The following article was published in the digital edition for May 2020 of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.
At the end of March, as the Coronavirus epidemic was just beginning to expose many previously unseen sides of human nature and our communal life together, Time Magazine carried an article with the headline: “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” It was written by the former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. Apparently the headline was written by a sub-editor, and according to the author, “isn’t really a fair representation of what I was saying – though it gets part of it.”
To quote a paragraph from that essay: ‘No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk, would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognised in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?’
Might we be hoping for the wrong thing? Now, there’s a thought. I saw a rather jarring comment in the early weeks of the pandemic: “What if humanity is the virus and Coronavirus is the vaccine?” In other words, looking at the earth from a cosmic point of view, humans have made the earth sick, and the pandemic, while not very good for humanity, is making the planet well again. Others have noted, in less aggressive tones, that the enforced closure of large parts of human life has benefitted the planet in terms of air and water quality.
Other silver linings include a new awareness of the value to society of many people who would otherwise be overlooked: not just the health care workers, who put their lives on the line to try to preserve the health and lives of others, but those who work in supermarkets, those who keep water flowing, lights turned on – and the now-essential telecommunications networks that give us the internet and the ability to stay in touch while isolated.
All the clapping for the health services has meant that we have seen more of our neighbours than we would normally, even if it is for two minutes each day on our balcony. We gave some Easter eggs to the little girls who live in our building and were rewarded when we opened our door to find a carefully laid-out array of art work and origami by way of thanks. These are silver linings of the pandemic cloud that are repeated in small ways through Spain and other places.
To go back to N.T. Wright’s article: he suggests that we have become so caught up in our ability to explain and rationalise things that we expect easy answers to all kinds of difficult questions. But we so desire our challenges to be sugar-coated that have lost the ability to live in the discomfort of tribulation and rediscover the ancient tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. In lament, we move beyond our self-centred worry about our own failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world around us.
Many have been surprised at their feelings of sadness and fatigue at this time. These are symptoms of grief: not just grief at being unable to practise our lives as we have been used to doing, but grief at the underlying suspicion that our way of life may be changed, may be dying.
Lament allows us to honestly admit the grief or sadness that we feel- and then to be prepared for new life to come forth. We should consider what parts of life need to change. Then, instead of hoping for the wrong things, we can, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, begin to learn from what has been happening. Then we may see emerging new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope and maybe even new wisdom for our leaders. All this comes in an Easter season when we celebrate new life springing from death. That might be the only real way to make sense of it all.