The endurance of faith in a time of crisis
The coronavirus pandemic is inspiring an interdenominational renaissance of the most fundamental Christian values intended to combat terror in the face of massive adversity. The Church, and other religious institutions of all faiths across the globe, are needed more than ever before.
It is a common element of humanity to share the quality of faith. It does not matter whether we hear a friend say “I believe in God” or “I do not believe in God”. Faith permits of doubt, nay indeed entails it. Whatever divergent words we may use to express our relationship with the spiritual realm, they are all born of the same set of intuitions about life, death, our physical relationship to the world and the uncertainties harboured within human nature about what exists beyond it.
In this regard all humanity exists as a single congregation. When the Roman Catholic Church talks about the existence of a single church, this is the congregation being referred to: the common congregation of humankind, with all its doubts, anxieties, fears and concerns, and the sensation of the divine that transcends them.
This sense of common humanity, that different people may use various words to describe but Christians call the divine, or Holy Spirit, draws us ever closer together in times of fear. The global spread of an infectious disease, that leaves us all afraid of one-another and scared even of going out and celebrating our religious beliefs with like-minded people, serves as an opportunity to remind us all that we share this common humanity that Christians believe is captured in their relationship with God.
One reason the Bible is considered so inspired a compilation of religious revelation is that it recognises the acute circumstances of physical penury in which mortal men will be driven to seek solace from faith; and Scripture articulates that solace. Non-Christians, who deserve our every respect for their toils in the face of equal adversity feel quite the same as we do. They too, reading the Holy Scripture in good faith can see the allegory of this meaning, even if they cannot embrace the Biblical description of faith as the literal word of God.
In these difficult times in which the human race now perseveres, we all derive comfort from the word of Christ Jesus: even those of us who may not accept it as Revealed Truth.
The Scripture was written in an era in which mortal perils, amongst them plague, were far more common; and human life was all the more precious in consequence because the fear of death was so more frequently repetitive in the consciousness of all men and women. So the Bible has a lot to say about plagues, because they were more frequent.
Nevertheless when we face a modern plague such as coronavirus, each one of us faces precisely the same narrative of abject fear, concerns about death and what comes thereafter, impoverishment, destruction of the family and society, as did our ancestors who read the Scripture with far greater immediacy than we do. A plague in the third century is the same as a plague in the twenty-first, in terms of the challenge it presents to the spiritual optimism inherent in all people no matter how they may seek to exclude it from the routine of their physical existences.
What we are living through now is quite the equal spiritual challenge as it was to those for whom, in the centuries early after the death of Christ amidst the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Holy Scripture was a far more immediate document. Therefore we all have an interest, irrespective of religious belief or denominational affiliation, in understanding the wisdom of the Scripture that knows no historical bounds.
The Bible has much to say about plague, but I have selected the following passage that serves as a summary of many of the messages of inspiration found in both Old Testament and New Testament texts.
4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
Matthew 24: 4-8
This passage is illustrative of a number of propositions as tenets of the Christian faith. Firstly, plagues and other disasters are a recurrent feature of human history, and mankind’s suffering in the face of such devastation is something upon which Scripture teaches, the divine love supports, and the Holy Father is aware of as we undergo our travails.
There are many such challenges, and the devotion of humans to the true divine course will be tested amidst the pains from which they are suffering. It will be a time of false prophets and misleading information about the meaning, gravity and consequences of these curses. Nevertheless God implores us to stay strong, resolute and clear-headed, and devoted to the true faith, in the face of natural catastrophes.
A plague is not the end of humanity or of civilisation; the despondency of humankind and the extremism it entails must be resisted. There is a positive Christian mission in the face of adversity, which may come in all manner of forms across the history of civilisation. That mission is to support the people in their faith, guide them in doing what is right, and give them cause for hope.
It is the duty of every person of faith to find inner strength to help and support the wider community at a time when we all face the same anxieties. People across social groups, income spectrums, and of every religion and none - these are all people of faith, each of us infected with the altogether more blessed virus called the Holy Spirit that is supremely contagious and brings hope and fortitude, not crisis and despair.
The end is not coming; there is joyous and beloved life after coronavirus. Those of us toiling amidst despair and in many cases grief at the loss of loved ones, may have temporarily lost sight of the light at the end of the current tunnel. They should overcome fear, and their loss of spirit should, with help, be overridden. The divine love dwells within us all, as does the sensation of faith.
Every Christian owes it to God and to his community not only to keep himself and his loved ones in positive spirits and faith for the future, but to lend a helping hand and reassure the stranger alike and the community as a whole whenever he has the opportunity. We are all blessed and fortunate, and there are always suffering more than us. It is our Christian duty to assist and inspire one-another.
We all bleed inside. We all suffer the psychological effects of isolation. We are all quarrelling with friends and family. We are all worrying about loved ones far away. We all resent the increasingly tedious restrictions imposed upon us by government, even where we understand them. We all fear illness and death in ourselves and others. We are all concerned about money, about being able to continue to buy food to eat or to pay the costs of our accommodation.
We all miss our lost social and recreational activities. Many of us have lost our jobs or have been forced not to go to work, and we feel adrift on a lonely sea without a safe harbour in sight. We are all baffled and scared by the barrage of impenetrable statistics levied at us by government and media alike. Each and every one of us despairs that this nightmare has no clear end in sight and no way out. We are all stricken with the pain of anxiety.
This is why the clear-eyed vision of Christ Jesus may serve as a compelling and penetrating insight in these gloomy times. The Christian message is that this is not yet the end; we must be perpetually on guard that the messages of doom with which we are relentless bombarded are not false prophets; that this plague, as with all others prior, will come to an end; that while governments may stand in conflict and confusion, we as a global community of the faithful and within our local communities, continue to stand together; we must not succumb to despair.
God teaches us through Scripture that strength, hope and compassion must be ever stronger for Christians, and for all people of faith, in times of crisis. We must be fortified by the fact that the Holy Spirit has guided us through such calamities in the past, and that it will do so again. God teaches us that we must show compassion for all, not just those within our community: for we all have faith. God teaches us that the altruism of the soul must be drawn upon in ever greater reserves in this time of crisis.
God invites us to be brave, and not just to think of ourselves and our close family. God invites us to help the stranger, both materially where we see our brother in need but also spiritually, by showing the inner strength imparted to us by the divine love, wherever we see the hearts of others sagging. God asks us to be especially considerate of the other, of those ordinarily outside our circles, at this time. God asks us to take note that we can do much to assist the plight of others, less fortunate than ourselves, at moderately little cost to us, amidst the tremors of a disease that is not just physical but social, in the sense that society is riven with terror.
The Church is leading and must continue to lead the way in propagating this message, because the Church stands as the roof under which all people of faith - the whole world, suffering from this pestilence and menace, may be guided to embracing common fortitude. It is only by embracing this challenge together, forgiving one another imagined sleights, begging forgiveness, recalling what is important to each of us and to all others, forgiving sins and crimes alike, calling friends and unknown people, enquiring of their wellbeing, providing material aid and spiritual counsel, that we can overcome this contemporary plague.
The role of the Church, and of the Christian, is essential to this universal social mission. Where so many institutions around us - media, government, business - are confusingly deafening or alarmingly silent, it is the role of all people of faith, and of the institutions of faith, to carry the flame of hope, compassion and love, and to guide our society out of a spiritual vortex. Our mission is to lift the spiritual hopes of mankind; to help all sufferers through crisis, as we would hope others would do unto us; and to usher in the physical uncertainties that will follow this crisis with spiritual confidence and good faith. The stability of our future politics, the welfare of our industries, the satisfaction of the people, and the conscience of faith, require it.
The author is an international lawyer, writer and professor of law. He is currently a novitiate in training to become an Oblate of the Order of St Benedict.