In the Time of Cholera


Yesterday around 2:00 PM, I went to my local bakery. There was not a loaf or a bun in sight. Going to another nearby bakery, I found the same thing, that is, nothing. My nephew who works in a Safeway (like a Loblaw’s, for those east of Manitoba) sent out images of empty shelves. Turn on the tv and I saw images of toilet tissue tugs of war.

On the BBC website, there were stories of exhausted and almost despondent health care workers in Italy, faced with making life/death decisions as they ration out their services and supplies. And on my more local channels there were shots of anxious people unsure whether they should go on their sun vacations or complaining that Jets games had been cancelled.

Such are the faces of the human responses to the blow rendered to our occupations and preoccupations by the COVID-19 virus as it makes its rude entry into the consciousness of the Western world.

f there is anything good out of all of this it is the cold-water shower with which our arrogance and folly have been doused. When China was suffering, we clucked cluck clucked and patronizingly put it down to their supposed dirty habits and backward social system.

We assumed that nothing like that could ever happen to us because of…..our moral superiority?  And so, we frittered away two months, indulging our vanities, preferring to fuss over the latest Trump inanity or to argue about trans-gender washrooms or to agonize over which pronoun to use.

Forgive me if I cannot get out of my mind the image of Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper. Over the decades we let bean counters chip away the redundancies (i.e., the slack needed to respond to surges in demand) in our health care system, preferring “just in time” delivery of vital services.

No army general would ever eliminate his reserves as a “cost cutting measure”! This epidemic is exposing the utter folly of saying that businessmen (I say “men” advisedly) know best how to run government when we look south or even at some of our own governments here in Canada.

In any emergency there are two key factors in making a mitigating response. The first is to recognize that the situation IS an emergency. The second is to ACT QUICKLY AND DECISIVELY.

If you worry about being wrong, you are paralyzed:  the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Bureaucracies are the antithesis of this sort of action…and politicians who all always have one eye on the next election and the other on preserving their own power are, too.

There is a very good reason why armies are not commanded by committees, why police do not do a cost/benefit analysis before quelling a riot and why ER doctors and nurses don’t go on a retreat prior to treating a bleeding patient.

It looks like we have been poorly served by our leaders and our institutions; yet, in a democracy, these are reflections of our own short-sightedness and misguided desires.

At the core of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is Principle and Foundation. Retreatants are invited to examine their own “disordered affections” in the light of the fact that the ONLY thing a good Christian must seek is to know, love and serve God.

Every other desire we have must be held up to this singular and over-arching purpose, just as we might hold up a gem to a bright light to see its imperfections.

The Ignatian dictum “tantum quantum” means that all our desires and aspirations must be pursued “only in so far as” they lead us towards the end for which we have been created.

This current pandemic is an opportunity for us as a society, as a church and as individuals to really look at our priorities, examining them in the light of Gospel values.

It can be an invitation to get our priorities in line. In a real way, this is a sort of “enforced Lent” which, if undertaken in humility and love, will lead to Easter.,

Johnston Smith is a retired teacher and an active spiritual director in Winnipeg.

  • Peter Bisson SJ
    Posted at 08:11h, 21 March Reply

    Thank you very much Johnston!

  • suzanne renaud
    Posted at 09:32h, 21 March Reply

    Thank you Johnston. Well said!

  • Frederick Ross
    Posted at 12:19h, 22 March Reply

    Brilliant, in fact. We need words of wisdom like this during this great age of uncertainty. God bless our leaders. Bless you too Johnston.

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