The book of Genesis tells of Joseph’s prophecy that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. But, for us, even a few weeks of relative deprivation (or at least having trouble buying toilet rolls and baked beans) comes very hard after 70 good years.
This virus has caught as all by surprise. Most of us have known nothing like it. I have hazy memories of spending my early years against a background of postwar rationing. However, for the majority (though not for everyone), the last 70 years has been a time of relative stability and prosperity. We are wholly unprepared for this crisis.
What is much worse is that we are all potential victims of a crisis that seems out of control. We have become used to trusting in science to be our salvation. But science, for once, is scrambling to catch up with events. Respirators are invaluable, but no one knows exactly how we are going to safely come out of the present lockdown.
Another alarming fact is that this virus moves silently. The Italian town of Vo’ Euganeo has a population of 3,300. When the virus first broke out there, everyone was tested. 70% of those who tasted positive showed no symptoms. They were presumably spreading the infection, but had no idea they were doing so.
The good news about Vo is that everyone who tested positive was isolated, and now no one there is infected. But the virus spreads invisibly. It reminds us of Christina Rossetti’s poem, inspired by Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (Jn 3.7), “Who has seen the wind? Neither I know you. But when the leaves hang trembling, the wind is passing through’.
I am also reminded of some words of T S Eliot (from The Family Reunion):
We understand the ordinary business of living,
We know how to work the machine,
We can usually avoid accidents,
We are insured against fire,
Against larceny and illness,
Against defective plumbing,
But not against the act of God…
But the circle of our understanding
Is a very restricted area.
Except for a limited number of strictly practical purposes
We do not know what we are doing…
We have suffered far more than a personal loss
We have lost our way in the dark.
Where is God in all this bewilderment and fear? God never says, “You are on your own”; but equally God never says, “Leave it to me”. God invites us to collaborate with him. He never promised that there would not be a pandemic, or some other disaster. His promise is that, whatever adversity we have to face, he will stand beside us, help us to get through, and bring something good out of our “crucifixion”.
Part of the value of this crisis may be that it forces us to abandon the fantasy that we have got nature sorted out, and that we can control it. Clearly we can’t. We have some limited powers to combat disease and death, and we should use them to the full. But, if we thought that this kind of pandemic could never happen again, we were wrong. It is best to be humble enough to accept that reality.