On Friday night, Jill and I were supposed to go with good friends to see a theatrical production of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce at the George Theatre. Many know that The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books. I would go so far as to argue that it is one of the ten most important books about faith written in the past hundred years. I was so looking forward to the show and the company. And hours before curtain, we decided not to go.
For those who haven’t read The Great Divorce, it is C.S. Lewis’ fable of heaven and hell. But in Lewis’ hell there are no demons with pitchforks, no hellfire and brimstone, no shrieks and cackles of punishment and pain. Lewis’ hell is a sprawling city in a state of perpetually misty dusk, where a dull pallor pervades everything. Lewis’ hell is characterized more than anything else by social distance. The inhabitants of hell incessantly quarrel, and as a result they move apart from one another. They build houses on the farthest outskirts of the town, and whenever a neighbor moves nearby, conflict erupts, and the first person moves farther away still. Lewis’ hell is a place in which social distance is the defining characteristic, a wilderness in which isolation and loneliness are finally the only things.
My good friend, the Rev. Morgan Allen, who was supposed to be with us this weekend for our Lenten series, reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ depiction of hell when he called to let me know that the coronavirus outbreak would prevent him from traveling from Boston to be here (and just as I was anguishing over whether or not to attend The Great Divorce at the George Theatre). Lewis’ hell is a compelling image that, at first glance, seems to describe our present reality: the social distancing that is keeping us from traveling to see loved ones for spring break; upending our plans to recreate with friends; indeed, preventing us from gathering in person as the Body of Christ in the one place more than any other that should be sanctuary for us in time of need.
At first glance, the coronavirus seems, with whiplash speed, to have cast us into a kind of hell.
As we strategized how best to respond to the emerging coronavirus crisis this past week, Canon Art Callaham said to me, “At least during Hurricane Harvey we could see the rain.” I take his point. Hurricane Harvey was awful, but at least we knew what we were up against. At least we could see the challenge, the enemy, the pounding rain that seemed to menace us with obvious intention. With this virus, the enemy is unseen and sometimes seemingly unreal, and like horror movies in which the threat is always hidden in the shadows, it is all the more unsettling for that fact.
And so, we respond with courage and faith as best we can, and we hope we are doing the good and right thing. I believe we are. We are a week behind Western Europe, where as of yesterday afternoon Italy had recorded 21,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 1,400 deaths. Confirmed cases of the virus in France have doubled in the past seventy-two hours.[i] Public health officials, and, importantly, officials from the Texas Medical Center have convincingly argued that if we are to mitigate similar rates of infection in the United States we must practice social distancing, and with immediate discipline.
While the individual effects of the coronavirus are mild for most people, for those who are older and for those with otherwise compromised immune systems, the coronavirus can be debilitating. The public health goal is, as we are increasingly hearing, to “flatten the curve,” so that the rate of infection stays below the capacity of our hospitals and healthcare workers to respond. By observing social distancing, we each participate in the effort. As I mentioned in my letter to the Cathedral parish last Friday, in Matthew 25, Jesus teaches us that whenever we care for the sick, we actually tend to Jesus himself. In the case of a public health crisis, social distancing to prevent the spread of infection is caring for the sick just as surely as if we were sitting at the bedside of someone with the coronavirus. Which is why Jill and I decided at the last minute not to attend The Great Divorce at the George Theatre.
That brings us back to the depiction of hell in The Great Divorce. There, hell is characterized by the social distance between people. But the distance itself is not what makes it hell. What makes it hell is what creates the distance. In Lewis’ story, men and women move farther and farther apart because they are only and entirely self-concerned. They are self-centered; they are aggrieved; they hold grudges; and so they seek the solace of their own isolation in order to live an existence that has no concern or regard for anyone else.
In other words, their social distance is the exact opposite of ours. Why are we maintaining social distance in these days? Why are we canceling school, canceling trips, canceling the theatre? Why, in God’s name, are we not here, physically together?
We are doing these things not because we are concerned with self. We are doing them not because we begrudge one another.
We are doing all of these things because we care for one another. We are doing them for the benefit of those who are most vulnerable. We are creating social distance between us because we love one another enough to do so.
And so, even as we learn the discipline to do these things, the grace of Jesus is taking what would otherwise be hell and redeeming it into an expression of the kingdom of God. In fact, God has prepared us for just such a time as this. As we have sometimes lamented the increasingly virtual nature of our digital world, we can now rejoice in the many ways that connect us. Even as I speak of grace, hundreds of Cathedral parishioners, Episcopalians throughout the Diocese of Texas, and others from who knows where participating in our worship service from home. They are being the Body of Christ, physically apart but spiritually and potently together in faith. Sunday school will meet online, where our kids will still see and hear the stories of the bible. In these days, we are reminding ourselves that our phones are for more than trolling the internet. We are calling one another and hearing, maybe for the first time in a long time, voices we love on the other end of the line. We are praying—for one another, for those who are ill, for our healthcare workers—and our prayers are felt by them and received by the God who is love.
This is, indeed, a wilderness time like the wilderness through which the ancient Israelites travel in Exodus today. Bishop Doyle reminded us in his web devotional this weekend of the tradition that the rock of living water was actually carried with the Israelites as they traveled. In other words, they were never left parched in the desert. God’s water—the living water of the living Christ—was with them wherever they might find themselves.
And so it is with us. Coronavirus is here, and in the coming days we must maintain social distance. But we are never alone. The living water of God is with us in these days as in all days, and in a deep communion of Spirit we are with one another. Our God redeems all things, and God is surely at work even now. And in God’s good time we will be back here in this holy place, proclaiming God in the midst of the city. May God bless us, this city, and all of God’s children.