By Ed Mechmann
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Love in the Time of Coronavirus. As the pandemic has progressed, it’s now time to write about Hope in the Time of Coronavirus.
Recently, the Governor of New York gave an interview about the decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. This was good news, and the Governor was right to treat it as such. Following the advice of public health authorities and concentrating our medical resources have definitely been decisive in combating the spread of the disease.
Unfortunately, the Governor went into waters that were too deep. He said to an interviewer, “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus.” You can’t expect theological sophistication from a public official. But it is remarkable that in such a short statement the Governor managed to give two wrong answers to the question of how God acts in human affairs.
The first wrong answer was the assumption that everything that has been accomplished is due to human efforts alone. Pope Francis often describes this kind of mindset as “Promethean”. Pope Benedict once spoke of “a Promethean vision of the human being which maintains that he is the absolute author of his own destiny.”
This hearkens back to the Greek myth of the giant Prometheus, who created humanity from clay. He then stole the fire of the gods – knowledge – and gave it to humanity, thus founding civilization. But the unintended consequence was that men failed to see their dependence on God, and instead tried to become like gods themselves.
Prometheus has often been used in art and literature as a symbol of human ambition for perfection and for full control over our lives, without God or even in defiance of Him. The ancient Greeks had another word that also applies to this attitude – hubris, the fatal arrogance that leads to a reversal of fortunes and catastrophe. History is littered with men who have been led astray by Promethean folly.
I would suggest that anyone who is suffering from the Promethean temptation should contemplate Psalm 127: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Those who prefer a more secular source might consider Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”.
Misreading God’s Will
The Governor’s second wrong answer was the presumption of knowing exactly what God is doing (or not doing) in this crisis. The Bible is filled with prophetic insight into the way that God intervenes in human affairs — His “providence”. But God’s providence is not always as obvious as we might like. It is especially difficult to discern because God typically makes use of indirect causes to advance His will – the actions of people (for good and for ill) as well as natural events.
In our Promethean pride, it is all too easy to interpret God’s will to conform to ours, and to take all the credit (but none of the blame) for all that happens. I would suggest instead that we follow the example of the wisest public official we have ever had – Abraham Lincoln.
I recently read a fascinating book about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Throughout the Civil War, he contemplated deeply on why it had come about and what it meant for America. He also struggled with the problem of how to discern God’s will in the catastrophic conflict.
I’m going to quote his Address at length, not just because of its sublime rhetoric, but because of its profound reflection on the mystery of God’s providence:
Both [sides of the conflict] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp
We have no idea why God has allowed this plague to happen. But Lincoln’s advice is to trust in God’s inscrutable wisdom, especially when it doesn’t make sense to us in our suffering. So what should we do?
The Answer is Christian Hope
Lincoln’s answer — and God’s — is that we should devote ourselves to the tasks at hand, trying to do His will as best we can. We do this particularly by serving the weak and vulnerable. As Lincoln said, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.
In other words, we need to ask God for an increase in the virtue of hope:
The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1818
Humans can and will do the best we can to find a cure for the disease and a vaccine to prevent it. We should thank God daily for the brilliance of our medical and scientific workers. But the ultimate solution to this crisis is always in God’s hands. He will act in our best interests according to His purposes and in his own time and way, even if we will never understand them. To put it in the most plain terms, we should follow the advice that is often attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.”
Jesus, I trust in You!