Every morning, for the better part of a year now, a headline in the local newspaper has called attention to the “record” number of Covid casualties.
The headlines are evidently written so as to maximize the readers’ alarm. If the death rate decreases, the headline points to the number of hospitalizations. If hospitalizations drop, the headline points to the number of positive tests. If that figure sags, the headline notes the cumulative total of deaths—which of course can only increase. Granted, the Covid epidemic is a very big story. But every sentient reader already knows about the crisis; an occasional reminder about the statistics would surely serve. These daily headlines are clearly unnecessary. So why do they continue? Because fear is powerful; fear sells. The newspaper is not the only source of fear, of course. Every day the ordinary American encounters reminders of the Covid menace: on radio and television broadcasts, on highway signs, in customer-service announcements piped into supermarkets, and of course on the social media. Invitations to fear surround us.
We stay home from church out of fear. Not just any fear, but specifically, fear of Covid. We are not afraid of being killed by a meteor or a drive-by shooting or a wild animal or an automobile accident on the way to church. Any one of those tragic outcomes is a possibility, and a fatal accident is more likely than a Covid death. But we have learned to dismiss or at least to tolerate these other risks, whereas we have been trained to be terrified by the sneezes of Covid. So if we do conquer our fears and go to Sunday Mass, we are easily distracted by the sneezes of someone in the next pew. Or, if we eschew masks, we are distracted by the concern that someone will come reprimand us for not following the emergency guidelines. So we have a new source of distraction at prayer—as if we didn’t already have distractions enough. St. Theresa of Avila referred to the deep well of distractions as “the madwoman running around the house,” constantly proposing new thoughts to interfere with prayer. The mind rummages around its dusty recesses and finds new worries, new grudges, new daydreams: anything to distract the faithful from a simple conversation with the Lord. Fear is a powerful motivation, and a powerful distraction. In this case—the Covid epidemic—fear is especially damaging to the spiritual life, because it not only distracts us from prayer, but tempts us to look upon our neighbors as threats to our health. Thus we can be discouraged from charitable works, and particularly from those charitable works that would bring us into direct contact with the people in need—which is to say, the most beneficial and Christ-like forms of charity.
And as if that weren’t enough, the results of our fear—the universal lockdown of society—has given us excuses to stop doing our own work, to neglect our vocational and professional responsibilities. It’s so easy to procrastinate when the office is closed! It’s so tempting to let projects wait until we return to normalcy. There are so many reasons—good reasons, many of them—why work will run more smoothly when the lockdown is over. So we wait, and our work goes undone. Rather than doing our work, we spend our time complaining about the obstacles that (we claim) make the work more difficult. Or we spend that time arguing online about the severity of the epidemic, or the need for a lockdown, or the experts’ predictions—rather than doing what we could do, ourselves, to use our time productively. Think of all these unproductive responses as distractions, or temptations, and you realize how skillfully the Enemy has used this epidemic to damage our spiritual lives, using the poisonous weapon of fear. The antidote, for a Christian, is both obvious and near at hand: a confident reliance on God, an abandonment to his holy will. Is Covid a dangerous disease? Absolutely! But once we have taken reasonable precautions, it is essential for us as Christians to stop worrying about a force that we cannot control. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Calpurnia warns Caesar about his fate, he replies:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Caesar did not dismiss his wife’s troubled dreams, but ultimately he rejected her advice to stay home, “in shame of cowardice.” And yes, Caesar did die—but only once. He did not waste his time, distracted by useless fears. If Shakespeare’s pagan emperor could face his fate stoically, how much more reason do we Christians have to set aside our fears, knowing that we are in the hands of a loving and all-powerful Father? Caesar, a rational man, expected to die.
Whereas we, having an understanding that goes beyond reason—inspired by the supernatural gift of hope—can confidently expect to live forever.
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