There is a moving black-and-white photo taken in San Francisco in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. The photo shows a crowd of men and women, soberly dressed, standing and kneeling on the steps of the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption. In the foreground, a lone man kneels on one knee, his head bowed solemnly, with one hand grasping the wheel well of an old car for support.
The Spanish flu was a highly contagious and deadly form of the flu that spread rapidly around the globe. When all was said and done, the dead numbered as many as 50-100 million. Furthermore, unlike the virus that is making the news these days, the Spanish flu did not spare the young or the healthy; nobody was safe. Because of the fear of contagion during the 1918 pandemic, authorities in many jurisdictions either completely banned all public events or recommended that public events be held outdoors. Hence, the presence of the worshippers on the steps of the church.
Perhaps it was not “wise”—in one sense of the word—for the people in that photo to be there, in a crowd, in the midst of an outbreak of an infectious disease. Wise or not, however, this photo stands to me as a powerful witness to the universal human tendency in times of great trial to come together and to turn our hearts and minds as one toward the transcendent, to seek wisdom from the Almighty, to humble ourselves in the face of the great mysteries of suffering and death, to worship Him who made heaven and earth, and to beg for His mercy.
Or rather, the almost universal human tendency.
Another photo has been making the rounds these past few days. It shows Vice President Mike Pence and the group of advisors who make up the President’s Coronavirus Task Force bowing their heads in prayer before a meeting to discuss how to handle the epidemic. Unfortunately, this photo has received much attention, but not, as you might think, because people found it comforting that our national and political leaders are seeking divine aid in the midst of a crisis. Quite the contrary.
One writer for New York Times magazine, Thomas Chatterton Williams, posted the photo on Twitter, writing: “Mike Pence and his coronavirus emergency team praying for a solution. We are so screwed.” His tweet was liked and shared tens of thousands of times. Other writers accused Pence of trying to “pray away” the virus or of “trying to stop a virus with prayer.” “I have yet to attend a scientific meeting that begins with a Christian prayer,” wrote Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, on Twitter.
Responses like these show just how post-Christian our society has become and how ill-informed people are about the basics of Christian teaching, philosophy, and theology. For some reason, it is now taken as unquestionable that there exists a dichotomy between prayer and empirically informed practical measures: That is, many people now view it as self-evident that we can either pray or take reasonable, scientifically grounded action. But we can’t possibly do both.
In the first place, this is plain dishonest. Regardless of what one thinks about the details of Pence’s response, clearly he isn’t just trying to “pray away” the virus; the prayer, rather, was merely preliminary to a meeting with experts that resulted in tangible and practical proposals based upon epidemiological principles aimed at stemming the spread of the virus. In the second place, these criticisms are based upon a grossly erroneous understanding of how Christians conceive of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.
The Spiritual Significance of a Crisis
Some tend to think of God as a powerful, but ultimately limited being—the “old man with a beard”—who is “out there” somewhere, who Christians hope will occasionally pop into the picture and work some supernatural magic in response to their prayers. This is an absurd caricature.
It is true, of course, that Christians do believe that God occasionally manifests His power by performing miracles that violate the normal physical laws (i.e., miraculous cures). In times of plagues and natural disasters, people of faith quite naturally turn to God in prayer, pleading for the mercy of a miraculous intervention. History and scripture are filled with extraordinary examples of how God deigns to listen to the humble cries of His people.
However, Christians also believe that, in most cases, God’s will and presence are manifested in creation through the orderly unfolding of natural causes according to the innate natures and principles with which He has endowed them. Because God is omniscient and omnipotent, He doesn’t need to “tinker” with His creation to reveal His will; rather, His will is manifest through those natural causes. We know from Scripture and history that God uses natural disasters and plagues as means to call His people back from their sinful disobedience to mindfulness of Him and His laws.
When Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert goes on stage and mocks the notion that a pandemic of a deadly virus could amount to a divine call to repentance—“a righteous cleansing of punishment for his lust and vanity,” he joked—he is making an elementary error. The underlying assumption is that, because we now know plagues and diseases are caused by microorganisms and can be prevented and cured through modern medicine, there cannot possibly be any spiritual dimension to these natural events. That’s just outmoded medieval superstition.
I am no prophet, nor am I an expert on the coronavirus, but the absurdity of this approach can very easily be shown. The fact is that thousands of people are dying from coronavirus, and thousands more will likely die before the pandemic runs its course. Regardless of how bad the pandemic does or does not become, and regardless of whether or not we think it is a sign of God’s divine wrath or retribution, the simple fact is that its presence among us unquestionably serves to burst the bubble of our daily complacency and cocooned Western comfort. It reminds us of the inevitability and proximity of suffering and death and forces us to recall to our minds the great spiritual questions that urgently demand satisfactory answers. Questions like: What is the purpose of my life? Is there a God? Have I been living my life the way I should be? What happens after death? What is the meaning of suffering?
There’s an old saying: “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” That might not strictly be true, but it exposes a deep truth: times of crises do tend to concentrate our minds with laser-like focus on the things that matter most and to open our minds to truths that we might have scoffed at in times of ease and comfort. At the heart of this experience, there does indeed exist a single, urgent, and biblically grounded demand: Repent, turn back to God.
The Church’s Response to the Coronavirus
For this reason, in a time of pandemic, the Church has a crucial role to play. It is precisely at times like these that people suddenly realize how famished they are for spiritual truths. The Church is in possession of those truths and has a solemn responsibility to confidently make available those truths.
There is a famous story told about St. Gregory the Great. He became pope in the midst of a horrific outbreak of the plague. Immediately upon taking office, he exhorted the faithful to prayer and repentance and organized a massive procession around the city, at the front of which was the painting of the Virgin Mary reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself. It is told that, at the conclusion of the procession, St. Gregory had a vision of an angel on top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum, now known as Castel Sant’Angelo. The angel was sheathing a sword, which the pope took as a sign that the punishment of the plague was over.
Is coronavirus God’s “punishment” for our sins? I don’t know. Certainly, there is no shortage of sin in our modern, hedonistic world. But what I do know with absolute certainty is that the proper response to this crisis is the one exhorted by St. Gregory and every other saint and prophet going back to the beginning of Scriptural revelation: Repent, turn back to God. “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).
In response to the spread of the coronavirus, many churches in Italy, Japan, and elsewhere have been suspending Masses or putting in place other restrictions. Given what we know about the ways deadly viruses spread, some of these measures are reasonable. On the other hand, some of them seem excessive or premature. In some cases, churches have banned gathering for prayer even before governments have banned gathering in pubs and bars or in marketplaces. The result is that, precisely when people are most open to spiritual concerns and are thirsting for the comforts and truths that the Church has to offer, they are unavailable.
Just as there is physical medicine, so too is there spiritual medicine. Both are necessary. In the Church’s response to the coronavirus, practical measures to avoid the spread of the virus should be equally balanced with measures designed to call people back to prayer and repentance. Church officials should strive to find creative ways to bring people together in prayer, even if only virtually or spiritually, by arranging novenas, days of fasting, and Masses broadcast on TV and the Internet.
We live in a fallen world, scarred by sin, suffering, and death. But God is in control. Though the human race has made great strides in counteracting the scourges of disease and suffering, we will never be able to attain perfect control. By exposing our lack of control and the reality of our mortality, this current crisis offers a very real mercy by calling us back to mindfulness of God’s sovereignty and our eternal destiny. Like those crowds of people on the steps of the cathedral in San Francisco, our first response should be to kneel before the Almighty, begging for His guidance and mercy. Contrary to Mike Pence’s critics, this is the most reasonable thing to do in the circumstances, as almost every generation prior to ours intuitively understood.
Let us pray for our spiritual leaders at this time, that they will know how to bring the peace that comes of a loving trust in God’s providence in the midst of this crisis. And let us pray for our political leaders that God’s wisdom will guide them as they formulate a plan for containing the spread of this virus and that medical scientists and researchers will be guided in finding a vaccine, treatments, and deterrents to the virus’ spread.