The End of Our Longest Lent
This time of silent streets and police-enforced solitude, of contamination phobia and social distancing, can serve as a kind of desert in which we can end this Lent. And have some hope for Easter. You just need to know where to look. I hope that each of us is doing what he can for those around him. That we’re all still remembering to pray, even without fellow congregants or candles, or choirs and waving palms.
Jesus prayed alone in the desert for 40 days, stripped not just of followers but even friends. Have we ever really thought about how lonely He must have been? He faced bright, alluring angels who preyed on His human weaknesses with taunts and empty promises. Everywhere we walk, save into sin, He walked before us. We can see His footprints, and follow.
Face It. It’s Fear.
Most of us are frankly afraid. Let’s just admit it. Courage isn’t rashness, or the simple lack of fear. It’s control over our passions, the fact that we love something more than even our mortal frames. It’s knowing what bullets and shells can do to a body, but marching forward anyway, if only to help our fellow soldiers.
But let’s look into the fears we face, and see what they can teach us. They can show us what we love, and perhaps even teach us how to better order such loves.
What fears am I facing? Several people I love have compromised immune systems. Their defenses against this virus are frail paper walls in a classic Japanese house. So I fear for their simple safety. But they’re taking extraordinary steps to protect themselves. Staying indoors, wearing masks when they really must leave, even spraying their mail with Lysol before they open it. That much, they can control.
Bare, Ruined Choirs
Beyond them, I fear for my favorite business owners, my favorite waiters and waitresses, and the cooks who work in their kitchens. I’m afraid that when my parish church finally reopens, a fifth or a fourth of the people will not be there anymore. They’ll have lost the Sunday habit, and might not get it back. I will miss them, and they’ll miss many graces that come from common prayer and sacraments.
I fear for the families where the breadwinners’ livelihoods have vanished. Where a safe, decent job has gone, and long months of penury put stress on everyone of any age. I remember when that happened to my family back in high school. All the ugliness that emerged as the refrigerator got emptier, and the collection notices piled higher.
Strip off the useful lubricant of a little extra money, and everyone’s sharp edges start to collide, and spark little fires. They’re too often drowned with tears. Remember to pray for everyone who’s edging closer to such a crisis.
Hard Times Can Make for Hard Hearts
I’m afraid of how my own life will go in a new, austerity-stricken America. A thousand little conveniences potentially stripped away. Competition a good bit fiercer, and everyone less generous. The wolf much closer to everyone’s door, and each person less free to take any creative risks.
“Non-essentials” like art, music, and literature suddenly starved of funding. How many concerts that performers practiced for months will now be canceled, and never rescheduled? Worthy first novels now shelved indefinitely. Dancers dismissed, sent back to wait tables at the restaurants that haven’t gone bankrupt.
So yes, the economy matters. Economics, stripped of math and jargon, is simply the art and science of human cooperation. The market economy is the exquisite, fragile means by which billions of us manage that, far less cruelly or wastefully than by any other method.
Throwing Sand in the Gears
The great anti-Nazi activist and economist Wilhelm Röpke expressed this truth better than I can.
Consider, for a moment, the problem of the daily provisioning of a great city. Its millions of inhabitants must be provided with the basic necessities, to say nothing of the “luxuries” which cheer and brighten existence: so many tons of flour, butter, meat, so many miles of cloth, so many millions of cigars and cigarettes, so many reams of paper, so many books, cups, plates, nails, and a thousand other things must be daily produced in such wise that a surplus or deficiency of any particular good is avoided.
The goods must be available hourly, monthly, or annually (according to the kind of good in question) in exactly the quantities and qualities demanded by a population of several millions.
This immensely extended and intricate mechanism can function only if all its parts are in such constant and perfect synchronization that noticeable disorder is avoided. Were this not the case, the provisioning of millions would be immediately imperiled.
Who is charged with seeing to it that the economic gears of society mesh properly? Nobody. No dictator rules the economy, deciding who shall perform the needed work and prescribing what goods and how much of each shall be produced and brought to market.
How Much Waste, Chaos, and Tyranny Will Remain?
The price system makes all that happen. Like a thriving organic cell, or a prancing tiger, or an exquisitely- balanced ecosystem, the free economy runs itself. It lets each of us run himself, and make our own personal choices.
Now that’s all in danger, as the State tosses great big handfuls of sand into the gears. To protect us from the virus, it ham-handedly must lock down hundreds of millions of people — the healthy along with the sick. To compensate, it prints vast truckloads of money, then sprays it in the general direction of those who need it. Who deserve it, since the State had to make their livelihoods illegal.
Suddenly, like a brain on drugs bombarded with false stimuli, the price system doesn’t work so well anymore. Millions of people sit idle, producing nothing. Millions of others get a check they don’t need or deserve. Half the gasoline stops flowing to the engine, and ends up inside the battery.
We all get a little poorer, and some of us lose everything. The real human costs of that strike the vulnerable worst of all: the single mom, retired workers with scanty pensions, veterans struggling to recover from PTSD.
That’s nothing to wave off or sneeze at. For proof, see this sobering article: “Drugs, Suicide, and Crime: Empirical Estimates of the Human Toll of the Shutdown.”
God in His Billions of Images
For a sense of what is happening, check out this powerful video of my silent, locked-down hometown, New York City. I watched it this morning for as long as I could stand it. On the one hand, there’s something lovely and strange about the city in daylight, apparently sleeping. All the exquisite old buildings and glittering monuments still stand intact. You can see their lines and the harmony among them more clearly than ever. The absence of crowds, for a moment, seems welcome.
That lasts for just a few minutes. Then the images start to haunt you. The buildings and streets without people no longer seem like a body sleeping, but possibly dead. You wonder how well or completely they will ever return to life. What awful political changes, shoved through behind the fig leaf of a “global emergency” will blight the people’s lives when they walk free again. Will our polity and our economy limp like a cripple, returned from war alive but never whole?
With God’s grace, that reminds you that for all their noise and vices, you love your fellow man, even in his billions, as a sea of little mirrors for the glory of their Father.