E. J. Hutchinson writes on “learning in quarantine,” reflecting on his post-September 11th experience and C.S. Lewis’s 1939 Learning in War-Time address:
We are once again in a similar situation, but this time the enemy is even more viscerally one of flesh and blood: the sour grapes of a virus that has set the world’s teeth on edge. My institution, like many others, has suspended its in-person classes. And the question can easily arise: Why bother learning? People are dying. More people are going to die. Reading a book seems to be at best a ridiculous self-indulgence, at worst a repudiation of trying at least to do something useful.
On that score, what Lewis had to say in 1939—mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus, and all the rest of it—has something to say to us now. For he had to face the same question. Given Hitler, given Mussolini, given all of it, why go to school? How can one justify it? “Is it not like fiddling,” Lewis asks, “while Rome burns?” The way in which he responds to this question is at once incisive and illuminating.
The first thing he does is to set the war, and the way it might make one radically rethink his priorities, against a deeper, broader, and more cosmic backdrop. That is to say, the drama of life occurs in the midst not only of temporal concerns like war or disease, but also of eternal ones, namely heaven and hell. Everyone is on his way to one or the other. Thus “every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.” The last enemy is not one of flesh and blood.
This is not to say that the war is completely unimportant, but rather that it is not–cannot be–the most important thing. Lewis is not attempting to be callous or to perform what is known on Twitter as a “Jesus juke.” His point is that “[i]f human culture can stand up to that [i.e. the question of one’s eternal destiny], it can stand up to anything.” If we think that culture and learning are important even when taking the last things and eternity into account, then they are a fortiori important when taking earthly calamity into account.
After all, war and disease do not create death where there was no death before. We were already mortal. What they do instead is “simply [to] aggravate the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.” And if we waited to “search for knowledge” until we had solved the problem of death, “the search would never have begun.”
When we think about death, we realize that “[l]ife has never been normal.” …
It is a difficulty that this all sometimes must occur under the shadow of catastrophe. This makes us anxious, and that is not surprising. But Lewis counsels that you “not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament is more abnormal than it really is.” To return to an earlier point, conditions will never be ideal, and “[i]f we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.” But the truth is that “[t]he only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”
Consider this moment in time through the lens of striving for virtue, striving for excellence. Does this time make that striving harder, more difficult? Does it dispel some of the fog of the everyday and help you see more clearly what the essential things in this life are? To pursue virtue, to pursue excellence is to thrive in the midst of the unfavorable conditions of the everyday, and what these unusual days can help prepare us for is precisely that: our eventual return to the everyday and the unfavorable—even if more mundane-seeming conditions that come with the territory of that life.
And what are saints except those who have lived heroic lives of virtue, who have encountered God, amidst the ordinary and extraordinary in every generation? I’m thinking of John Paul II, who went home to God on April 2nd, 2015. I remember listening to the tolling of the bells of Rome through Fr. Roderick Vonhögen’s Catholic Insider podcast, through his distinctive “soundseeing” episodes of that time where he simply walked the streets of Vatican City and let who knows how many of us feel closer to the only Holy Father that many of us had ever known. Jason Evert writes in his book Saint John Paul the Great:
In the final months of his life, his face was swollen from cortisone (he had Parkinson’s). His aides stood at his side to wipe drool from his mouth as he attempted to address massive audiences.
The man who for decades masterfully used inflections and dramatic intonations to stir the hearts of his listeners could now only slur his words. But John Paul didn’t want anyone to look away in embarrassment. He wanted them to see him, for their own benefit. The man who taught the world how to live was now teaching them how to die.
Lying in his bed, he asked that the Gospel of John be read aloud. His last words were (in Polish) Pizwolcie mi odejc do domu Ojca—Let me go to the house of the Father.
He once said: “Just when night engulfs us, we must think about the dawn coming, we must believe that every morning the Church is revived through her saints. Not because they have conquered the world, but because they allowed Christ to conquer them.”
What are we doing now and what are we going to do later? Are we going to let ourselves reflect in this time and let it change our lives after this time in our life is over?
Are we going to recognize that these questions apply to every day of our lives?