• Devin O'Donnell

Amid the flood of mortal ills

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

The year 2019-2020 has been what some might call a “doozy.” First it was rolling blackouts in the fall, where PG&E would preemptively cut power to certain sections of the grid, and schools, businesses, and households would simply need to accept it. We did. Then the new coronavirus reared its head, and we found that like the hydra it has many heads. The media, health experts, and government leaders responded in a dizzying manner: first it’s not that bad, then it’s really bad, then it’s not at all as bad as we thought, but then it could come back worse. Suffice to say everyone's predictions have been wrong, and we’ve learned once again that, in the words of Shakespeare, “Thou hast misconstrued everything.”

I will not go into all the social policies and the new vocabulary words that we’ve been catechized on, such as “social distancing,” nor will I comment on the civic implications in the fallout of this Covid crisis. I will only mention one example of both humor and wit (and no small entrepreneurial initiative). One senior, and doubtless others have followed, has put it this way: the class formerly known as 2020 is now the “Class of Covid-19.” Omnino cancellatum est, seems to be the new motto we must all adopt: everything is cancelled. For college and high school seniors, it seems that this long race they’ve been running has been scrapped at the last minute. In the (twi)light of such things, it is difficult not to be sad and cynical.

But at St. Abraham’s we are Christians, and even when our lives are in peril, or depending on your view, when the world seems to have gone mad, we still trust the Lord, who rules heaven and earth. God is still ruling. And it may even be that this graduating class has been given a unique gift of insight: the awareness that this thing called a social order—into the middle of which we are born and which, though not having created it, is entrusted to us—is hard to create and easy to lose. Right now we are being reminded that the good things we enjoy can be easily lost. This is one lesson that is worth learning.

There is another lesson to consider. Let us look to a familiar hymn by Martin Luther:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

According to historian Dr. Christopher Schlect, this hymn is based on Psalm 46 but was written at a time when a plague ravaged his city of Wittenburg. Notice, for instance, that God is not only our "fortress" but our helper, "amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." Thus, this hymn stands out, as Dr. Schlect suggests, as a hymn composed in response to ministering at a time of plague. For us, a similar question has been raised. How do we continue to do what we might call the "ministry" of education in a time like this, when plague, and the response to it, has disrupted and destabilized our society? What can we learn from Luther's example? Our response is always the same. In such a time as this, we must trust, pray, and sing that God is our mighty fortress and our helper, amid plague, amid all the assaults of our "ancient foe," amid all of life's inescapable risk and suffering. I look forward to sharing more with you all soon.

Non nobis,

Li Muisis (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v.

Here is the agenda for Tuesday, May 26.

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