In shutting the world in, coronavirus has brought out the viral quality of fear. Men tend to panic when life changes overnight and moves beyond their control. Pandemonium is never as distant as a complacent, comfortable people imagine. Civilized society is not immune from collapse just because it is civilized. Ingenuity leads to dependency, and dependency to dilemma. As Americans hole up in their houses, surrounded by luxuries and every mark of wealth, they are suddenly helpless and deprived, staring a reality in the face that cannot be shut out. The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe tolls in our times like the great ebony clock of that story, unmasking both the relentless character of death and the salvific character of Lent.
As Americans rush about for everyday necessities and practice social distancing, it is impossible not to feel a creeping sensation of defenselessness. Besides the alarming quality of the silent coronavirus, there is an even more startling quality regarding the fragility of our infrastructure, forcing the admission of an instability that the world strives to repudiate. Just a few short weeks ago, Americans rejoiced in comfort. But it was a microscopic infiltration away from a new, rigid reality. Taken as an allegory of the ongoing crisis of coronavirus, Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death unmasks a tendency to ignore or deny troubles, whether they are on the horizon or outside our walls, deploring how people have to endure disease before they will acknowledge disease.
When plague ravages the countryside, the decadent Prince Prospero secures himself and his noble companions in his castellated abbey. The sickness is dubbed the Red Death for the bloody welts it brings to the skin and the clotted corpses it leaves in its wake. Apathetic to the suffering far and wide as well as the rampant threat of infection, Prospero quarantines himself with his tribe of pleasure-seekers, welding the doors shut, to wait out the deadly disease in profligate celebration and revelry. When a wild masquerade ball is disturbed by a figure dressed as a blood-spattered embodiment of the plague itself, the Prince and his guests strike at what they perceive to be a mockery of their plan and their power. But before the night is over, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Darkness, Decay, and Death are on the prowl today. The C.D.C. has projected that a third of the United States population could contract COVID-19 before it runs its course. With a mortality rate of one percent, between 750,000 and 1.1 million Americans may die. Other worst-case scenarios anticipate three to five billion people infected worldwide with a death count of thirty to fifty million. Even if those numbers don’t materialize, it’s enough to cause a twinge of discomfort and mental inventories of pantries and medicine cabinets.
At the time of writing this, deaths have spiked, especially in Italy. The disease has not yet peaked in the United States, according to medical officials. It wasn’t long ago when the virus was a blip on the newsfeed of something that China was dealing with while we reigned in our castles safe and sound. No longer. The masque of the coronavirus haunts the locked castles of the world.
But being in lockdown doesn’t mean the end of empathy in times of pandemic. Catholics must resist being like Prospero, shutting out the reality of death with smug self-assurance. In contrast to Prospero stands St. Roch, who administered tirelessly to those with the Black Plague. Upon contracting the pestilence himself, Roch fled from Piacenza. But God sent a nobleman’s dog bearing bread from his master’s board to Roch. When the nobleman, Gotard, discovered that his dog was mysteriously feeding a holy man, he overcame his fear and brought Roch back to health, who then healed the sick by miracles instead of medicines.
The saving grace of God lies between presence and prudence in times of crisis. Thus, Pope Francis recently exhorted priests to go to the sick and elderly despite Italy’s aggressive quarantine, warning against sins of vanity whereby a sinner closes in upon himself and hides himself. St. Corona herself brought comfort to a dying man by praying over him and, having thereby revealed her faith, was martyred—and she is the patroness against pandemics, too.
It is in moments like these that exist great occasions and opportunities for faith to rekindle, and for people who have grown forgetful of the fundamental facts of life to be awakened to a fresh awareness, appreciation, and action. The plague may be upon us, but we must fall at the feet of the Healer, which makes the church closures painful. Panic is only staved off by that spiritual strength that knows that Death cannot be staved off, and that our help is in the Name of the Lord. Do wash your hands often, but do not put your faith in disinfectants and sanitizers alone, for they will never cleanse where cleansing is needed most.
It is in the church that man should congregate against sickness rather than in his castle, let alone a pleasure palace like Prospero’s. Yet Masses everywhere are suspended as the bishops follow suit with state mandates. There is not a drop of holy water to be had, but liquor sales have soared. Besides no Masses, there are also no classes, and college students have been crowding into bars near campus or flocking to Floridian beaches for spring break. Contradictions seem to be as catching as coronavirus.
The crux of Poe’s tale is that life in death is mankind’s lot and until that is acknowledged, Death will be a grotesque phantasm. As a living Death stalks into our lives by a sudden and strange turn of events during the holy season of Lent, Catholics must pause and pray over the inescapable retribution for sins committed and turn from the hedonism that distracts and betrays. As Christ won man life by His death, so must man renew his life out of the death of sin—out of mortal sin—and live bravely and boldly in a world rank with guilt, fear, and corruption.
Whether threatened by the Red Death or Corona, the gnawing sense of helplessness refreshes the importance of cherishing what was taken for granted, of defending the way of life against destructive forces, and of not resting upon the laurels of artificial success or false security. Lent challenges Catholics to die to themselves that they may live in the glory of the Resurrection, embracing the penitential sentence of death in the hope of life, living in death despite Death.
The Masque of the Red Death is a brutal reminder of what all are struggling with, to some degree, with the coronavirus outbreak—what all have been redeemed for. For those who think they can dodge death, their doom will be as dreadful as Prospero and his guests’. The brutal beauty of Lent, on the other hand, arises from truthful reflection in times of desperation, isolation, and death, calling even the prosperous to live their lives motivated by the peaceful, pious acceptance of death and to look beyond the mask without fear.
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