January 21, 2022 | Loma Linda, California, United States | By Carlos Fayard, PhD, for Inter-American Division News
“Aren’t you sick of this!?” Yes! I think we all are. Some are sick with it nowadays. It used to be that we would personally know only a few with COVID 19, but it appears that now almost everybody is testing positive. Just within the last week, I have had appointments cancelled because of COVID positivity or coming down with symptoms. My wife and children, who are physicians, are having to take extra calls to cover for colleagues that are symptomatic or positive with COVID. Talking about this with friends, I mentioned that the pandemic now feels more like a plague. Yes! They said, exactly!
To those of us who have read our Bibles for years, the word plague is familiar. From Genesis to Revelation, it is mentioned about 100 times and it never seems to be a positive. Some think that this pandemic is an act of God and therefore blame God for it. Others link it to prophetic fulfillment and are concerned with the civil liberties that they perceive have been compromised in the name of public health. Whether for these reasons or others, people’s “nerves” are on edge. Could we, believing whatever we believe, still find peace and joy as we start a new year? Well, not necessarily. Let me briefly share how two exemplars describe their experience with a plague, and then offer a few suggestions that could be helpful as we face it.
Albert Camus did not live through a plague but wrote a classic novel with this title. Camus himself was an atheist as his main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, who expressed his worldview. Dr. Rieux works tirelessly to care for those infected and sees the world as absurd, meaningless, and life as fleeting and ephemeral. The response to the plague reveals Dr. Rieux beliefs: work hard for the common good, but in the end, “It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words, to silence.” Silence. Nothing beyond. No meaning. No hope.
Now contrast Camus with renown English poet John Donne. Donne, born in 1572, was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, through the plague of his time. He himself got infected and was gravely ill. He wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while bedridden. In it, he was searingly honest about his emotional and faith struggles, yet he held on to Christ. In Philip Yancey’s paraphrase, Donne says “Trembling, I ask, ‘My God, my God, why have you thrown your anger so quickly upon me?’” (p. 26), and prays “As my body continues to deteriorate, O Lord, I only ask that you speed up the pace and lift my soul toward you” (p. 27). Similar suffering to those Dr. Rieux worked for. Donne continued working for the common good from his position, until the illness took its toll on him. His response to the plague: meaning, hope, connection through faith.
What we believe makes a difference as to how we transition through this current “plague.” The Psalmist (91) offers a direction:
1 “Whoever rests in the shadow of the Most High God
will be kept safe by the Mighty One.
2 I will say about the Lord,
“He is my place of safety.
He is like a fort to me.
He is my God. I trust in him.” 6 You won’t have to be afraid of the sickness that attacks in the darkness.
You won’t have to fear the plague that destroys at noon”.
While offering full protection in verses 7-13, we know that this is not always the case. But we can always find refuge in Him and not “fear the plague.” The gospel of John (15) offers spiritual and psychological clues. We feel safe when we feel connected, like the branches to the vine. You would not trust someone you do not know well and have not experienced as trustworthy. This type of intimate relationship is not the result of a passing thought, but it is cultivated, just as you would any other relationship you deem important. You would not trust someone that you barely know and hardly talk to.
Furthermore, this is the kind of Tree that bears fruit. The fruit it bears is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-25). Research from the field of Positive Psychology identify love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control as contributing to being resilient. As with any other fruit, it needs to be cultivated, meaning, the ground needs to be worked on and the plant needs to be watered and cleared of weed over time. Undoubtedly, we need to attend to what we cultivate. However, no fruit that can make us resilient will result unless it is connected to the Tree.
Part 2 of this article will follow next week.
Camus, Albert (2002) The Plague. New York: Penguin Classics.
Yancey, Philip (2021) A Companion in Crisis; A Modern Paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions. Littleton: Illumify Medial Global.
Carlos Fayard, PhD is an Associate Professor and Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Training and Community Mental Health at the Department of Psychiatry, Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He authored “Christian Principles for the Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy”.