Paul tells Timothy to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). When I think of this verse however, it comes to mind in the words of the Authorized/King James version of my youth: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2, KJV).
In many ways the time of the virus Covid-19 is, without a doubt, “unfavorable.” But for all that it has sent us into varied levels of seclusion and sequestration, and taking into the account the horrible impact on people’s lives, families, and yes, the economy, it is nevertheless a good season for the proclamation of the Good News.
When the Apostle wrote these words about an unfavorable time, I’m not sure he had in view a time when people wouldn’t need to hear the Gospel. Instead, I think it has to do with the potential consequences for the one proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and defeat of Hell, Death, and the Devil. There have certainly been unfavorable times in the history of the Church. The Soviet era. China today under President XI, whose plan for solidifying authority has seemed to include intensified restrictions and persecution of religious groups, especially Christians. The Second World War (Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life explores that one).
Our time and place is not unfavorable in such overt ways to the proclamation of the Gospel. There are challenges–some of the questions raised in Malick’s film attest to that in their applicability to our present moment. And yet, as it relates to the Coronavirus, I wonder if we are indeed in a favorable time.
I don’t mean that the virus was a “good” thing. Far from it. What I mean is that this is a “good” time for the proclamation of the Good News. This is not because of the peculiarity of our current situation in which people are lonely, anxious, grief stricken, confused, and sometimes without a clear sense that anyone cares about their struggles. It’s not because of the peculiarity of this time, because precisely what makes this time a good one for the proclamation is that it is even now stripping away a facade that has allowed us to imagine that these sorts of challenges aren’t barely under the surface in the best of times.
In this context the message that you are beloved of God, that God became one of us so that through him we might be with God, is sorely needed. At a time when people might be questioning their worth, reminding them that they are not worthless but priceless in the sight of God–purchased at the unfathomable price of the Son–can provide necessary perspective and fortitude to make it through.
Making it through such a time with its heavy doses of reality is a challenge. Making it through in a way that might allow for thriving takes all our resources: Spiritual, relational, intellectual, physical. One sort of resource that comes to mind for me quite often in stressful times is literature. Scripture, of course, is its own category here. After years of doing the daily office, some scripture has gotten into my bones–particularly portions of the Psalms, which I will read even when I can’t do the entire office. But in addition to scripture, poetry is often an important emotional bulwark for me.
John Donne (1572 – 1631) one of the great metaphysical poets (and, along with George Herbert, one of my favorite poets overall), has come to mind quite a bit for me over these past few weeks. In particular, lines from Donne’s poem “Hymn to God, My God, In my Sickness” have pushed themselves to the forefront of my consciousness several times.
Per fretum febris. Donne inserts this Latin phrase in his poem, and it was among the first to come floating back to mind as I read about the effects of Covid-19. I recall reading it the first time and stumbling over the exact translation with my rusty Latin. “By the straight of a fever?” It took me a few moments, but I got the gist, if not the underlying reference. Donne was writing about a sickness that entailed a dangerous fever. Literary anthologies usually translate the phrase as “through the straights of fever.”
Donne makes evocative use of references to cartography and exploration in his poem and his later reference to Magellan’s straits makes it all the more fitting that he’s calling to mind the death of the explorer Magellan who, while giving his names to straits, himself died before circumnavigating the globe–not reaching his intended destination. I believe Donne wants his readers to understand life–and death–as a journey. Not only in the general, but the particular sense. Sickness and dying are themselves journeys. And I think, unlike some contemporary commenters, Donne would be quick to both affirm the importance of the journey and the destination, as he focuses so closely on his “west,” i.e. both his impending death and his end/telos in union with Christ.
So it is that Magellan who navigated the globe and lent his name to the straits, died before reaching his goal, and now Donne, struck down by fever, navigating his life and what he believes to be his impending death, believes he may die by these straits–but his journey is will not be cut short. He will achieve his promised end. The destination not only matters, but is assured.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Per fretum febris. This phrase came to mind as I read descriptions of the symptomatology of the Coronavirus. Out of curiosity I decided to do some reading about the historical context of Donne’s composition. When had he written “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness?” How close to Donne’s own death had it been? I remembered that Donne had died of what we now assume to have been stomach cancer. I also remember reading about his last sermon, “Death’s Duel” delivered at the beginning of Lent in 1630–but when had he written this moving poem the lines of which were brought to mind by our current societal predicament?
After a little digging I discovered that while some earlier commenters believed the poem to have been written shortly before Donne’s death in 1631, most commenters today believe it was written around 1623 (roughly the same time Donne is supposed to have written “A Hymn to God the Father”). John Donne: The Complete English Poems, in the outline of Donne’s life, says this of the year 1623: “Donne seriously ill.”
The sickness that Donne endured in 1623 is believed to have been either Typhus or relapsing fever–though he believed himself to have the plague (the last round of which hit England in 1666, after being endemic since the late 1300s and striking regularly with periodic peaks). This served as the background for the experience that prompted his famous words in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne’s words and our current predicament has led me to think long about what it must have been like for our forebears to live in a world that was perceived to be so much more precarious than our own. I say perceived not because I want to deny the advancements in technology, science, and public health that have been made over these few hundred years, but because of the fact that just because we have not recognized the fragility or precariousness of our situation, it does not mean it was not so. And I believe a recognition of that fact is actually necessary–perhaps paradoxically so–to build the sort of certainty we are comforted by.
The first sort of (albeit limited) certainty comes from taking seriously the threats that are simply of a piece with being part of the natural world. This may be especially true when we are under stress, and even more, when we have put our world under, and the creatures with whom we share it, under stress. As the Pope said recently in his Urbi et orbi address:
“We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.Pope Francis, March 27, 2020
The second sort of certainty testified to by Donne’s poem is likewise in evidence in the Pope’s words, and in his reference to the imploring words of the disciples: “Wake up, Lord!” This cry is one that may seem to come from desperation, but as Pope Francis pointed out, even their cry is a witness to a particular faith. They have faith in Jesus, but they wonder: does he care?
“Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.”Pope Francis, March 27, 2020
Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care? This question of whether or not God cares about what happens to humanity is an important one. The Christian response is fundamentally that God does care–we do not believe in a divine and sublimely distracted clockmaker, but in the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Because of this, someone like George MacDonald might warn that doubting God’s goodness (a species of which might be doubting whether or not God cares) could be worse that doubting God’s very existence:
“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…”George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons
I take comfort in the fact that, as MacDonald says, there is a difference between having doubts, or asking questions, and in yielding to such doubts. Certainly believing in a capricious or monstrous deity is worse than believing in no deity at all–for while the latter may lead in some cases to an insidious or evil nihilism, the former may lead to a nihilism that boasts divine approval.
So it is significant that, when confronted with the possibility of his death, Donne reflects on the way his body has become its own cosmography, a type of map for his physicians to read. He despairs of their finding a means of his cure–rather than the straits of health, he believes that they are simply showing him the reality of his situation, and that the straits of his fever will likely mean his death. Imagining what his end might be, he describes a holy room, where–in a beautiful image–he writes “with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music…”
For Donne, his end is Christ. Jesus is his destination because Jesus is essential to his present. “Shall my west [death] hurt me?” he asks, then answers,
As west and east In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, So death doth touch the resurrection.
This unity of apparent opposites gets even more pointed as he invokes the tradition that Christ was crucified on the site of the fall, and imagines what it means to be united with humanity’s natural head (Adam, who fell) and with the head of renewed and redeemed humanity and restored creation, Jesus:
We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place; Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me; As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.
Ultimately it is Christ’s union with humanity upon which Donne places his trust. The solidarity of God with us, first in the incarnation and lifted up on the cross is an essential aspect of the way Donne works out the specific uncertainty around what he believes to be his impending death. I believe it is also the core of his ability to live with the uncertainty and fickleness of nature that was so much more in evidence in his day than in ours. “Coronatide” as some on the so-called Weird Anglican Twitter have dubbed it, is a time when we get a glimpse of what normal life was like for our forebears. Frailty was more difficult to deny and uncertainty drew close–but closer still was the Good News of God’s love.
This is why Donne could write/pray with such awareness in Holy Sonnet 14 “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” and why he could close this hymn of his sickness with a strong affirmation of ultimate union with Christ–it was a union already real, set to be revealed:
So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord; By these his thorns, give me his other crown; And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word, Be this my own text, my sermon to mine own: "Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."
While the entire poem is a favorite, perhaps my favorite line in the whole is the final one: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” One could get into a deep theological discussion about the nature of providence and of God’s active vs. God’s permissive will. Here though, I believe the background of this line is a type of the question posed by the Disciples, and highlighted by Pope Francis: “Do you not care?” At some point we all have to come to terms with the fact of our own mortality. Whether that is experienced per fretum febris, in a singular event or as part of some wider calamity. In doing so, we have to ask, if we believe in a loving God, “do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Donne’s answer, I believe, is summarized in this final line: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
We do not know why such evils are allowed–and let’s be honest, God’s allowance as all powerful is only finely distinguished from God’s activity, therefore we may feel that the natural trials we face are in some way God throwing us down. But Donne’s answer, if I can call that, reminds me of Jesus’ answer to the disciples when they ask why the man had been born blind. “Who sinned?” they asked, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is revealing: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:4).
Donne’s answer, and its reflection on our current situation may be summarized this way: we do not know why evils befall us, whether exceptional, as with this virus (at least in our own day) or more common–death itself. But we do know that God loves us (Jesus is exhibit alpha through omega of that). And because of Christ, we know that God is with us even in the most dire and challenging circumstances. And because God–specifically, because Jesus–has been with us, we know that Jesus will not abandon us. We know that we have been made one with him and that his crown of thorns, adorning his brow as he united himself with us in death, becomes a crown of glory as we are united to him in resurrected life. Why does God allow evil to befall us despite the ability to prevent it? Because we do not yield to the doubting of God’s goodness, we must believe something good for us is ultimately purposed, turning even the bad to those good ends.
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” The tragedy, the falls we endure, can in the end, only be redeemed if there is an even greater lifting up awaiting us. And if we are not left alone to endure in the present moment.
We are in a season where the saccharine claims of a false and comfortable piety will be revealed for the weightless fantasies they are. Where the ultimate nihilism of a consumeristic materialism will be unmasked as mute and powerless idols. So this is indeed a season when the proclamation of the Good News is needed. The Good News of God in Christ, of Christ’s love for us, of his death, resurrection, and ascension–and ultimately his coming again. A gospel message that can lead us all to echo the words of Donne, “Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me…”
Look on your people, Lord, who know you love us because you came to be with us, and find not only our failures and hatreds, but our striving after goodness and our love for each other. Look on us and find your Son, Jesus, working in our hearts.