At this season, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer invites worshipers to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial.” This year Lent ends with the eve of Easter on April 10, and during the intervening 46 days (40 without Sundays) Episcopalians will have ample opportunity to practice these behaviors. In fact, the arrival of a new coronavirus seems almost calculated to encourage people to reflect even more than usual on their own moral obligations and to make a habit of putting others first. It likely made that impression on Janet Broderick, the 64-year-old sister of the actor Matthew, who contracted severe pneumonia and tested positive. She is a rector–the principal priest in an Anglican congregation–and on her release from the hospital “looks forward to being together again in worship, to praying with you and singing a hymn..Jesus has been so close to me the whole time.”
As many social commentators have observed, the threat posed by this mysterious illness calls forth precisely the wrong response: to meet together in shared supplication and sympathy. Wrong, that is, if your chief interest lies in not spreading the contagion and thereby hindering your own survival. (And, honestly, which of us would deny priority to that?) Such is the religious paradox of deadly pestilence, which goes back in English literature at least to Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. For the 250+ million non-Episcopalians in the country–not to mention the 25% of adults who identify themselves as “unaffiliated”–the prompting might arrive from other quarters, including the government, but the lessons seem universal–and uncongenial to the modern mind. Suspend all gatherings, not just in public but also with relatives; avoid common places of entertainment, including bars and restaurants; do not travel to exotic locales and affordable resorts; limit your purchases to what is sufficient for the day or week. (Talk about being content with daily bread.) In short, stay at home, and hope the internet doesn’t collapse.
I confess I’m not happy about this. As a retired Boomer, I certainly have very little to complain about, especially compared with families that are dependent on two or three sources of employment, all of which are now shutting down. Despite my statistically parlous condition, I have the luxury (for now) of sitting back in relative security and reflecting on the situation. That’s when I grow deeply dismayed. It’s not just having to abandon familiar routines– including the routine of occasionally breaking the routine–or reducing my skin to the consistency of crepe paper with repeated application of soap and alcohol. My discontent lies mostly with the confusion that the outbreak has engendered. On the one hand, having identified the source as “the Chinese virus,” we’re seemingly amazed that it has the temerity to come here. On the other, there arises a meaningless but alarming debate about mortality rates and apocalyptic predictions of deaths in the millions. Compounding this response, of course, is a lack of appreciation for the simple significance of numbers. Until people can be easily tested, the ‘denominator’ of this calculation [#cases] remains unknown. At the same time, failure to prepare can produce dire consequences indeed. Among the never-ending flood of news stories, many of which relate more to litigating past accountability than to informing the audience about what’s coming, we are told that New York City could run out of medical supplies within three weeks. When it emerges that such shortages were predictable, and were predicted, a shroud of impotence descends.
I suppose we can’t expect society and the economy always to prioritize the general welfare, but can we do no better than this? Quite possibly, our salvation in this crisis (as in earlier ones) will come from the ability of the military to mobilize and command unquestioned control over resources in a national emergency. And this ought to suit everyone’s political agenda. Meanwhile, let’s pause to consider the practical, even spiritual, implications of our actions. One Anglican prayer for Lent seeks help from God, “who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” How contrary to everything we believe we can accomplish; this can have no relevance in our age and stage. Yet we still instinctively admire, solemnly marvel at, the courage of the parishioners of one village in central England, who during the plague of 1665 quarantined themselves so as not to spread the disease and faced their fate together. Nearly a third of them died. By contrast, last month, when Twitter revealed that Milan was about to be locked down, many Italians fled south, taking the virus with them. Will New Yorkers, if subjected to confinement, respond in the same way?