For this we put aside our claim on love
Lay waste our little square of common home
Emotion stoked and fearful we refrain
Impassioned, rationed and enthroned alone.
Corona is the circle of the sun
A super-nova scourg’d upon the earth
A clash of opposites to life and breath
A new pneuma blown to measure death.
For what we lose we may not gain again
The price we pay may be exacting high
In quarters quarantined as others die
Our uttered shudders whisper faint amen.
These three stanzas, written for this indelible moment, play with negation. No one is quite sure what’s happening or what’s to come. The first words—“For this”—are left vague for you to fill with your concern. This could be coronavirus itself, or stay-home directives, or public assembly bans, or lack of public worship. It is For this “we put aside our claim on love.” What love? Our desire to be Good Samaritans with the sick or to comfort those in their last moments. We lay claim to such love only to be told that it cannot find a place in this pandemic. Rather, the greatest act of charity is to stay six or sixteen or twenty-seven feet away—the distance a cough or sneeze travels increases by the day. It seems so wrong to the Catholic soul raised on an incarnational faith, a strike against the Christian tradition of caring for the whole person—flesh, blood and soul. Yet abandon them we must lest we become a vector of deadly infection.
Then the second stanza: “Corona is the circle of the sun.” Outside of the beer brand or Paul Simon’s section of Queens, N.Y., corona is the outermost region of the sun, the part we see during a total eclipse, when it looks like a golden crown. Now the power of that radiating crown is found in a microscopic virus that does not give light or life but rather takes them from its host. This new “super-nova” (or novel virus) invades the lungs to replace the breath (pneuma) of life with that of death.
“For what we lose we may not gain again” is more of a question. What are we losing and gaining, and at what price? Are we losing freedoms? Are we gaining lifespans? Are we wrecking economies and livelihoods? We lack a scale to weigh, a ledger sheet to figure. Yet we know that the economy is more than money or the Dow. Oikonomia, the Greek source of the word, means “household management,” and we can see the damage to homes and families in the exploding unemployment numbers. Our economy is a web of promise and trust all along the chains of supply and demand, involving people high and low, rich and poor, you and me. There is no telling what a shutdown such as we have now will do not only tobank accounts, but to the veins and sinew of the interlocking households that comprise the body politic.
There’s an eerie uneasiness about the public portrayal of the pandemic. From the yes-or-no about face masks to the projections of the number of deaths that seem always to be scaled back, what we are told just doesn’t satisfy our desire to know what to expect and what to do next. We’ve never been through something quite like this before and are willing, for the sake of life and health, to accept for now the extreme measures taken by public officials.
But we are living under the regime of administrators trained to think in worst-case scenarios and to seek solutions for whole populations. They speak in means, mediums, abstractions, projections, more than to you and me. We see this in the daily briefings when reporters ask specifics and receive modulated responses designed to stem panic and prevent hoarding. Each one of us must find his own particular good within the general restrictions, though we feel the intended pressure to conform. From the president, to the governors, to the mayors, to the employers, all the way down to you and your neighbor passing in the street—no one wants to be seen as abetting the spread of disease, of being tagged a coronavirus rogue or modern Typhoid Mary. So everyone conforms to the mounting restrictions according to his ability, with some excelling in virtue-signaling.
“The only thing to fear is fear itself” does not apply to our current scourge; fear is the underlying factor in every instruction, so much so that we are told in myriad ways every day that any social interaction, even speaking, could be deadly. In this vise-grip of guilt, those who would emulate the plague-age saints and rush to the side of victims, heedless of their own well-being, are told that such heroism is unneeded in the present model of viral mitigation. Pure though their intention, they may become spreaders of death among the less intrepid.
Be brave, be bold. Stay home and wash your hands.
Sheltered in Place
For a seasoned soul who has aged past the strictures of the Lenten fast, and can work from home happily beside my beautiful wife while our two teen boys take their online lessons in separate rooms upstairs, the enforced enclosure of the corona era is not so bad. Editor-writer-researcher, I often work alone in the normal course of days; cutting out the back-and-forth commute may improve my focus and output. We are blessed in our bunker home, and know it, though I fall within the high-risk cohort of the novel virus.
We know also that death and illness are striking around our little Connecticut haven. We see it reported on our screens, with numbers flashing and adding up to something impossible to ignore. Hourly we can tune into the worried words of nurses and doctors, suited up as though for moon walks, telling of overcrowded ERs, lack of ventilators and masks, and anxiety over getting sick themselves and passing it on to their loved ones. Real heroic people with urgent, heartfelt concerns. We thank them and love them, and will say so personally when this is over.
As Catholics, we suffer without public Mass and the sacraments and have come to rely on EWTN and spiritual communion for sustenance. But I do not understand the canceling of funeral Masses. The precautions of the Church may be prudent, yet I wonder what is so different about this pandemic that we can’t even have a small funeral Mass to send off a soul and comfort a family. Have we put such a high value on life at all costs that we neglect to honor and pray for the dead as our Catholic fathers and forefathers had done amid harsh conditions and rapid contagions?
I must express here, however, the highest praise for Pope Francis as he delivered his annual Urbi et Orbi address on March 27—a lone figure in rainswept St. Peter’s Square imploring the mercy of God before a miraculous crucifix, and blessing the four corners of the earth with the Real Presence of Jesus in the host. True to his title Holy Father, his words and actions spoke to our common home, our shared humanity, and lifted the spirits of millions across the globe.
Yet something grates on this old soul so used to the simple solace of decisive thoughts and actions. There is something abnormal and perhaps unnatural about our chosen path against a pathogen, a strategy of retreat and containment so foreign to the American spirit, at least the spirit we’d celebrated till just last month. What to do when nothing will do but doing nothing?
How do we figure the calculus of risk when there are three ways of working the equation? We have the mathematical calculus that takes the numbers of infected and the rate of spread and projects the end-game fatalities. We also have the moral calculus that weighs the human cost of lost lives and livelihoods to reach a plan of action (or inaction) that falls within the lines of “do no harm” and distinguishes between killing and allowing to die. Finally, there’s what the dictionary calls the medical calculus, here referring to the accretion of virus within the body and the shedding of the same into the air and onto surfaces.
The confluence of all three calculi has us stuck in an effusion of uncertainty, hemmed in by lack of knowledge and fearful of action that may lead to a literal dead end.
One last point. With the depletion of medical resources in New York and other hot spots, there is talk of doctors deciding who lives and who dies. In ER triage, that’s what may appear to be happening, but not quite. Let’s not overestimate the power of MDs nor apply undue pressure as they seek to do their medical best with limited knowledge and resources, as long as they don’t treat patients solely according to stage or state in life. Doctors may indeed need to decide who gets a respirator or not, or who gets an experimental drug or vaccine or treatment. But life and death are still very much in the hands of God alone. One patient may die on a respirator and another of equivalent symptoms may survive without one. That life and death are still mysteries should become more, not less, clear in the stress and uncertainty of this pandemic. We are invited to ponder these mysteries more deeply as we embark on a social-distanced Holy Week toward the tomb of Good Friday and Easter’s new life.