Suffering and passion in a pandemic
Irish Jesuit Tom Casey is one of nineteen contributors to a book on Covid-19 seen through the lens of religious belief. The book, Maynooth College Reflects on Covid-19: New Realities in Uncertain Times is just published by Messenger Publications (2021) and features articles from the theology and philosophy staff of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Tom Casey, a philosophy professor in Maynooth, says that any crisis which shakes us to our core is an existential crisis because it forces us to ask fundamental questions about who we are as human beings, why are we here, and where are we going? This being the case, he takes a novel approach in his chapter, using the Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as his voice piece.
Drawing on Kierkegaard’s works and ‘direct address’ style of writing, Casey imagines what Kierkegaard would say to people today as they negotiate the perils of the coronavirus pandemic. He comes up with some challenging yet strangely comforting propositions.
In Casey’s chapter, Kierkegaard challenges us to accept the suffering and anxiety this pandemic creates within us rather than try to escape from it. Noting that “It is sheer fantasy to imaging that there is a pain-free short cut to what is important in life”, the philosopher promises that if we grasp the opportunity that lies hidden in this stress and anxiety-inducing pandemic, then we may just find our way to a more authentic life. “Don’t allow anxiety to degenerate into panic,” he cautions, “instead make it rise into prayer.”
Kierkegaard also asks us to welcome the fact that the global pandemic has disturbed us so deeply that we can no longer remain complacent about our lives and our world, particularly regarding the sustainability of our planet. Complacency must be replaced by passion, and our newly awakened passion may save the earth.
There have been many compilation books published in recent times regarding the Covid-19 crisis but few have addressed the questions considered by the contributors to this book.
John Paul Sheridan, for example, looks at the impact of Covid-19 not just on the well-being of children but on their spirituality. Two theologians consider the vexed question of ‘where is God?’ in the suffering created by this virus that has “gripped the world with fear and dread.” Theologian Noel O’Sullivan asks the direct question, “Is it possible to believe in a loving and all-powerful God as we wade our way through this trauma?” And Gaven Kerr offers some philosophical perspectives on the issue.
Other writers tackle the topic of prayer and how to do it “when our world falls to pieces,” as biblical scholar Jessie Rogers puts it. Michael Shortall tackles the painful question of grief and loss when mourning through Covid has become such a restricted and disembodied experience. And the topics of Church, community, parish, and clericalism are the focus of various other academics.
The book also features an interview on the pandemic with Pope Francis, conducted by journalist Austen Ivereigh and first published in The Tablet in April of last year.