“THESE are the times that try men’s souls…Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” 1775.
I am writing during the worst worldwide pandemic to have beset the postmodern age. Tens of thousands have died, over a million infected, and whether the virus is as dangerous as is said, only Providence will tell.
During days of cloud, gloom, when we find little encouragement from circumstance or headline, where can we look for hope? As a Christian, I know that we – the people of the earth – are not the first to face storms even as severe as this.
Augustine of Hippo saw such calamity as the Roman Empire – the stability of East and West – crumbled before his eyes. Even those of us who have not been touched by the Coronavirus, have, like Augustine, heard of the threat to all we have known and relied on, humanly speaking, from afar. Like the Vandals that sacked Rome, and advanced gradually closer to Augustine’s home, Africa, we also hear of this invisible threat of disease creeping toward those around us.
Reading an article by famed historian David McCullough he argues history ought to find the prime place in our dealing with the present
for the specific and realistic reason that all problems have histories…the wisest route to a successful solution to nearly any problem begins with understanding its history.The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p 20.
He notes the US blindly entered the Vietnam War without considering the stories of those periled nations that tried to subdue the nation before. Thus ensuring our own addendum to that list of failed invaders.
Returning to the present, what do I mean by looking to history to find hope? More than just milking the ancients for strategies or helps, the advantage of looking backward for nourishment is you find the darkness is quite common, and the road you think no one has tread is well-mapped. As Solomon states, there is nothing new under the sun:
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
We are to look to the example of those before us, who faced peril. Samwise’s words in the film, The Two Towers, distill this perfectly:
Frodo : I can’t do this, Sam.
Samwise: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…
Frodo : What are we holding on to, Sam?
Samwise: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
There is something to be contended for even today. There is a humanity to preserve by staying at home – or, for healthcare workers, to keep going to work with every precaution to save the afflicted.
For the Christian there is a hope that whatever happens with COVID-19, of the most dire, to the happily e’re after, the jewel of the secular world – a true utopia – is given freely by faith in Christ. Yet we must live in 2020 – Coronovirus central. For now, our hope can be found in those saints and sinners who trekked out a world as much or more uncertain as our own.
CS Lewis, in defending academic study while the earth was engulfed in a Second World War, stated,
“Human life has always lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.”Weight of Glory, “Learning in Wartime,” p. 50, (HarperCollins, 2009).
Lewis recognizes calamity, not tranquility, is the most common state of our world. Pax Romana – the peace afforded by the Roman Empire’s dominance for 200 years – was just as fleeting as our own stability is today.
What can we say by looking at those footprints already made on these dark paths? There will be a bright tomorrow. We will greet our friends and family. Those who have suffered will be comforted, and the weak will be strong.
Until then, look back, friend. It is bright in the midst of the gloom of those who came before you. You can find their path through weakness to be a light that guides you home.