Many today, from serious theologians, to firm believers, to interested onlookers are asking the question, ‘Is Coronavirus a plague in the Biblical sense of the word? Don’t look for a dead cert answer here, but from a plethora of articles, I have selected three to help us explore the question.
The first is a thought-provoking article by Dr Graham Tomlin, the Area Bishop of Kensington, in which he considers Daniel Defoe’s reflections on a plague that hit London in 1665 inm the light of our current understanding of God’s part in Coronavirus. (NB: You are allowed to read two free articles a month in this publication – there’s a second link coming up).
In the second, John Stevens suggests that instead of asking ‘Is this plague from You, Lord?’ we might do a lot better to ask, ‘What do You want to teach us through the lockdown?’ Yes by all means seek God’s mercy and restraining hand on the virus and its impact, but then go on to look at ways in which we can pray for an ever increasing harvest of righteousness amongst the people of God right across the world. It’s very sensible!
You’ll probably want to add your own ‘God is perhaps training us,’ points as well as considering the author’s own.
Finally, in another article in The Church Times, and at a rather more high-brow level, we return to the historical. John Donne is known to some for his highly colourful life, loved by more for his splendid sonnets, and appreciated by rather fewer for his fervent sermons. Fewer still know that, following the death of his wife, he spent his last years as the Dean of St Pauls, fervently preparing himself for Heaven.’ As he puts it, ‘Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt . . . Wholly on heaven my mind is set.’
Donne fell seriously ill in 1623 with typhus, and had a close brush with death. He wrote about this experience a year later in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions Together with Death’s Duel:
“My God, my God, thou hast made this sick bed thine altar, and I have no other sacrifice to offer but myself . . . As long as I remain in this great hospital, this sick, this diseaseful world, . . . this flesh of mine, this heart, though prepared for Thee, and prepared by Thee, will still be subject to the invasion of malign and pestilent vapours.
“But I have my cordials in thy promise . . . thou wilt preserve that heart from all mortal force of that infection; and the peace of God which passeth all understandings shall keep my heart and mind through Christ Jesus.”
In his article in the Church Times, Marcus Throup considers that some might find this (fairly complicated work!) something of a ‘spirituality of sickness.’ He certainly found it a timely companion himself when he was laid low by coronavirus. He writes,
‘Quarantined and distanced from others, lying on the altar that was his sick bed, Donne found that his uninvited guest, his illness, brought him closer to God through a deep self-examination and a thoroughgoing return to first principles. Without minimising the challenges we face, or the heart-rending tragedy of daily death tolls, it is increasingly clear that our uninvited guest — the coronavirus crisis — is the impromptu catalyst for reimagining the Church in the 21st century.’
Illness on the scale of Coronavirus truly challenges everything we have taken for granted, including the whole way we do Church and God’s call on our lives. As Donne discovered, and as the Suffragan Bishop of Lancaster, Jill Duff reminded us in her splendid video message that we featured in the last edition, sickness can be an opportunity to ‘Wake up, repent, and come home.’ May those who are dealing with serious sickness at this time know God’s presence with them in and through it. And may we His people find many imaginative ways to answer His call of love.
An extract from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions Together with Death’s Duel by John Donne.
The opening section in Donne’s publication captures the feel and flavour of what only too many are going through in this seasons of Covid-19. Don’t be put off by the archaic language!
VARIABLE, and therefore miserable condition of Man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surpriz’d with a sodaine (sudden) change, and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name. We study Health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises, and we hew and wee polish every stone, that goes to that building; and so our Health is a long and regular work; But in a minute a Canon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all; Sickness unprevented for all our diligence, . . . unsuspected summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroys us in an instant. O miserable condition of Man, which was not imprinted by God, who as he is immortal himselfe, had put a coale, a beame of Immortalitie into us, which we might have blown into a flame, but blew it out, by our first sinne; we beggared ourselves by hearkning after false riches, and infatuated our selves by hearkning after false knowledge. So that now, we do not only die, but die upon the Rack, die by the torment of sicknesse; nor that only, but are preafflicted, super-afflicted with these jealousies and suspicions, and apprehensions of sickness, before we can call it a sickness; we are not sure we are ill; one hand asks the other by the pulse, and our eye asks our urine, how we do.
O multiplied misery I we die, and cannot enjoy death, because we die in this torment of sickness; we art tormented with sickness and cannot stay till the torment come, but preapprehensions and presages, prophecy those torments, which induce that death before either come; and our dissolution is conceived in these first changes, quickened in the sicknes itself, and borne in death, which beares date from these first changes. Is this the honour which Man hath by being a little world? That he hath these earthquakes in himselfe, sodaine shakings; these lightnings, sudden flashes; these thunders, sudden noises; these eclipses, sudden obfuscations and darknings of his senses; these blazing stars, sodaine fiery exhalations; these rivers of blood, sodaine red waters? Is he a world to himself only therefore,that he hath enough in himself, not only to destroy, and execute himselfe, but to presage that execution upon himselfe; to assist the sickness to antidate the sickness to make the sickness the more irremediable, by sad apprehensions, and as if he would make a fire the more vehement, by sprinkling water upon the coales, so to wrap a hot fever in cold Melancholy, lest the fever alone should not destroy fast enough, without this contribution, nor perfect the work (which is destruction) except we joined an artificial sickness of our own melancholy, to our natural, fever. . . .
To which we can perhaps reply:
Father, reach the heart of worried, anxious humankind. Be Lord of where this and other illnesses descend and afflict. Raise hearts and minds to worship You, the living God, while there is yet time. Fit us for heaven, to dwell and reign with You there.