Tuesday. More overcast skies. More cold. Ugh. Spring is being shy. She delays her entrance.
Hard to get out of bed after too many sips of bourbon last night. I lever myself up and into the kitchen to make coffee. I call downstairs to have Tony, the morning doorman, put my newspaper in the elevator to send up. Delivery stopped with the shutdown.
After reading the paper, I take up a long, almost book-length manuscript, a mini history of Christianity’s influence on modern European politics. What a pleasure to dwell within these pages! Things of consequence discussed intelligently—things remote from COVID-19.
An hour goes by, then another. Lucy is staring at me, wondering why I have failed to open the hall closet to get her leash and the little plastic bag to clean up after her, the signal that her walk is about to begin. I coo to her, reminding her that she is an older dog and very well trained, which means she can remain dutifully continent for a few more minutes while I finish reading the long essay.
It’s nearly 10 a.m. when the elevator door opens and we’re walking through the lobby of our apartment building to the sidewalk. Lucy is perky, as always, bouncing alongside me with the side-to-side gait of a dachshund. It’s impossible not to smile.
The cold keeps people indoors. Mayor de Blasio would be pleased to know that the few outside have the look of those bent upon essential tasks. The repair project underneath 1st Avenue seems complete. Trucks are gone and the jackhammered hole has been filled, topped by fresh asphalt.
My wife is on a conference call when we return. I retreat to my home office and shut the door. A friend from France writes. We are living in a “time of exception,” he observes. The hierarchy of goods has been set aside for the sake of a singular focus. Normally, sacramental life is of utmost importance, and we value civic life and the sociality of the public square above health. But what is normal has been suspended. In view of the pandemic this is fitting, perhaps, but my friend regrets that we have hurtled into this “time of exception” without thinking about how to preserve what can be preserved of the higher goods.
He ends his note with an observation that this “time of exception” will end. “It will be time again to clarify what prudence remains and becomes in a Christian more-than-prudential life.”
His talk of “time of exception” reminds me of Michael Walzer’s discussion of “supreme emergency” in Just and Unjust Wars. I search my shelves and pull down my paperback copy from graduate school days. The pages are yellowed and the binding glue has hardened. Pages fall out as I open it.
The rhetoric of emergency serves to justify exceptions. It’s often abused in times of war, Walzer notes, preparing the populace to accept extreme and even criminal measures. But there really are emergencies when danger is imminent and potentially catastrophic. Under these circumstances, our sense of moral urgency has the paradoxical effect of sidelining moral limits (my friend’s terminology: setting aside the “hierarchy of goods”).
It’s lunchtime. I make hot dogs (my wife is again amused by my camping cuisine). I think about our circumstances. We are treating the coronavirus as an emergency situation, not a “supreme emergency,” perhaps, but certainly a “time of exception.” As Walzer recognizes, emergencies are real. The ship is sinking. The building is on fire. But emergencies are also perilous, for they can justify what is under normal circumstances unjustifiable. (As a friend said to me early in the crisis, how can the Church justify cancelling Easter?)
A state of emergency puts us in a liminal moral condition, one that throws into sharp relief the tragic character of our existence. There is anguish in deaths we must endure, no matter how great our efforts. And there is anguish in what has been suspended. Emergencies also blind us with their intense light. We turn our attention to the one thing necessary—the singular imperative. Other things blur as our peripheral vision narrows.
I go to my neighborhood church to pray for a few minutes. I think about the term I’m using over and over again—crisis. Karl Barth’s commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans comes to mind. He emphasizes the Greek word krisis. It means judgment, winnowing the sheep from the goats, separating the wheat from the chaff. God’s judgment—his krisis—exposes the futility and failure of our projects, the dead end of our worldly ways. It is a devastating “No!” that opens space in the affairs of men for the divine “Yes!”
I meditate on John 3:19, which comes soon after the famous verse affirming God’s love. “This is the krisis, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light.”
What does it mean to love “darkness”? Immediately after this verse, Jesus explains that we seek darkness so that our deeds will not come to light, which is to say, before the eyes of God. What, I ask Jesus, are the thoughts and deeds that I am trying to hide from the coronavirus crisis?
I head to the office. On 1st Avenue I pass a man in shorts and slippers walking his dog. He is moving slowly, leaning on his cane. There are no more workmen taking cigarette or coffee breaks. Governor Cuomo has stopped the construction projects.
Emails to answer. Phone calls to make. The usual duties and distractions of a workday. I set up a Skype appointment with a friend in London. We need each other more. Better: We’re being awakened by the crisis to what we always need.
My wife texts. Sad news. A member of her synagogue has died after a long illness. A phone call gives me more bad news. A friend’s father died last night, especially painful to hear because my friend died last May, swept away by cancer before age thirty.
Deep breath. Time to head home. A quick stop for groceries. There are no longer lines. The panic-buying phase ended a few days ago. Now a handful of customers are shopping. No problem maintaining social distancing.
I ask my doorman how many people are left in my building. He estimates fifty percent. The moribund city slowly leaks away its residents.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.