Reflections on Plagues by James Patrick
Text and Talk - Plagues
14 March 2020
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that strikes in darkness
To understand the evil of which plague and pestilence are species one must begin with Genesis One, making a decision whether the picture given in the opening verses of Scripture is the image of God struggling to create a world from disorder and chaos or whether the image we are given is of God overcoming chaos, darkness, and emptiness after a primordial catastrophe, the rebellion of the angels, on behalf of order, fullness of being, and light, making a world for Adam and Eve. I believe the latter is the right picture, while the former makes chaos, emptiness and darkness part of God’s original creation, which is impossible. God does not create chaos and disorder, or disease, or sickness, or viruses and germs. A cancerous cell is instructive; it is a cell that has given up on its proper form and gone wild.
Disease and sickness, whether forestalled temporarily or not, are the heralds of death, which is both a divine punishment, given so that rebel mankind will not live forever, making up good and evil for himself, eternal beings given to evil, and at the same time death is Satan’s masterpiece.
Both nature and supernature are expressions of God’s will, of His creative will and His salvific will respectively. In a sense nature is not ‘natural,’ for its existences, patterns, and reliabilities are willed by Him in every moment of time. At the same time there are no accidents. Whatever happens is willed or permitted by God. Because He has not denied Satan the freedom he accords every rational being, the interface between God’s will and Satan’s malignancy is to us a mystery.
Various things can be said about God’s government of nature and of souls, some at least partly true. Underlying all is His good will toward man and nature, which is expressed on one hand in the consistency of nature granted in Genesis, a covenant of which the rainbow is the sign and on the other by his patient pursuit of fallen mankind throughout long years described in the Old Testament until there is the Incarnation and life with the Blessed Trinity forever. At the same time, just as sin is not driven from the world, natural evil, moderated in Genesis One, is not driven out of creation. These, perduring natural evils and sin, are used by God in his government of man and nature. They may be employed by God to compel obedience, as in the seven plagues visited upon Egypt to secure Pharaoh’s willingness to let Israel go. They may be used in punishment, as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. They may be used first to punish then to allure the woman depicted in Hosea Chapter One. The Babylonians may be used to punish Israel with captivity in a foreign land because of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. One may doubt that Jonah appeared in the Jerusalem Directory while believing that God is quite able to have the prophet swallowed by a large fish and redirected toward the Lord’s purpose. At the same time we are warned against attributing the suffering of evil to those specifically afflicted by Our Lord Himself, who pointed out the truth that the Galileans whom Herod destroyed and the eighteen men on whom the tower fell were not worse offenders than the other Galileans and other inhabitants of Jerusalem. It is not our’s to know who deserved what.
But the mitigation of blame we might think due others on our part does not exhaust the matter of God’s particular government, regarding which Shakespeare left a brilliant essay in Henry V. Contemplating the fact that many will die in battle at Agincourt.
There is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to arbitrament of arms, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers. Some peradventure have upon them the guilt of contrived and premeditated murder; some of beguiling virgins . . . some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle peace with pillage and robbery. . . . Now if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is his beadle; war is his vengeance. . . . Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience. And dying so, death is to him an advantage, or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think, that making God so free an offer, he let him live to see his greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.
War, sickness, the permission of evil, evil that we let into the world, of any kind, are God’s beadles or correction officers. We do not expect to die from any modern plague; planning and good medicine will mitigate. This was not always true. The Plague of Athens in BC 430 blunted the Athenians’ chances to defeat Sparta and caused political instability. The Plague of Justinian, from about 540 to 585, was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, the same that fueled the Black Death. DNA suggests that the origin of Justinian’s plague was in Central Asia. The most basal or root level existing strains of the Yersinia pestis as a whole species are found in Qinghai, China. After samples of DNA from Yersinia pestis were isolated from skeletons of Justinian plague victims in Germany, It was found that modern strains currently found in the Tian Shan mountain range system are most basal known in comparison with the Justinian plague strain. If order and health are good things, bacteria and contemporary viruses are evil things. They are not ‘natural’ any more than Covid-19 is ‘natural.’ They must be a perversion of something but I do not know what.
The rat-borne Yersina pestis literally plagued Europe until 1750. Plague occurred in Venice 22 times between 1361 and 1528. The plague of 1576–1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Late outbreaks in central Europe included the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years' War, may have killed one-third of the population. The Great Plague of Vienna in 1679 killed 100,000.
During the last century medicine has made a brave, and much appreciated, show of being able to manage epidemics and pandemics. Perhaps ten common potentially killer diseases have been mastered though hygiene, clean water, sewage disposal systems, and vaccinations, one great triumph being that near eradication of poliomyelitis. How the present plague is different from those in the past is still unknown. Its moral dimensions are no different from any other.
And by the way, one of the puzzles of God’s providence is the fact that he sometimes seems to change his mind about the planned reminders, if we ask and repent.