As the pandemic is being overcome, I am returning to this piece I wrote on March 16, 2020 weaving together Albert Camus’ The Plague with the contemporary events that were emerging with COVID-19.
Here’s the last paragraph of the novel with some lines emphasized:
None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linenchests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
“For the bane and enlightening of men…”
The word “bane” has the sense of “that which causes ruin or woe” and is related to the terms “killer, slayer, murderer, a worker of death.”
The word “enlightenment” has the connotation “‘to remove the dimness or blindness’ (usually figurative, from one’s eyes or heart).”
Has this COVID-19 pandemic in any way removed the dimness from our hearts?
“Plague” and “enlightenment”, which at first seem greatly opposed, are, in Camus’ understanding, more related that they appear.
Today Facebook reminded me of this quotation I’d posted a few years ago from Brother Alois’ 2018 letter:
In privileged circles, where people are well fed, well educated, and well taken care of, joy is sometimes absent, as if some people were worn out and discouraged by the banality of their lives.
At times, paradoxically, the encounter with a destitute person communicates joy, perhaps only a spark of joy, but an authentic joy nonetheless.
This reminded me of what has been among the most joyful times of my life – the semester I lived at a homeless shelter as part of an intentional community at the Calgary Mustard Seed.
Today is Alice von Hildebrand’s 98th birthday. I was delighted to meet this wonderful philosopher, teacher, and author when I set out to visit her at her home in New Rochelle a couple years ago. The widow of eminent philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice exudes a profound joy – that is, a joy that is rooted in her deep existential gratitude through which she has grown to love the reality of her present circumstances, no matter what they may be.
In honour of her birthday, I read this piece of hers titled, “Made for Joy“, in which she writes:
This morning a friend of mine and I entered a Starbucks drive-thru. As my friend rolled down the window, we felt a cool morning gust. A young woman’s voice came from the speaker saying, with what may have been the greatest excitement I have heard from anyone throughout the entirety of the pandemic, “Welcome to Starbucks! What can I get for you this morning?”
My friend and I glanced at each other. The woman had sounded completely genuine. It wasn’t a phoney greeting. Yet, the enthusiasm startled us.
“You’re really happy,” my friend acknowledged.
Lately I have been reading Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. In his Introduction, Buber discusses how “the core of hasidic teachings is the concept of a life of fervour, of exalted joy” and that “The world in which you live, just as it is and not otherwise affords you that association with God, which will redeem you and whatever divine aspect of the world you have been entrusted with.”