My Brush With the Plague

For three decades, I taught several classes on the History of the Catholic Church. Dividing two thousand years into 500-year chunks was an overwhelming task. But I loved it. Since this was not for college credit but rather for the formation of neophytes, I used a storyteller’s conversational style, pointing out quirky connections to modern culture. When I did evaluations at the end of the year, Church History was most often checked as the favorite topic.

People seemed most intrigued (rather morbidly perhaps) to my discussion of the plague, as in Bubonic, the pandemic that ravaged basically every country of the then known world from 1346-1353. Seven long years of the “Black Death” took its toll on medieval life. I often heard gasps and “wows” when I showed my PowerPoint charts of how many people perished (estimated around 200 million). There was a certain relief that it “couldn’t happen today,” since we have modern science and superior medical resources not known 650 years ago.

The primary question I raised during these presentations was: How did the plague affect religious practices and attitudes? Understanding the past is key to comprehending the present, a necessary and essential educational step. I tried hard to fit historical events together like a big jigsaw puzzle for clarity. Here are the top ten points that summarize the after-effects of the bubonic plague:

  1.  Empty churches. Not only did clergy and congegation die off, but survivors became afraid to gather in big groups and so they stopped attending.
  2. Somber Liturgies.  Often focusing on death, liturgical prayers and hymns were dominated by pleadings for release from purgatory, reparation for sin, and collective protection from harm.
  3. Blaming Weak People: Individuals who engaged in immoral, evil acts (especially sexual sins) were blamed for causing sickness and death.
  4. Blaming Ethnic and Social Groups. Jews, Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, pagans, atheists were targeted as the cause/spreaders of the plague.
  5. Negative Image of God.  God was seen as punishing, revengeful, angry with his creatures and had intervened by “culling” the population with the plague.
  6. Rise in Superstition. Protection from harm was sought from novenas, rosaries, holy hour devotions, pilgrimages, and donning medals, scapulars, crosses, etc. Donations were given to clergy and institutions for time off purgatory.
  7. Pervasiveness of Dread, Fear, Anxiety, Depression, Hopelessness. Emphasis on the afterlife, the desire for heaven, the fear of going to hell, promoted a negative view of life on earth as a place of trial and suffering.
  8. Rise in Elitism. Those who were rich had better food, water, healthcare, than those who were poor. Hoarding food and medical supplies was common.
  9. Determinism and Belief in Predestination Increased. Everything is up to God and happens “for the best,” or “for a reason.” Some are chosen and some are not. People were taught to obey and accept whatever hand they were dealt.
  10. Skewed View of What is Blessed and Holy. A growing belief that a productive, disciplined life of work and spiritual devotion shows God has blessed and rewarded certain people. Conversely, those who experience sickness and death are not as blessed or loved by God.

Perhaps the biggest story of 2021-22 centers on the after-effects of Covid 19 (the modern plague) on our lives. Most people see the story as medical, or even political, but not so those of us interested in global religious trends. Hidden behind the daily statistical screen crawl are literally millions of stories about how coping with the virus has affected overall quality of life, images of God, church attendance, prayer, and a sense (or absence) of the divine.

Over the Christmas holidays, I tested positive for the omicron variant of Covid 19. Yes, I have been vaccinated and have never been risky about crowds, obediently following protocols. Nonetheless, the strain spread like wildfire throughout the whole family after our Christmas gathering. Fortunately, the medical folks speak the truth about the experience, which is mostly mild cold-like symptoms in the head and throat. The children had it for about two days. The adults had it about a week. The quarantine over the Twelve Days of Christmas was tortuous to me. As I resigned myself to ten days of isolation and solitude, there was ample time to think, write, and pray. For a few days, I was curiously resistant.

Eventually, I contemplated my Covid 19 experience, a battle I had fought so valiantly for 18 months. From the beginning, I told my family and friends not to think of me as “vulnerable.” I hated all that rhetoric about anyone over 60 or with “co-morbidities” needing to be sheltered like some hothouse flower. Ugh. Who wants to think of themselves like that? I worked full-time and was around lots of people throughout the worst months of Covid 19, pre-vaccines. Honestly, I never felt afraid and repeatedly said I would rather take the risk and be with my loved ones than hide in fear until it ended for good. I never understood those who preferred to distance and only see each other on Zoom. So, I guess you could say that I was prepared to get Covid if I had to—of course– I preferred winning the battle rather than losing it. When those two pink lines appeared on the rapid test, I faced a sobering dish of humble pie.

While isolated, I returned to my plague after-effects list and was rather stunned to recognize these realities within myself and my former community. In the 21st century, churches are still empty and many people have yet to return in person for one reason or another. Moreover, liturgies have become more somber and do not inspire hope. Gone are the joyful hymns and upbeat atmosphere. The music at my parish throughout the pandemic has sounded like a slow dirge and did not change one bit during the Christmas season. Priest homilies are canned messages about the readings we have all heard a million times. Often bookended with silly warnings about gum chewing, pleas to come to confession, or pitches for more money, these little sermons lack relevance and do not speak to the current hunger for meaning in this anxious time in history. I now leave mass feeling even more depressed than I was when I arrived.  I prefer to watch mass online (St. Monica’s in Santa Monica is terrific) than go to the local parishes. It’s not fear of the virus that keeps me at home. It’s my sadness and disappointment that parishes are merely surviving and not inspiring that keeps me away. I love the Eucharist and I love community so this is a big sacrifice for me.

We are still quick to blame others for the pandemic which I also find so disgusting. I refuse to look at Facebook or Instagram or any social media outlet that allows the crazy-minded among us to feed into the big fear by making outrageous claims. I did not allow anyone in the family to do it either. What’s the point?  We can never be sure who brought Covid to Christmas dinner so why bother endlessly opining about it? To make the “spreader” feel even worse than they already do? That doesn’t sound very compassionate or Christian to me.

Many people still have the Old Testament, vengeful image of God embedded in their spirituality.  Some feel guilty, some feel unworthy, some feel superstitious. I see more people wearing scapulars, trying to ward off the evil by wearing crosses, and sprinkling holy water on everything. I hear claims that the pandemic is “happening for a reason,” and if we get sick and die, then it is “God’s will,” “our time to go.” If we do not contract it then we are “blessed.” Despite 650 years of progress, we are still very primitive in our attitudes toward the divine, especially when we feel threatened by an invisible virus that kills.

These nearly two years of the pandemic have been a time of spiritual desert-dwelling for me. What I am experiencing is familiar territory for I have been in the desert many times in the past, characterized by a sense of aridity and starkness. But there is also beauty in the desert’s night sky, in the shadows of the dunes, in the blooming cacti that appear out of nowhere. My brush with the plague has made me ever more aware of the subtle, incarnational divine presence that exudes from every flower, leaf, animal, person I encounter. When faced with death, isn’t this where we all end up? Clinging to every aspect of this stunningly beautiful life we have been given?

Perhaps the greatest gift of the pandemic has been the opportunity to embrace every minute, even the Covid minutes, with a sense of humble gratitude, yet another reminder of how much I take for granted. Now on the other side of the illness and not having experienced the serious, life-threatening variants of the past, I do feel a sense of relief. My brush with the plague has been strangely yet predictably paradoxical. I have been enriched by the very thing I had dreaded the most. Now I await the renaissance, the rebuilding of our Church and community life in whatever new form must emerge.

6 thoughts on “My Brush With the Plague”

  1. So sorry this happened to you & your family! But upside..natural immunities are the best!
    It’s also hard to be in this new place you are experiencing with the Church..change is tough. God will bring you out of this funk & you will be even stronger. The grace of the Eucharist would help, of course, but online Mass is ok for now with spiritual communion. We sometimes tune in ourselves to ‘hippie’ Fr. Dave from New him!
    Your thoughts were heart felt & real. Love sent! 💙


  2. It’s amazing to think we have not progressed much in 650 years. I thought your insights were spot on. I agree with all your comments on the status of our parish today, but I do not really get much out of watching mass on line. Maybe I am not disciplined enough to stay focused or to listened intently. I much prefer to sit in a cold parking lot, or listen to a drab homily and slow music. Just being at mass centers me, and re-aligns my spiritual focus from the busy week. I do pray for our church community to return to a vibrant, faith inspired, service oriented family, in whatever form that may be.


  3. Powerful, Donna. I especially appreciate seeing how what happened with
    the Black Death is repeating now. Thanks for this. Love, Tessa


  4. Donna…that was AMAMZINGLY written! Thank you for your continued gift in my life! Love you and miss the days of RCIA with you and all those in need of knowing our Lord. Your gifts have inspired so many and continue.


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