There is a lot of panic about the coronavirus as it spreads its way across the world. Some of this fear is understandable and rational. One’s bodily health and one’s life are goods that one is naturally attached to. There is a natural desire to preserve one’s life and health. Adopting some precautions is reasonable.
Now, the coronavirus has made people more aware of the prospect of death. But has it made people aware of the reality of death? We all know that if we do not die of the coronavirus, eventually we will die of something else. We understand that death is inevitable. Yet, it appears that this crisis is leading few to a better understanding what death actually is, and what it means for us.
‘It is not death itself that is so feared. If it were, as it is meant to be for us, but a mere modification of the conditions of our actual existence, it would carry no terrors with it. But if a man knows perfectly well that his mode of living here and now, his thoughts, his ideals, aspirations, affections, pursuits, tastes, have nothing in common with what must be the tastes, ideals, aspirations – in a word – with the mental outlook characteristic of the blissful world beyond the tomb, then he is naturally filled with fear.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘Why the Cross?’
One’s existence does not end with death. We have an immortal soul which lives on into eternity. This is not just a Catholic belief. One can come to this realisation by purely using reason as philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato did. Most people have some vague sense of this reality. As Fr Leen points out, it is this fear of what happens after death that really terrifies us. The greatest result of the coronavirus would be to wake people up to the reality of eternal life so that they would really examine their current way of living.
In these modern times, we try our hardest to distract ourselves from the thought of death. We try to find numerous ways to fend it off. Yet, it is still there, and it won’t go away. We may leave a legacy and people may have memories of us but sooner or later, we must leave this life and enter the next. At some stage, in our lives, perhaps during some festivities it will make itself known to us. We are obliged to acknowledge it no matter how much it may shock or irritate us, and we should do what is reasonable to hang on to respond to its presence. But, as we were but pilgrims in this short existence, is it not more reasonable to prepare for the most important occasion in our lives, i.e. the time our soul leaves our body? This is the approach that any reasonable person should take. It is in direct contrast to the spirit of the world that tells us to focus on the here and now and forget about death. As Bishop Fulton Sheen points out, ‘The pagan tries to ignore death, but each tick of the clock brings him nearer to it through fear and anxiety. The Christian begins his life by contemplating his death; knowing that he will die, he plans his life accordingly, in order to enjoy eternal life…The Christian principle for conquering death is twofold: (1) Think about death. (2) Rehearse for it by mortification now.’ Many people in Ireland today act like the pagan throughout most of their lives. Death is ignored or brushed aside. Then, something like the coronavirus comes along and suddenly the potential of death springs into their awareness. Yet, this awareness is so superficial, and, for the majority, it does not lead to a contemplation of the reality of death or a preparation for eternal life. In our clamour to avoid death, we ignore what death actually is.
What Would The Saints Do?
‘Death and ill-health and accident and grief cannot be banished by any human formula, and the weaknesses attendant on human nature, sloth and self-indulgence, envy and hatred, can be eradicated only be each man taking up his cross and conquering himself.’ – Fr M C D’Arcy, ‘Mirage and Truth’
I have written in other places how the saints are great examples to us of how to live our lives. Now, many famous saints are depicted with skulls in their portraits. This includes St Jerome, St Aloysius, St Catherine of Siena and St Francis of Assisi. They kept these skulls as a vivid reminder of death. It was part of the Catholic practice of ‘memento mori’, a Latin term, meaning ‘remembrance of death’. The thought of death was ever before them so they could plan their earthly lives accordingly. It reminded them of the need to take up their cross and conquer themselves. The coronavirus is a stark reminder of death. It challenges us, especially Catholics, to respond.
But how should we respond? By following the example of the pagans around us and trying to avoid death while ignoring what it means? Or do we do what we reasonably can to mind our health while making sure most of our effort is focused on contemplating death and preparing for its inevitable arrival (whenever that might be)? How often do we think about our own death and all that will mean? How often do we pray for the grace of a holy death? How often do we think about the judgement that awaits us? If any good can come out of the coronavirus it will involve the sparking of these questions in people’s minds. The lockdowns that are happening all over the world give time for people to stop and think as they are not caught up in work or not able to get to the pub or social events. Hopefully, there is only so much 24/7 coronavirus news that people can stand before they switch it off and really think about the significance of all that is happening around them. Perhaps then, there may be a little light that gets in and instead of thinking about the various ways they will make sure they stay alive, they will start thinking about how prepared they are to meet their Creator.
‘To live to God we must die to sin, and this death to sin cannot be achieved without its own passion. It was through the Cross that the world was redeemed – it remains that by the Cross and the Cross only, personally borne and endured, each individual enters fully into the redemption and is sanctified. Self must die in order that God may reign in undisputed sway in us. In that lies the whole explanation of suffering in life. It is only over the hilltop of Calvary that we make our way into the brightness and splendour and glowing life of the Garden of the Resurrection.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’
The Real Virus:
The real virus is the one that zaps the truth about life and death from our mind. It is the virus that makes us forget about the universal realities and our last end. It is one that encourages us on the path to self-destruction and blinds us. It is a virus that causes untold misery and unhappiness. It has its toxic allurements, its hedonistic distractions and its tempting false gods. This virus hates the truth and those that speak and live it. It has become so prevalent that the vast majority of people are infected by it. It has caused amnesia and the forgetting of the purpose of life. It is a virus of error, falsehoods and lies. It is more corruptive and destructive than the coronavirus or any other virus as it is a virus that affects our soul, not just our body. If we are cleansed of this virus before our death, we will truly live. If we are not cleansed, we would be better off if we had never existed.
‘Sin is un-love, and it is therefore dead and death-dealing like a corpse. The least sin is a more devastating agent of dissolution and corruption to the soul of man than ever plague in history has been to his body. The Church does not use exaggeration when she says that no material disaster can be compared in magnitude of evil to the effect of one deliberate venial sin.’ – Fr R. H. J. Steurt, ‘The World Intangible’
While the coronavirus is getting 24/7 coverage across the world, this virus, sin, which is far more deadly and more contagious than any plague, is barely heard about as it goes about infecting more and more people. There are no warnings about it from those who should be speaking about it, e.g. the pope, and the government is not closing businesses that promote it to protect us from it, e.g. many abortion facilities have stayed open. Neither are they implementing new laws to protect people from it or sending out guidelines telling us how to operate around those who have it. Yet, it is the most dangerous and contagious disease known to man. Over the last number of years the Irish government have given this virus free rein and promoted it so it will infect as many people as possible. God, have mercy on those that have encouraged so many on the road to perdition! It is this virus that will truly define our lives and it is this one that we should be constantly trying our hardest to avoid.
Now, there is a cure to this virus. It is one that is freely and lovingly given to those who desire it. Part of it involves becoming familiar, like the saints, with the true understanding of death. It involves reflecting on this regularly. So, let us do this and try to put things in their proper order. As Fr Boylan, in his excellent book, ‘This Tremendous Lover’, says, ‘Once the supernatural is admitted to be the one thing necessary, the natural must cede to it. Natural standards, ideals or purposes must be laid aside, and things must be judged and arranged from the supernatural point of view.’ Let us make sure that we do not die contaminated with the virus of sin. Remember that the health of your soul is far more important than the health of your body. So, in all of this madness, do what you reasonably can to take care of your health but make sure you do all you can to prepare yourself for death.