Friday, March 20. A light fog hangs in the air in the early morning as I walk uptown to see what’s going on at the big hospitals a few blocks north of my neighborhood. The magnolias, crabapple trees, and forsythias are in splendid bloom on the spacious grounds of Rockefeller University, next to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center on York Avenue. TV vans with satellite antennae are parked nearby, waiting like buzzards on a telephone wire. The main lobby of the hospital is quiet. Entrance to the emergency room is restricted. The security guard isn’t about to let me in. Through the glass doors I spot some doctors and nurses with the plastic face shields we’ve seen in so many images from Italy and now the United States. The guard shoos me away.
I stop at a nearby church on 68th Street and pray for a few minutes before the reserved sacrament. For the First Things staff, that they may be of good cheer in these difficult times. For friends scattered throughout the country. For the sick. For our leaders, that they make the right decisions. For the Church, which has become distant and inert, that she may find her voice.
I’ve got a long list of things to do, and I head to work. On Wednesday we will send the May issue to the printer. Final edits need to be made and emails sent. I’m alone at the office. The staff works remotely, as public health officials advise. We’re fortunate that our tasks are performed almost entirely on computer screens. Everything essential can be done with keystrokes. Work continues, even as we scatter.
Victor, our financial officer, comes in at noon. We confer about developing an emergency budget. State and local governments across the country are requiring shutdowns that will have lasting economic consequences. In Washington, politicians talk of emergency measures amounting to $2 trillion. Central bankers in the United States and Europe speak of the need to do even more to prop up the financial system. The unprecedented sums—more than was spent in 2008—indicate how perilous the situation has become. Everyone will be affected. Victor and I talk about what to cut to ensure our survival.
I go out to get something for lunch. The streets of midtown Manhattan are not empty. The city is so densely populated that its streets are never vacant. But foot traffic is a tiny fraction of a normal business day’s. The car traffic reminds me of downtown Omaha in 1990. Unlike any other workday in New York, a cab to any part of the city would take little time.
My regular lunch place no longer allows customers to sit and eat. Everything is takeout. So I order and return to my office. As I slowly eat some thoughts come clear in my mind:
Death is a hard truth, but we are always swimming against its undertow. Because it’s constant, mortality is strangely impotent in itself, at least as far as the arc of history is concerned. The three waves of the Spanish flu pandemic during 1918 and 1919 killed tens of millions. Nearly 700,000 Americans died, close to 1 percent of the American population at the time. Almost as many American soldiers died of the Spanish flu as were killed in combat in World War I. Yet, the deadly pandemic plays no role in historical synopses of the twentieth century, and rightly so, for it had no significant economic, political, or social consequences comparable to the Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam.
By contrast, on June 28, 1914, an archduke of a superannuated central European empire was assassinated in a remote provincial capital, triggering a sequence of political decisions that led to a devastating war. Within four years, Western civilization was transformed. Why did a solitary death lead to a continent-wide, culture-changing war, while a deadly pandemic killing millions was of little consequence?
The avalanche decisions in parliaments and cabinets that led to the unprecedented slaughter in four years of trench warfare were made in part because the nationalist who shot the archduke represented powerful ideological forces, and in part because many of the nations of Europe felt themselves vulnerable to domination by one or the other of their peers. But to a greater extent, things unfolded as they did because kings, emperors, and prime ministers led their nations down paths of mobilization and preparation for war that had consequences they never anticipated. In those fateful days, careening toward the guns of August 1914, natural forces had no role. Events were driven by human agency.
Suffering and death are sad facts of life. An experienced doctor knows that even as we struggle against our vulnerability and mortality, eventual defeat is inevitable, at least in medical terms. But there is more to our mortality than the fate of our bodies. The religious consecration of suffering and rituals surrounding death remind us that we do not just resist and fight. We must bow before our mortality, true, but we can wrest from it what we can of our humanity, which is made for more than death. When we comfort the suffering and mourn the dead, we are not curing or rescuing. We are asserting in our words and actions that suffering and death do not have the final word.
But now we are operating otherwise. In response to the pandemic, we bend every effort toward “defeating” it. The West is “militarizing” our efforts, and with our efforts, our imaginations and our societies. Like the czar and his advisers who ordered a general mobilization on July 30, 1914, our leaders are issuing sweeping decrees with no clear sense of where they will lead.
I realize that I can’t spend the rest of the day marinating in my fears about the “war” rhetoric. There’s work to be done. But I’m distracted. We seem to be sliding toward an economic catastrophe. If I’m huddling with Victor to develop a survival budget, thousands of businesses and organizations are doing the same.
In early March, when government officials were urging people to take precautions, minimize contact, and wash their hands, many white-collar businesses closed and people began to work from home. On Sunday, March 15, Mayor de Blasio ordered schools, restaurants, and bars to close. As I’m working at my desk, a friend sends a text message: Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a lockdown to take effect on Sunday evening. Everything “non-essential” must come to a halt. Only “essential services” are to continue. “We’re going to take it to the ultimate step,” he intones at the news conference, “which is we’re going to close the valve.” I’m reminded of King Canute, who stood on the seashore and commanded the tide not to come in.
During the press conference, Cuomo expresses a widely felt sentiment: “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” I cannot help but gasp. Everything for just one life? Justice, beauty, honor, truth—faith? I’m reminded of Endo’s novel, Silence. I think of Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the two principles of the Gulag and communism are “survival at any price” and “only material results matter.” My mind falls again under the sway of dark thoughts, and I begin to analyze the wrongheaded moral reasoning.
Cuomo has no ill intent. But if we begin with the wrong principles, we’ll end up making a mess of things. It is simply false that life is the highest good. There are many things we should prize above physical survival. We should never directly intend the killing of an innocent life. But there are countless situations in which we must forgo efforts to save a life.
People speak of triage as a sign of moral failure. This is wrong and suggests an irresponsible moralism that imagines we can always attain the perfect outcome. Triage is a sign of finitude, not moral failure. We are always doing triage, which is why we don’t spend 100 percent of our GDP on healthcare. Finite resources, finite endurance, and finite capacities require triage. We are commanded to give care, comfort, and succor to the sick and dying. We are not commanded to entertain the destructive fantasy that we must spare no expense and forego no sacrifice in order to preserve life. Someone who sacrifices everything of his own for the sake of another’s life is a saint: “No greater love hath a man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.” But a parent who sacrifices his family is no hero. A leader who shipwrecks his society in order to decrease a disease’s death rate has a morally disordered understanding of his role.
I look out my window at the nearly empty streets and grimace inwardly. If we start with the seemingly noble but false principle that we should spare no expense or sacrifice if we can save a life, where does it end? If the imprisonment of one innocent man would secure the recovery of a patient, should Cuomo do so? Surely not, for justice is more important than life. So is honor and beauty. And so is the worship due to God.
No doubt strong measures should be taken to stem the tide of infection. Perhaps a temporary shutdown is the right measure. I’m not a public health expert, nor am I the governing authority in New York. But on what terms, and for how long, and toward what end? And at what cost, not only measured economically, but spiritually as well?
Truth is more important than life, and, like worship, it has been sacrificed. Officials tell us that they are working to secure our “safety.” Media warn that younger people can be infected. Everyone must be concerned! But the evidence we have so far is that the coronavirus is primarily a threat to a small portion of the population, those who are elderly or are for other reasons vulnerable to complications. Yet the government and media seem always to stoke fear, rarely to reassure, and never to call for courage. They remind us of the power of the virus to cause death. They emphasize the danger of communicating it to others—and thus causing their deaths. Officials fix on these messages because fear motivates people to comply with these unprecedented policies of social control. They want us to treat every encounter as perilous, tinged with the threat of dying or causing another to die.
I resent the relentless propaganda and resist the atmosphere of fear that has descended upon New York. Fear is a debasing, humiliating emotion that erodes our dignity. It is a powerful acid that disintegrates the bonds that unite human beings. I foresee that adult children will fear visiting their elderly parents should they fall sick. Grandchildren will be kept away. Fear will prevent our fulfillment of Christ’s commands in Matthew 25, not the coronavirus.
I’m wrung out from anxious thoughts about the path we are on. But late afternoon brings bright blue skies and 70-degree weather that lift my spirits. At five o’clock, I gather with four friends in Gramercy Park. Our host has brought the makings for gin and tonics. We sit (maintaining “social distancing”) and talk about the current situation. The park’s setting is spectacular. Spring’s first flowers are blooming. The unseasonable warmth caresses us. Meanwhile, the city sighs with tension, weighted with the kind of foreboding I imagine people feel when great armies are wheeling the field of battle and heading their way.
A little tipsy, I head home. A friend calls. He’s a Wall Street trader. His voice is hoarse from overuse. Fear has a grip on him too. “The credit markets are acting crazy,” he reports. “There are systemic problems.” We talk a bit about what he is experiencing, most of which I don’t understand, given the technical nature of his work. Before he hangs up: “I think our economic system is coming up for a referendum again, and this time it will be worse than 2008.”
I’m not a New Yorker who likes to go out for dinner (which some say shows that I’m not a true New Yorker). The shutdowns do not affect our evenings. I cook spaghetti and make a salad. My wife and I call family members. A return to what matters most in life is surely one of the blessings of the present time.
Saturday, March 21. The weather is sunny but cool, even cold. I walk to the Upper East Side to deliver a new laptop to Davida, the longtime First Things administrator who was present at the creation of the magazine. She has resisted the technological invasion, maintaining her home as a pre-Internet sanctuary. But Cuomo’s “stay at home” dictate necessitates capitulation. As I walk up to her apartment, I stop in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue to pray.
I am bitter over the silence of the Church as she retreats behind the high blank wall of public health. Celebration of the Eucharist has been suspended in New York, as it has everywhere in the United States. I pray to Jesus, asking him to help me see his face in the faces of those I encounter on the streets. I think of friends, my neighbors and colleagues. I remind myself of Matthew 18:20: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there you find me in their midst.
I help Davida set up the laptop. Her neighbor joins in. Outsiders think New York cold and impersonal, but in truth the city is a collection of small communities—neighborhoods, apartment buildings, klatches that gather at corner diners. It can be a generous, even a selfless place, especially in times like these. It doesn’t take long before Davida is up and running, a full-fledged participant in the virtual reality of the twenty-first century.
Walking home, I take a detour through Central Park, which is crowned with the first buds of spring. People cycle past me. Others are walking their dogs. Still others jog. People gather in small, widely spaced groups, smiling and talking. I sit on a park bench in the sun for a few minutes, warmed and refreshed in an oasis of normalcy.
Before returning to my apartment, I stop at the neighborhood grocery store. A man with a walker blocks the entrance. I wait patiently. It’s a crowded store with narrow aisles filled with elderly people—in my neighborhood the median age might be over sixty. Some shuffle slowly. As I leave the grocery store, I see an ambulance in front of the large apartment building across the street, its emergency lights silently turning like Tibetan prayer wheels. At home I turn on my computer. A friend has sent a sobering reflection:
Some news from the rust belt—it is total economic carnage out here. Maybe it’s just the western PA spirit, but people are not afraid of the virus. Concerned, yes. But people here understand that life has risks and that nature is sometimes hard on us. They are terrified of losing everything. Moreover, they are white-hot furious at the government and media. They view the slash-and-burn decisions to shut everything down as paternalistic, insensitive, impulsive, and without regard to their livelihood. The various stimulus plans are no consolation. People want their jobs—not a check or a tax break.
The view out here—both in the working-class neighborhood where I was born and the upper-middle-class one where I live now is that the suffering we are experiencing and which will multiply exponentially is the direct result of decisions from government. And the discontent and anger is bipartisan in both origin and destination. I think that our leaders have to reassess whether their paternalistic efforts to “help” us from the disease is worth causing a worse problem that may take a generation to solve.
The best way I heard it explained was this—we fought wars as a country knowing that a lot of soldiers could and would die. We took the risk because what we had back home was worth it. Now, to avoid a nebulous risk from this virus, we are destroying our way of life and livelihood.
I don’t think our leaders understand the impact of their decisions. They definitely don’t understand the anger. I’ve heard it mentioned that we may be headed to a 1929-style depression. I think that is optimistic unless someone blows the all clear in a matter of days. If our leaders don’t understand how their paternalistic actions are viewed by those whose livelihoods are destroyed, they risk not Wall Street 1929, but Moscow 1918.
I just wanted to share my thoughts. For the first time in my life, I’m genuinely worried about social unrest.
I take a deep breath, then turn to editing the piece by Christopher Caldwell on Italy, Salvini, and where we’re heading, which is not Moscow 1918, but surely something different from the open-borders globalism many imagined inevitable.
In late afternoon I walk Lucy, our dog, taking a longer route than usual. We walk past Whole Foods. Unlike my local grocery store, there is a long line in front. A younger crowd—nobody in line leans against a walker. The shoppers are spaced in accord with public health guidelines, six feet apart. An employee allows one person to enter only as another leaves so that the store does not become crowded. The health-conscious clientele is cooperative, even appreciative.
I, too, should be appreciative. Measures such as these help slow the spread of disease and save lives. But I am not. Many of the people in the line wear masks, which make me grimace. They may help those with the disease to prevent spreading it to others, but in many circumstances they seem more like twenty-first-century amulets that assuage fears than medical equipment. The mask covers the face, contributing to social isolation, reinforcing the Hobbesian atmosphere of struggle to be among those who survive. The mask prevents the humanizing smile that fends off fear’s dominion.
One is constantly being encouraged to conform to the most stringent health regimens. Everyone watches everyone, eyeing compliance. The use of fear to motivate widespread social compliance raises the stakes. Those who deviate are “selfish” and “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” Although current restrictions permit gatherings of less than ten people, the idea of six or seven people coming over to my place for coffee and an afternoon of conversation would strike most as irresponsible, very nearly criminal. There are no mechanisms in place for citizens to denounce malefactors, but I’m certain that, if available, they would be used. In an atmosphere of government-encouraged panic—unwashed hands kill!—it’s entirely believable that an impressionable child would denounce his father to the authorities if, God forbid, he succumbed to temptation and played pickup basketball, a currently prohibited recreation.
New York has mobilized to slow the rate of infection, buying time for hospitals and other facilities to serve the severely ill. This is a noble goal. Nevertheless, the methods of mobilization—the propaganda, the social control, the fear, spontaneous efforts to outdo even the most rigorous official restrictions, the horror over dissent—give me a glimpse of what it must have felt like in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
After dinner, my wife and I decide to watch a movie. “Contagion?” she ventures, “Ha, ha.” We agree on something frivolous: When Harry Met Sally. Perfect choice.
Sunday, March 22. I visit a number of nearby churches in the morning to see what Catholic life is like in COVID-19 New York. Two are locked. Three are open, allowing people to enter and pray before the reserved sacrament. Some homeless people are sleeping in the open churches, while three or four people are praying. I spend the longest time in St. Catherine’s on 68th Street, a block away from some of the big New York hospitals.
I direct my prayer to Christ on the Cross: “What do the silent pulpits and unattended sanctuaries mean?” Jesus’s silence before Pontius Pilate runs through my head: “He gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed” (Matt. 27:14). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is also silent, but Pilate provokes him with a claim of greater authority based in his power to give life or bring death. As I look up at the crucifix hanging above the sanctuary, I meditate on Pilate’s assertion: “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10).
Satan rules an empire in which, at dawn, noon, and dusk, death is announced as ultimate and all-powerful. He does not rule directly. In fact, he cannot, for God alone has such power. Satan needs only that people fear suffering and death above all else. When this is so, he rules through those who are in positions of authority, no matter how noble and selfless their intentions. Should they say that we must save lives “at any cost,” Satan is pleased, for someone who believes that earthly life is worth everything is ready to bargain away his soul.
In truth, Satan prefers a philanthropic attitude. Human beings often cower in fear when brutal men oppress them, but they resent the threats and begrudge the injuries. Given a chance, they will rebel. By contrast, a humanitarian commitment makes men far more docile to death’s dominion. The draconian measures, the cessation of so much of normal life, the masks, the fear, the promises to save lives at any cost, the silence of the churches—New York’s total mobilization puts death at the center of very nearly everything. Death is in the commanding position, and our civic leaders, even our religious leaders, bow to its power. For a season, perhaps this is needed. But for how long? For what purpose?
Preserving life at any cost is a principle that commands us to respect and honor Pontius Pilate’s power. It asks us to petition him and to make before him great offerings so that he might grant us life. Jesus responds otherwise: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). This haughty assertion is the essence of Easter: In Christ, death has no dominion over the sons of Adam.
A person coughs at the back of the church. I prepare to leave. Before I get up, I notice the inscription above the high altar that combines parts of John 6:35 and 6:51: “I am the bread of life. If anyone eat of this bread, he shall live forever.” I depart with a wry smile over the irony. The bread of life has not been provided to the people of God for more than a week, with no end in sight.
My wife and I heat up leftovers for lunch. There are small pleasures in this time of mandatory shutdown. Doctors sometimes place patients in a coma for their own benefit. Something similar is being tried for all of New York. So things move at a slower pace. Many obligations fall away. We can regroup, spend time with our families, read, think, and pray. There are also moments of small kindnesses, as often occur during crisis. Difficult times bring out the worst in people, true, but also the best.
I return to my computer screen. Friends send emails filled with ever-changing analyses of the spread of disease. Our modern sensibilities are at work. We want to gain cognitive control, attain scientific mastery over our fears. Secular commentators address the dire economic consequences of shutdown. As a friend puts it in a text message, we’re sacrificing the working class to save the elderly. I ignore most of the links and attachments. We’re working to pull the next issue of the magazine together. And, of course, I need to work on this column.
After a few hours of furious typing, I take Lucy for her afternoon walk. Children are zooming down the sidewalk on their scooters, smiling broadly with cheeks bright red in the cold March air. Others are walking their dogs. I pass an elderly woman bundled against the cold. She is carefully making her way forward, a thin reed in the surging storm.
I visit my local wine merchant with the thought of stocking up. No worries, he says, liquor stores are not subject to the shutdown: “Essential services.” I can only shake my head. Booze, essential; divine worship, inessential. With such priorities, is there any wonder that a plague would come down upon us?
The doorman tells me a package has arrived. I open the Amazon envelope. It’s Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation. He takes me aside and draws down the mask that protocol requires him to wear because he finds it ridiculous to talk through it. “Three cases in the building so far,” he reports, raising an eyebrow to underline the significance. I tap the elevator button with my knuckle, the new protocol, and wash my hands when I get home.
A friend texts: “Gotta get out of my place. Going crazy.” I invite him over for a drink. We sit in our living room sipping bourbon on ice, pondering the events unfolding around us. Lucy sleeps happily in her bed beside my chair. Our friend leaves, and I prepare dinner. We’re having steak, something to fortify ourselves. Another rom-com confection to end the evening: Sleepless in Seattle.
Monday, March 23. The morning paper reports that Governor Cuomo visited New York City. He was disturbed to see so many in the city’s park. He even noticed young people playing basketball. These are expressions of our basic need to be human beings rather than medical subjects. Cuomo will have nothing of it. He pronounced to reporters: “It has to stop, and it has to stop now.”
I take Lucy for her walk. A cold drizzle keeps people indoors. I see only a few other dog walkers. It begins to sleet. The raw wind will ensure that King Canute’s command is largely obeyed today. As I turn the corner to enter my apartment building, I pass a parked ambulance with its red and yellow lights silently flashing.
The sleet taps the windows as I’m on calls and video conferences. Friends from other parts of the country email, disturbed by news reports about New York, asking if I’m OK. My Wall Street friend forwards Trump’s tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
I read an article that speaks of the “economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.” The self-deception is remarkable. It has been our reaction, not the virus that is causing a crisis. The fear pulses through society, not just in New York but elsewhere. That fear does not arise from the epidemiological profile of COVID-19. It emerges within our souls, and the contagion of fear is transmitted through media, civic leaders, and social interactions. The shuttered and silent churches and synagogues allow the contagion to spread unhindered by counsel that we are made to serve higher things. Religious intellectuals remain silent, fearful that Twitter mobs of pious moralists will attack them as “killers.”
I walk to my office at lunchtime. Media are deemed essential services, which means I can move about the city without violating the shutdown decree. Even the panhandlers are few and far between on the empty sidewalks. Buses and subways still run. Asian men in wet raincoats course past on delivery bikes. The city is not in a full coma. It still rustles with life here and there.
A friend sends a link to a short reflection by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. “Fear is a poor adviser, but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see,” he observes. “The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.”
I’m working furiously on a web column addressing similar themes to post before the end of the working day. The weather remains gray, cold, and ugly. The rain has turned to sleet in earnest. I have a light cough, which makes me nervous.
I leave the office to head home. Grand Central is nearly empty as I cross through. On 48th Street, a homeless man is standing in the cold, ruthless rain, dazed by the entire situation of a city at once engulfed and deserted. I give him some money and hustle up Lexington Avenue, marching double time. At home, my wife feels my forehead. No fever. Perhaps the cough is nothing.
An email from our managing editor is waiting, asking me for this article. A friend in Italy sent me a message earlier in the day. Italians are saying to each other, Andrà tutto bene, “Everything will be fine,” to which they add, in fondo, “in the end.” I look out the window, sigh, and push send.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writing against the one-sided view that religious faith always offers consolation and inner peace:
The religious experience does not always free man from care and pain, as many religious leaders assert. The believer is not always without sorrow and at peace with himself and the world. We find him quite often torn by inner conflicts and doubts, groping in the dark, wrestling with his own conscience and convictions. The transcendental experience weighs heavily upon him. He tries to cast it off and rid himself of that great burden, under whose impact he walks humbly and slavishly, committed to duties he dislikes, to restraints and sacrifices he resents, without being able to lift his head in full dignity, and to regain his freedom and independence of living.
♦ Lent manifests the truth of Soloveitchik’s frank realism about the religious life. It can be a slog, a step-after-step stumble in inhospitable territory, and the bitter taste of Lent’s discipline can be soured still further by our willful failures to sustain the disciplines we assigned to ourselves, especially in this time when everything seems put on hold. But that’s not the only side of Lent. (Nor is it the whole story of Torah observance.) The purification brought by sacrifice can be savored like a crisp sip from a mountain stream. The emptiness can be filled with sweet anticipations of Easter’s triumph. The hard march is joyful in companionship with our Lord, who walks the same path.
♦ Of his theological colleagues in the late 1960s, the young Joseph Ratzinger observed: “They changed wine into water and called it aggiornamento.”
♦ In the late seventeenth century, English gentlemen had a custom of insulting one another as they passed when being ferried across the Thames. In this verbal competition, each sought to outdo the other with inventive abuse. Dr. Johnson is remembered for what many regard as the pinnacle of creative insult. After being attacked by a particularly vulgar volley, he returned fire: “Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy house, is a receiver of stolen goods.” It was a brilliantly indirect and yet graphic way of saying, “You, sir, are a cuckold.”
♦ Johnson was known for his turns of phrase, many recounted in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which preserves a great deal of his table talk. Johnson’s friends were not slouches in the bon mots department either. Commenting on the Old Growler’s determination to win in every contest of wit, Oliver Goldsmith remarked, “There is no arguing with Johnson, for, if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” It’s an observation that applies nicely to David Hart, a man of ready knowledge, quick wit, and sharp abuse.
♦ I was returned to Samuel Johnson while reading T. H. White’s marvelously opinionated history of the late eighteenth century, The Age of Scandal: An Excursion Through a Minor Period. I picked it up in hopes of gaining some relief from present concerns and was richly rewarded with delightful diversion. The capacity for the serious frivolity of gossip, argues White, was the genius of the age and the last radiant expression of English civilization before “the rot set in with the ‘Romantics,’” leading to “half-baked Victorian humanitarianism” and then to his own day, when “female Labour ministers” exult in the achievement of a gray-on-gray egalitarianism.
♦ The pandemic has produced a great deal of humor. Many have shared the observation that St. Thomas, the universal genius, anticipates everything, appending a shot of the cover of a 1955 dissertation: “Social Distance According to St. Thomas Aquinas.”
♦ Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Pla, bishop of Alcalá de Henares, which is in the Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain, decided to continue with regular celebration of the Mass. As he explained when interviewed by Andrea Zambrano, “I wanted to offer the faithful a sign that the Church never abandons those whoare in need of divine help, and in particular those who need the sacraments.” Health is of course very important, and many precautions are taken, but “among the many human goods . . . the greatest good is our spiritual good, which is tied to the eternal destiny of man. And this is why we cannot deprive the faithful of the divine gifts—and especially the Eucharist.”
♦ Government officials reassured the residents of California. Although “non-essential” businesses must close, marijuana dispensaries will remain open. Continued access to pot is deemed “essential.”
♦ We are committed to ensuring that First Things continues. The COVID-19 pandemic has put great strains on our economy and society, and today we need more than ever intelligent, religiously informed reflection. At this point, nobody on the First Things staff is sick, deo gratias. New York is a focal point for infection, and I have received many emails and messages from friends throughout the world. Others on the First Things staff report the same influx of concern and solicitude. We are profoundly grateful for your support and prayers. In times of crisis, one often sees more clearly those things that are truly important. There can be no doubt that the deepest strength of First Things rests in our remarkable community of readers—you. Together, we will weather this storm.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.