In October 1939, C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon to Oxford students titled, “Learning in War-time” (which, it would probably be better if you skip the rest of this and just go read it instead – you can find various bootleg copies online, or in the collection of essays titled, The Weight of Glory). As the “normal” of everyday life seems to dissolve hour by hour and the various consequences of a global pandemic come into focus, I found myself revisiting Lewis’s address recently. Likely I’m joining a multitude of other readerly and writerly types who feel useless in the face of charts tracking terrifying exponential curves. What good is literature and the arts in the face of an implacable world-eating virus? I am finding it hard to focus on my normal, routine tasks and responsibilities, drawn repeatedly to various online dashboards and live update news feeds. This isn’t my usual mode of operation – I usually don’t find it that difficult to unplug, but this, this has been hard to ignore.
So, Lewis, delivering his Evensong message at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. It’s October, Britain has recently declared war on Germany, no one knows what’s coming (although, a WWI veteran like Lewis might have had a better idea than most) and the headlines are punctuated by uncertainty and growing hysteria. Which, I just need to stop here for a moment. Our present moment of crisis is not unprecedented. Unprecedented for someone like me – a middle class Westerner, typing on my laptop in the early days of the 21st century – but not unprecedented in history. It’s not even unprecedented for our contemporaries who live in countries where starvation, disease, and warlords are daily realities (although our current degree global connectivity is perhaps one new aspect to our current situation). I’m not saying this isn’t a moment of crisis. It is. It’s going to be a tough time, a really tough time, and the months ahead are uncertain, but at the moment anyway, for many people I know, we’re being asked to stay home and read a book, and not, you know, storm the beaches of Normandy (although this overlooks healthcare workers and others who are preparing for or already engaged in a real struggle). I say this to remind myself, as much as anybody.
Lewis, in his sermon, is trying address the question of what exactly the value of completing chemistry experiments or writing papers is when a massive event of global and historical significance (the war) is occurring. Confronted with matters of life and death, what is the point of memorizing Ovid? What is the value of learning in war-time (or blogging in pandemic-time)? But, what’s the value of culture at any time? Lewis begins by pointing out that “The war creates no absolute new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. … We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.” In the same way, Covid-19 creates “no absolute new situation” it just brings a number of different aspects of reality to the forefront of our attention all at once, aspects we spend a lot of our time trying to ignore or deny. The news is dominated by uncertainty, by death, by suffering, by imminent disaster. Yet, this just makes our common daily reality acutely present: life is always uncertain even in times of relative calm. We never know what each day will bring – a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, a job loss. The pace and scale of the uncertainty is unusual, but not it’s not fundamentally new.
In the context of his moment in 1939, Lewis identifies three common responses to the prospect of war: excitement, frustration, and fear. Excitement is the “tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work.” In an age of smartphones and the infinite scroll, this might be our largest temptation – in both peace-time and pandemic-time. Lewis’s suggested antidote is to remember again that the crisis has “not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work … If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come” (never). Lewis grants that there are moments when “the pressure of excitement is so great that only superhuman self-control could resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can.”
Frustration, the second of Lewis’s enemies, is connected to the feeling of things left unfinished, plans abandoned, and goals thwarted. Lewis reminds us that none of us ever completes all we might hope, even the most accomplished. Again, the threat of time cut short by disease only makes us more aware of our finitude rather than establish any new set of conditions. If you are depending on future goals or accomplishments to provide fulfillment, to provide a sense of “enoughness” – the universe has bad news for you (as does the book of Ecclesiastes). Lewis’s recommendation is not to dwell on thwarted goals but instead take things, “moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”
Finally, fear needs little explanation. With the threat of this virus comes the potential threat of death and suffering for people we know and love. And, since I’m not a saint, and you (very likely) aren’t either, we feel some sense of fear for ourselves, at being incapacitated, of suffering pain, of potential loss. Lewis suggests that it’s not necessary to be stoic, but to also remember that war and disease “do not make [death] more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased.” What a crisis moment does is make “death real to us” and forces us to remember it. And this, suggests Lewis, “would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality … all the schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.” For Lewis, who wrote of heaven as being like a great adventure story a person ran into, pursuing a wild God chapter-after-chapter, this vision of a finite universe that cannot fulfill us isn’t a vision of despair (and since I also hope to be running with Aslan one day, I don’t see it that way either). It only puts into proper perspective all the things we care about and pursue here and now. Lewis concludes his sermon with an echo of Augustine: “If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered … if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But, if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”
And so, here we are now, in pandemic-time. Called to a particular place and time, and seeking to meet the demands placed on us as best we can. I’m writing this blog, reading my books, trying to keep the bills paid, and not yell at my kids too much. I’m doing my best to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another, and not give in to excitement, frustration, and fear.