It would be foolish to compare today with the devastation wrought by the plague of the 14th century. What today we call the “black death.” Most of the destruction happened within a few years, but it recurred for at least another five decades after that. It took England 150 years to regain its population.
The devastation in the work force changed the economy forever. The work force, for a time, gained the upper hand as landowners began to compete for labor to keep their land tilled. The reasoned arguments of the church began to sound hollow as people continued to die. Hence, the church began to lose some of its power. It was, historically speaking, a short time before the Reformation swept across Europe. The plague, I believe, was a contributing factor.
There are other historical events that changed society and religion drastically, most notable for us are the world wars of the 20th century. The first World War was a death knell for colonialism and empire (of which we are still dealing with the consequences). The second World War was a massive blow to Christianity and science.
What is more usual are events that change us little by little. Some are more a reflection of changes that have already happened. These are seen in our national elections and passage of federal legislation or rulings from our courts. Some are events that catch us by surprise. We know things are going to happen — we just do not know what they are, when they will happen, or from where they will come. They all change us a little and we walk into the future knowing that we will have to explain to younger generations the way things used to be. I remember walking freely around airports. I even carried on a ceremonial sword on an international flight back in the day.
We have seen how rapidly the structure of church gathering has changed in the last couple of months. We have also witnessed church gatherings, or lack thereof, being one of the lightning rods politically. The response from religious people has ranged from everyone stay home and wear a mask to heading to the courts to protests to almost literally storming a capital building. Many are following the advice of the CDC, or governor, or president, or my pastor, or my favorite doctor, or someone on YouTube. We are changed.
People all over the world are freighting new behaviors with moral judgment. Human beings are good at that sort of thing. I never thought going to the beach would be a moral issue for the reasons it is today. I would never have thought that I needed permission from the government to go to work or be deemed “not essential.” That very language coming from a government source is a little frightening regardless of the cause or intent. We are changed.
We are changed in ways that we do not yet understand and there is more to come. The “shutdown” was the easy part. The next year will be harder because we do not know what we have done to ourselves.
Religiously, the Black Plague led to a massive upswelling of mysticism. These were the years of Dante, Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, and Catherine of Sienna. Reading the authors is to move in an entirely different thought-world (years and culture aside). Another well-known mystical work is The Cloud of Unknowing. As it is with mystical literature there is an emphasis on knowledge of the heart over reason (knowledge of the head). It is what happens to us when we simply cannot make sense out of our environment. When reason fails, we do not abandon it, but we do move toward other ways of knowing and reacting.
The language is archaic, but here is a passage concerning grace and truth that are worth contemplating today. Here is a slightly edited version, “And yet He gives not this grace, nor works not this work, in any soul that is unable thereto. And yet, there is no soul without this grace, able to have this grace: none, whether it be a sinner’s soul or an innocent soul. For neither it is given for innocence, nor withheld for sin. Take good heed, that I say withheld, and not withdrawn. Beware of error here, I pray thee; for ever, the nearer men touch the truth, more wary men need to be of error. I mean but well: if thou canst not conceive it, lay it by thy side till God come and teach thee. Do then so, and hurt thee not.”
The author’s statement on grace is quite remarkable given when it was written. His statement on truth is powerful. I believe that both these thoughts are worth carrying around as we navigate this odd world we now inhabit. The first is that all are capable of receiving and granting grace — we just need to do it. The second, if one cannot grasp a truth, let it sit for a while before speaking or acting.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.