My emergency backup priest, after having read my blog, tells me I have an unusual preoccupation with the apocalypse. We’re having lunch at a trendy new outdoor restaurant downtown that is constructed from shipping containers.
I explain to him that my interest in the end of the world is more of a hobby, really, and try to assure him that I’m not crazy. (He once told me that I seem remarkably sane, given my life’s experience, and ever since I’ve worked hard to maintain that positive impression.)
He’s a good listener and he laughs at my jokes, which means he’s highly intelligent. So when he tells me — no really, I think you’re teetering on the edge of a midlife crisis — I guess have to take him seriously. And I promise I will.
But that was several weeks ago, and being preoccupied with the apocalypse doesn’t seem so unusual this week. Frankly, I’m feeling just a little bit ahead of the curve. One friend has purchased an AK-47. For target practice, I suppose. Sam’s Club, as it was in the days of Noah, has run out of toilet paper.
Our little church worshiped outside this morning and there was a supply of hand sanitizer and latex gloves at the communion table. We’ve banned handshaking during Passing of the Peace, which is a small beachhead for us introverts. When we finally ban small talk and greet one another with a polite, wordless nod, we will have won the day.
The lady who hands out bulletins, one of the best people in the whole world, asks what I think of this Coronavirus business. I tell her it’s not my first apocalypse. She also laughs at my jokes. Another brilliant person. She says we should trust in the Lord, who is powerful and faithful, and of course her answer is much better than mine.
Yesterday we went kayaking with some friends, maintaining a 6-foot social distancing perimeter around our boats at all times. As I paddled gently down the stream, I told one of my best friends that I’m tired of the apocalypse. There have been too many of them. It’s exhausting. He’s not one given to dramatic religious expressions, so it took me by surprise when he said, “Yeah, I’m ready for the real one.”
Tonight while I’m writing this LuAnne is actually doing something useful. She’s helping our middle son flee England before there’s no way off the island and he’s stuck in his dorm room in Exeter subsisting on English food for the foreseeable future. Given the continuing state of British Cuisine, there’s clearly reason to panic.
. . .
It’s true, as my emergency backup priest says, I am preoccupied with the apocalypse. The shadow of the end of the world loomed over my childhood. But I want to say I have given up apocalypticism — is that a word? spellcheck says no — for hope in the real apocalypse. I confess the creed that says Jesus will come again to judge the quick and the dead. (Lord have mercy. I believe, but help thou my unbelief.)
About twenty years ago I was driving to Myrtle Beach with LuAnne, along with my mom and stepfather. We were going to enjoy a week at a condo with my aunt and uncle. Those were difficult days. Every morning during those years I woke up calculating the odds of my survival. It was not a healthy practice, but so it goes. The statistics at the time said I had maybe three to five years, which meant I might see my oldest son off to first grade.
For the drive I brought an audiobook of John Cleese reading the Screwtape Letters. It’s not available anymore, which is a tragedy. It’s a singular performance, not least because listening to the devil in the voice of John Cleese robs the enemy of all dignity. Laugh at the devil and he’ll flee from you, Martin Luther said, or words to that effect. He also said we have as much laughter as we have faith.
Anyway, one of the letters has Uncle Screwtape offering advice on how to undermine human faith during the air raids over London. Focus the patient’s attention on the uncertainty, he advises. Encourage him to pray for courage for what might happen tomorrow. Focus his attention on what disaster might or might not come in the days ahead. Preoccupy him with a dozen possible outcomes. Stir up his imagination about the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario at the same time. Make him think he needs to reconcile himself to all possible outcomes in his prayer. And by all means, keep him from the simple prayer of faith for today’s tribulation, which is fear.
Lewis says it more plainly in one of his other letters around the same time:
“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice . . . . The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessing by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows.”
Or as Amazon Alexa told me the other day while I was brushing my teeth, when she read to me my verse of the day: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Indeed. And in the meantime, I’m washing my hands for at least 20 seconds.