Courage During the Plague
Fear may be powerful, but courage is called for all the same. During a pandemic, we are to keep our eye on the soul, for pandemics can harm the soul even more than the body. Perhaps more than anything, we need to recover a sense of horror at a culture that allows our fears to trump every sense of obligation to the dead, the sick, and the elderly.
I’ve often wondered how medieval Christians dealt with the plague, and how it compares to the way we deal with the coronavirus today. The three volumes of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, set in 14th-century Norway, don’t answer the question. This is a historical novel, not description of fact. Still, the way Undset imagines medieval Christians responded to the plague is instructive and moving.
The high point of the novel, I think, is the last few chapters, which depict Kristin traveling to take up religious life in Rein Abbey near Trondheim in Trøndelag, halfway up the coast in Norway (some spoilers to follow). Shortly after her arrival, the plague breaks out. Undset’s descriptions of both fear and courage brought tears to my eyes.
I have long thought our reactions to COVID to be mostly cowardly. We have left elderly people isolated for months on end in long-term care facilities; we have let them languish and die there. Many of our elderly parents must have wished they were dead already, to avoid being left to die alone in their old-age hovels. Our hospitals have refused family access to people with COVID. Priests were unable—and sadly, often unwilling—to visit the sick. Many died without last rites or final prayers with loved ones and pastors, because we were too cowardly to allow visitation. We even denied people dying with COVID decent funerals for fear we might catch it ourselves.
So far, I have read few reflections on our moral failings—as individuals, as pastors, and as policymakers. We seem to think that fear of risk, no matter how minimal, always and necessarily carries its own justification.
Here’s how Kristin Lavransdatter ends. One of her sons, Skule, is visiting the abbey where his old mother has settled. Kristin overhears him talking with the abbey’s priest, Sira Eiliv. Skule explains to Sira Eiliv that one of his seamen died when his ship put in at the wharf. Kristin realizes what this means and utters “a little involuntary cry of fear.” Skule then admits to her that five of his men have already died. Kristin suggests that he should stay in town rather than go back to his ship. But Skule recognizes this won’t make a difference. “Oh, I think soon it won’t matter where I am. It’s useless to be frightened; fearful men are half dead already. But if only I was as old as you are, Mother.” Skule refuses to cave in to fear, while at the same time lamenting his short life.
Two weeks later, two fishermen come to the convent, carrying a dying man in a sail. “The lay sisters and servingwomen all had fled into the buildings, but the nuns—a flock of trembling, terrified, and bewildered old women—were clustered near the door to the convent hall.” Despite the fear spreading through the abbey, the abbess herself knows what’s demanded by her faith.