Some years ago, I was on a high-speed Acela to New York one morning when, in Connecticut, a woman in her early 60s apparently fainted while waiting at the crossing barriers. Recently discharged from the hospital, she was the primary caregiver for her grandchildren, ages 4 and 2, and was now, with great caution and love, driving them to preschool. Gently, uncontrolled—inexplicable to those watching—the nose of her car bounced under the barriers and rolled onto the track—at the very moment when our train barreled through. The woman and her grandson died instantly; his tiny sister died several days later. After a long wait, a half-mile past the impact, our train still enmeshed with the mangled car, we, the shocked passengers, were eventually disgorged at the closest station to wait for a new train. When reporters began trawling the crowded platform, microphones in hand, I could not speak. Silence seemed the only respectful response to such a violent and deadly serendipity.
These days, in the global grief of the current pandemic and its economic and political fallout, I feel much as I did that morning on the platform: overtaken by silence. An inner sentinel calls me to attend with respect the widespread “shell shock” of emerging losses for which there are no adequate words. Such silence is for me a solidarity of spirit, a way, as it were, to weep with those who weep. And yet—precisely because this crisis also directly relates to my academic engagement in global health and the history of faith-based responses to illness and need, I wrestle within such silence with an equally complex sense of responsibility to find language that might shape (if only my own) choices and actions in the midst of a media firehose of verbiage. This essay is a partial response to these inner sensors. But perhaps it might encourage others wrestling with a similar struggle as we listen, hope, and begin to craft useful, tempered conversations with depth and integrity.
No, I will not resign myself. This is not a war; we are not at war.
Ever since the dominant narrative in Italy and in the world about the pandemic has assumed a war terminology—that is, immediately after the health situation in any given country changes drastically for the worse—I have been looking for a different metaphor to describe adequately what we are living and suffering and at the same time to offer elements of hope and of sense for the days ahead.
The recourse to the war metaphor has been pointed out and criticized by some commentators, but it has a fascination, an immediate reach and efficacy, so that it is not easy to stamp it out. With great interest I have read some contributions—not numerous, as far as I can see—that have appeared in Italian media: the article of Daniele Cassandro (“We are at war! Coronavirus and its metaphors”) for Internazionale, the mini-inquiry of Vita.it on “The virulence of war vocabulary,” the entry by Gianluca Briguglia on his blog Il Post (“No, it’s not a war”), and the excellent work of Marino Sinibaldi on Radio 3, who has dedicated one episode of “Language hits” to this very theme and has also introduced a possible alternative metaphor: the “vocabulary of tenaciousness.” The dozens of artists, scholars, intellectuals, and actors invited to choose and illustrate a significant word in this moment of history have furnished a valuable list that goes from “harmony” to “closeness,” but I cannot find there a term that might be a metaphor for the entire narrative of the reality that we are living.
In some respects, the global coronavirus crisis has brought to light ruptures that in normal times were often dismissed as marginal problems of small groups. Unresolved and underestimated social injustices became obvious and were recognized as threatening more than just the existence of the respective groups. A similar effect of the coronavirus crisis can also be observed for the Churches. Many conflict issues of the past years were dismissed as opinions of small groups or of particularly liberal or conservative individuals. Accordingly, solution processes were postponed. For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), this is true especially of the question of how to relate to modern society in the 21st century. The Church—despite growing requests—felt secure in its symphonic interaction with the political elite and in its role as moral authority in an increasingly complicated, globalized world. In this respect, the ROC was able to see itself as unquestionably relevant to the system.
In conflicts, the Church’s leadership often reacted incomprehensibly, even irreconcilably and hard-heartedly. This attitude was particularly justified by the alleged and yet so-difficult-to-prove existence of a fundamentalist wing within the ROC. Arch-conservative circles could cause a split within the Church, and the patriarch would only try to keep all currents together and prevent a split. The same happened in view of the spread of Covid-19: the indecision of the Church leaders in Russia and Belarus, but also in other Orthodox countries like Georgia or Serbia, was justified among other things by possible tensions within the Churches.
As everyone ponders their particular and usual roles, during the pandemic, ministers of Church rites strive to creatively answer their specific charge to assemble the faithful and execute time-worn rituals, so that communion, as we understand it, remains uninterrupted. In light of this new normal, however short-lived, perhaps now is the time to reflect on the fact that the rhythm of celebrations has long ceased to nurture society’s Nones. Rarely do we ask how we are to feed them as they move away from the liturgical life; rather, we sense a kind of fear that if the rhythm stopped, communion would cease altogether. But is communion limited to the Eucharist? And is not the purpose of the Eucharist itself to reveal the very essence and goal of all of life as communion?