, farmers, and supermarket workers have toiled and taken risks that we might live. We learned that we are not just part of the body of Christ but equally of a nation that held together with remarkable cooperation and collective discipline. We were privileged to have an administration that asked a lot of us but with clarity and love – even tough love.
Another lesson we have been offered is that of humility. Despite the amazing technological expertise we enjoy we have been brought down by a tiny virus. Humankind’s future is still uncertain. Even tougher times may lie ahead. We have been given a space for reflection, a time to strengthen family and neighbourhood bonds and to reaffirm our dependence on God’s love and providence. Certainly, we must continue to be prudent but we must not surrender the mutual care and sense of unity that the pandemic has granted us.
Once more we can fall back on the words of Paul:
“Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us. (Rom 5.5)
Neil Vaney is a Marist priest ordained in 1969. After teaching in schools and working as a university chaplain in Christchurch he went to Rome to study moral theology. On his return he lectured at the Marist seminary and at Good Shepherd College in Auckland. During this time he completed his doctorate at Otago university in the field of environmental ethics and the theology of nature. In 2004 he published his book Christ in a Grain of Sand which has sold over 9000 copies around the world. After being the first principal of the Catholic Discipleship College, he is now the pastoral director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Wellington.