A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
WE enjoyed the sunshine over the last few weeks, well in so much as we can enjoy anything these days. For myself, the experience of the sun beaming down, and the beauty of the new life around me as I ventured out on my 2km walk was uplifting. I saw buds and blossoms, dandelions and daffodils, daisies and primroses and ‘blossomed furze unprofitably gay’ (to quote Goldsmith). Cherry blossoms also never fail to lift my heart in late spring every year. The natural world is blooming. I am much more conscious these days of the birds’ song in the morning, their song full of joy and hope.
‘I cringe when I listen to right wing Christians who interpret the virus as a punishment from God.’
And yet it is as if creation is being mocked and derided for such foolish expressions of hope. Our world is assaulted by this deadly virus, Covid-19. The virus, invisible, is spreading its evil mantle over all creation, like an enveloping darkness, an insidious intruder into our lives against which we are virtually defenceless, apart from social distancing. We are in turmoil; world leaders vary in their abilities to face the crisis. Ours are doing well. Timely to have a medic as Taoiseach. Faced with such evil and suffering, and the absurdity of it all, can we make any sense out of it? The beauty that we see around us, is it all just illusion? Is there any basis for the hope that sustains us? Huge questions, very difficult to find answers.
I cringe when I listen to right wing Christians who interpret the virus as a punishment from God. For example, evangelist Rick Wiles called the coronavirus a “death angel” sent in retaliation for sin – “God is about to purge a lot of sin off this planet,” he proclaimed. In a bizarre rant, another claimed that the current outbreak of Covid-19, is happening because of Pride parades.
Camus, in his novel “The Plague”, brilliantly captures this attitude in his depiction of a sermon delivered by Fr. Paneloux (one of characters in the novel) in the cathedral of the town stricken with bubonic plague. The cathedral was packed full of desperate people, terrified by the onset of the plague in their town. The priest claims they are now turning to God for the first time in years: “We are getting what we deserve,” he bellows… “the pandemic is God’s punishment for sin.” This is God’s way of teaching people that they must return to the faith. If I thought that this was true, I would immediately tender my resignation to the Bishop and renounce my Christian faith. There are no such simple answers.
Camus deftly illustrates this when he has Paneloux deliver a second sermon. It is in the aftermath of the death of a little boy, the son of the town’s judge, who had died in agony. Also the priest had been challenged by the hero of the novel, a doctor, who was present at the first sermon. The doctor said to the priest at the death of the child: “at least this one was innocent.” By now, the priest’s’ certainties are shattered as he reflects on the brutal experience of innocent suffering. He is almost embarrassed at his previous explanations as they now ring so hollow. Gemma Simmons points out how now, with much more humility, he preaches about a God whose ways are not our ways. His response now is to gently encourage the flock to have patience, and to trust in God’s ultimate mercy.
It is extremely challenging to reach this level of faith response. And yet, in the midst of the chaos precipitated by this virus, we must struggle to discover some meaning, some basis for our hope. Victor Frankl in his brilliant little book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, claims that it is vital for us to discover the meaning life has for us. He quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” He teaches that if there is any purpose in life at all, there must be purpose in suffering and dying. Each of us must discover this for ourselves and accept our responsibility for it.”
It is necessary to digress for a moment to outline the background to Frankl’s philosophy, which will help to convince us of his claim.
Frankl was a long term prisoner in Auschwitz. He found himself stripped of everything. All members of his family except his sister perished in the camps. He suffered from cold, hunger, and brutality, not knowing when he would be selected for the gas chamber. The question he faced: how could he find life worth preserving in the face of such darkness and suffering? He wondered, “if all this suffering, this dying around us has a meaning. For if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival.” By helping prisoners to discern some ultimate meaning he found that they were motivated to fight for survival. For some it was remembrance of loved ones who depended on them; for others it was the significance of the their work for the development of humanity.
Ultimately, Frankl was compelled to raise the religious question. His take on it is interesting. “What is demanded of (us)”, he claims, “is not to endure the meaninglessness of life but rather to bear our incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.” This is essentially the theme of Fr Paneloux’s second sermon. No rational argument can provide a satisfactory answer to the question of why this plague has come upon us. But the Christian faith has a perspective which invites us to trust that God is with us. “God-with-us is made visible in Christ who hangs on the cross and whose body is in agony every day in the bodies of suffering children, women and men. The assumption is that God can and will give strength in suffering” ( Sr. Gemma Simmons).
The resurrection of Jesus grounds our hope that we too will triumph over suffering and death. Pope Francis reminded us that “life conquered death. It is a hope that does not disappoint.” The experience of new life breaking forth in nature is not suggestive of illusory hope but a sign that we can continue to dare to hope.