Ordinary Life in Apocalyptic Times

I haven’t been writing for awhile, a halfway intentional decision, in part because I’ve been working on some longer writing projects (a virtuous reason), in part because I’ve been overwhelmed by a colicky newborn, and a transition from a very busy early semester to a global health crisis in mid-semester (the force of events)—and mostly because I’m just disorganized and give up too easily.

But a thought on the present crisis gives me a chance to begin again.

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A couple of my Catholics friends whom I most respect have suggested we see this crisis in sort of apocalyptic terms.  There is obvious truth to that proposal.  We are experiencing a cataclysm.  Beyond the death toll, which may be shocking, the health crisis is demanding an economic and social crisis.  None of us will forget being unable to go to work or Mass.  Many may face long periods of unemployment.  Loneliness and other social pathologies are sure to be horrible.  We already had rising rates of suicide and other “deaths of despair,” such as opiate overdose.

And we must receive these things as coming from the hand of God.  (God does not, of course, dictate how we handle the crisis.  But with numbers of infections and deaths doubling multiple times per week, along with 20% of those with known infections needing to be hospitalized because they can’t breathe, I’ll accept the unanimous opinion of public-health officials that we do need to take drastic measures.)

There are careful distinctions we can draw, of course, between what God directly causes and what he only allows.  But those distinctions don’t change the fact that we must receive this crisis, like everything else, as somehow part of God’s plan for us.  Horrible times plus the sense that it comes from God: Apocalypse.

Finally, we must hope that somehow God plans to bring good out of this crucifixion.  And good means conversion.  Somehow this is a special time of conversion.

Apocalyptic literature talks about an “illumination of consciences.”  Somehow what’s supposed to happen is that, alongside horrible signs, people recognize their sins, and many, somehow, convert.  It’s not hard to imagine how the fear of death, the shattering of our sense of control, and even our isolation, with or without family, could create a perfect context for such an illumination.

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But I resist ultra-supernaturalism.  Perhaps it is partly a matter of personality.  But it is also a matter of theological conviction.  Let me approach this topic again, but from a more humdrum angle. 

I’m stuck at home.  I’m teaching online, but I already had a light schedule this semester, and now most of my meetings are cancelled, I have no commute, and my time is freed of the million things that take up my time at work.

I daydream about productivity.  Now I should have time to teach my children music, and math, and theology, and literature; to take long walks and do other exercise; to read; to get enough sleep; to write!  What an opportunity!

But in fact, though the circumstances around me have changed, it’s still the same me.  The me who reads too much on the internet during ordinary times does the same thing during extraordinary times.  The me who spends too much time daydreaming and not enough time working: that’s still me.  I am still too irritable with the people I should love.  I am still distracted when I should be praying.  I still get caught in negative internal monologues. 

One of my favorite professors once said that the central idea of science fiction is that you put human beings in completely unusual circumstances—and it just brings out what is always true about human beings.  I haven’t read much science fiction, but in the Lord of the Rings, for example, what’s really great is that Sam and Frodo, hobbits deep in Mordor, are still showing us the most basic realities of friendship, weariness, and temptation.  Put me in the wildest situation—and it’s still me. 

(A silly way to say the same thing.)

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Over the years I’ve had the opportunity for many hermitage retreats.  Mystical!  Spiritual!  Hermitage is wonderful.  But it’s still the same me.  I’m no more insightful on hermitage than I am at home.  I pray more, but I get distracted just as much.  On more than one hermitage, I’ve managed to waste hours and hours, and undermine my big plans, just playing with the fire.  Take away the internet, and I still get just as distracted.  (Sure, playing with the fire is pretty “contemplative.”  But it’s also a pretty good way to procrastinate, even on hermitage.)

In fact, what’s wonderful about hermitage is not that I become a different me, but that, as in science fiction, I put myself in a totally different situation—and find the same me.  Silence just reveals how distracted, and self-focused, and silly, I’ve always been.  It is very illuminating!  Certainly helpful!  But not because it magically makes me a new person, but because it shows me who I was already, forces me to deal with it.

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I suspect death, our personal apocalypse, like sickness, is the same way.  All our selfishness, all our greediness and ingratitude, will come to the fore.  We’ll have to deal with ourselves, in the most naked, face-to-face way.  And that will be scary.  The final judgment, the final chance to deal with our reality, which we’ve done such a good job covering over.

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I’ll tie this all back to the coronavirus apocalypse two ways.

First, sure, this is a crisis given to us by God, an apocalyptical moment of some kind (though anyone who tells you they know the day or the hour of Christ’s final coming needs to spend more time reading his words and less time with private revelation).  This is an illumination of conscience, absolutely.

But I don’t think anything magical will come of it.  Like hermitage, all that an illumination of conscience can do is throw us back to where we were in the first place: to show us our selfishness, and to see if we are humble enough to cast ourselves on his Mercy.  What the Apocalyptic reveals is the Ordinary.  And what it demands is the Ordinary: to live our lives the way we ought to live them everyday. 

That’s how this apocalyptic crisis affects ourselves.  The same is true of how it affects our relationship with our neighbor.  It’s tempting, when we think about apocalypses, to hope that suddenly God will step in and handle evangelization for us.  Suddenly, this grand moment will come, and God will magically convert everyone, and all that ordinary boring Gospel stuff will disappear, and we won’t have to love our neighbor, or speak the Gospel to him, or be good witnesses.

But here, too, all the apocalypse does is throw us back to the Ordinary.  In this crisis, and in the final crisis—both the personal final crisis we’ll each face on our deathbeds, and the ultimate final crisis at the end of history, whenever that may come—nothing changes.  What the apocalypse reveals is what was always true.  We still need to love our neighbor, preach the Gospel, be good witnesses of Christ’s love.  There is no other way. 

How do think about the Apocalypse?  How do you think about the moment we’re in?

eric.m.johnston

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