Five regrets in times of crisis

Por: Rev. P. José Orlando Escobar, CM. (Superior Regional de la Congregación de la Misión en Cuba)


In the Bible the book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, written around 587 a.C., express the suffering of an entire people because of the destruction of the temple. However, they not only manifest religious sentiment for such loss, but also other consequences such as loneliness, hunger, the suffering of women, children and the elderly, and also, repeatedly, by the fall of the capital, of the big city: “How lonely is the other populous city!” (1, 1).

These days, looking at the photos of the big lonely cities, full of empty streets, without the usual and harmful car traffic, without the noise of the people and the markets, without the music and street shows, without the frenzy proper to the tumult, I have thought repeatedly of these old Testament laments, written more than twenty-five centuries ago. They can tell us something today, just because the Word is here to speak to us and to elicit answers.

For the prophet, this desolation and regret, this suffering and pain, have their origin in the collective sin of the people, “for there are many their crimes” (1, 5; 1,8), “their filth sticks to their clothes” (1:9); He now receives the punishment of God (1:12), for he has been “unsocil to his command (1:18), for he has been “very rebellious” (1:20). It is natural for a religious man like Jeremiah to make a theological and spiritual reading of what his banished people are living and express through this lament the pain for what is going on.

It would not be appropriate to say that everything humanity is suffering today is the fruit of its sin, but the crisis we are experiencing can help us to stop a little and reflect on what is happened to our planet, to our humanity, to our economic and health system, among others. Pope Francis put it much better on March 27 during the extraordinary moment of prayer in times of epidemic:

“The storm unmasks our vulnerability and exposes those false and superfluous security with which we had built our agendas, our projects, routines and priorities. It shows us how we had fallen asleep and abandoned what feeds, sustains and gives strength to our lives and our community. The storm exposes all attempts to box and forget what nourished the soul of our peoples; all these attempts to anesthetize with apparent “saving” routines, unable to appeal to our roots and evoke the memory of our elders, thus depriving us of the immunity necessary to cope with adversity.”

The prophet’s regrets are five. It is appropriate to read them slowly so that they may tell us something today and to answer in us: every word addressed to us awaits response (silence is one of them).

I would like in these five brief reflections to say something about human states and feelings expressed there: desolation, hunger, hope, fall of the capital and, finally, the suffering of the elderly. I hope that reading and reflection on these laments will inspire us, as in the prophet who writes them, prayer (lament, tears and suffering are authentic forms of prayer) and, of course, hope and trust.

First lamentation (Lam. Chapter 1): desolation

The prophet’s first lamentation is desolation: “How lonely is the former Populous City! Like a widow, the great one has been left among the nations. The Princess of the provinces subjected is under tribute. She cries that she cries at night, she cries her cheeks” (Lam 1:1-2). The Capital goes through predicaments (1, 3); their roads are plastered, desolateing their doors (1, 4); dominated is by the enemy (1, 5); is deprived of its splendor (1, 6); they have seen her nudity and she herself groans her back (1, 8); is in pain all day (1, 13); he wears on his neck a yoke that bends his vigour, being at the mercy of his enemies, “I can no longer have!” (1, 14); there is no one who comforts her or gives her back her spirits (1:16).

The pandemic has left our towns and cities alone. Even from the forest have come animals that we have not seen in a long time… In a few days humanity’s plans were changed, borders, countries and entire continents were closed. When I learned that northern Italy would be isolated from the south to prevent the spread of the pandemic, I thought it was not only unnecessary and exaggerated, but also impossible. With the days we learned that there was no other way. Afterwards, many countries closed external and internal borders, and banned the movement from one city to another.

The world is not accustomed to these drastic movement limitations in times of globalization, travel, business and tourism. Over the course of a few hours, without preparation, we have been forced to focus on one topic: how to control disease, contagion and death. A few months ago I was preparing to preach some exercises, others finalized details to celebrate Easter, someone planned how to get their first job after graduation, and so each, every family, every mayor, every government, every institution… prepared to carry out their project for the coming months. None of that, however, could have been.

We are doing new learnings and relearning. We have resumed being together longer, valuing little things that once went unnoticed, understanding once again that plans change overnight. When many people have not even been able to bury their loved ones and the Catholic majority has not been able to celebrate the sacraments, from the Church we have learned to be more creative in bringing the Word to many people, as is indeed happening. But, as in other battles that humanity has fought in the past, this test will also be overcome, as Manuel Castells reminds us[1], in his recent article “Time of Virus”:

“We’ll go out, yes, but we won’t go out the same way we get into this virus time. We may have to go through a long period of change of consumption model. But it could also be that we are regenerated, recovering the simple pleasure of living, anchored in our families, our friendships and our loves. Because beyond the normal irritation of a long period of confinement, it is these feelings and our mutual support that will have sustained us. Perhaps we will reap the value of life and this will allow us to prevent the other catastrophes that await us if we continue in our destructive and pretentious career we do not know where or why.”

Second lamentation (Lam. Chapter 2): Hunger

“Crying consumes my eyes, my bowels boil, my ice over land is shed, by the ruin of the capital of my people, while children and infants faint in the squares of the city. They ask their mothers: Where is bread? As they fall faint, like wounded, in the squares of the city, as they exhale the spirit on their mothers’ lap.” “Standing, he yells at night, when the round begins; pour your heart out like water before the face of the Lord, raise your hands to him for the lives of the little ones who starve to the corners of the streets (Lam 2:12-13. 19).

The desolation of the city gives way to something more terrible and unbearable such as the hunger of children crying out for the necessary food to stay alive. The concern of many now is not the disease but the food to survive because the quarantines that have been forced by most nations to preserve public health have left many people without jobs, they have forced the lockdown that makes it impossible to leave the house to achieve the essentials. The drama of the pandemic has evidenced that of the informal work of millions of men and women who depend on what they do every day to bring home everyday bread.

All the governments of the world where the pandemic has arrived are struggling to return as soon as possible to the normality of economic activity to recover not only productivity but social welfare and trust, political stability, the long-awaited normality allowed by the manufacture of goods for domestic consumption, export and the fulfilment of trade commitments. We have already seen how the accumulation of unsumed oil has brought its prices down to historic levels and put in check the economies that depend on it.

While several nations have cancelled the export of fans, respirators and materials for laboratory testing, in others creativity is leading to the development of indigenous solutions at a much lower price to meet the internal need and thus prepare to avoid a possible collapse over the demand for intensive care units in hospitals and clinics, forcing them to advance testing of these equipment and to accelerate processes that can take even years under normal circumstances. The pandemic has also led to creativity but also solidarity, changing the objectives of companies dedicated so far to different industries that have turned to practical solutions in the short term.

Our greatest concern is certainly life, protecting health, keeping our population from death, but hunger can begin to work havoc, because it is almost impossible for any economy, even the most developed, to remain unproductive for a long time. We are faced with a dilemma to the point that, at any given time, it will be necessary to go out to work to live, even if we are exposed to a relapse. Otherwise we will be ad portas of a social outburst, as Professor and psychiatrist Leon Cohen said in his interview when asked: What is his greatest fear? Post-pandemic poverty?

“There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to have money to eat. Therefore, there has to be a call here, that is credible, that is concrete and that represents all those who achieve – or achieve – survive all this. If we don’t, we’re one step away from what’s happening in southern Italy, which is social chaos, which is going to be much worse than the social outburst, because it’s going to be motivated by pure hunger.”

Third Lamentation (Lam. chap. 3): hope

Hope is not really a regret, but in the central chapter of this little book of the Old Testament, prayer, trust, and hope are spoken of. It is not all lament in the prophets, as not everything is watering for the people. The prophets of Israel played a leading role in times of trial, mainly because they instilled in the people a necessary hope to keep alive the dream of return; there’s no way it’s going to last a hundred years.

The prophet asks God to remember his misery and wandering life because his spirit sinks within him (Lam. 3:20), yet Jeremiah brings to mind something that makes him wait: “That Yahweh’s love is not over, that his tenderness has not been exhausted; tomorrow after tomorrow they are renewed: great is your fidelity! My share is Yahweh, I say unto myself, that is why in him I must wait” (3:22-24). Although deep has been the lament, from the abyss of desolation hope is built as a shield and fortress similar to the resurgence of ashes.

Throughout this pandemic we have also heard voices of hope everywhere, starting with the one transmitted to us by the Pope in the midst of sadness. Also the German Prime Minister, who in a speech to the nation said:

“I firmly believe that we will pass this test if we really all citizens understand that it is everyone’s task. So let me tell you: this is serious. You too take this seriously… We must demonstrate, even if we have never experienced anything like this, that we act affectionately and sensibly and thus save lives. This depends on each individual, without exception, and therefore on all of us.”

We need this (responsible) hope for these difficult times, and she is put into humanity that could be better after what is happening to the world, although some say that we will soon forget the pandemic and return to the same thing. But our hope for a better human being lies not only in his own capacity, but in trust in the God who, in his providence, guides the world. “For the Lord does not throw away the lord forever: after afflicting he pityed himself according to his immense love; for he is not pleased to humiliate, to afflict human beings” (Lam 3:31). It’s not the first time the world has lived a pandemic. God has NOT sent it to us, but we trust in the strength it will give us to get out of it soon.

We can also take advantage of this situation to become. It is no mere coincidence that the pandemic was on par with Lent and deprived us of celebrating Holy Week more communally, but this has not necessarily been an obstacle to praying, or to change and make us new purposes. Indeed, in the midst of his lament at desolation, hunger, and other evils, the Prophet has time and faith to exclaim, “Let us examine our conduct attentively, and convert to Yahweh. Let us give our hearts and hands to the God in heaven” (Lam 3:40-41).

These are times of crisis, but also of hope, reflection and prayer. We will come out better from it if, together with lament, we enter into our own interior, open ourselves better to others, raise our prayers to God, and trust firmly in His Providence, his mercy, and his great love for his creatures, which “tomorrow after tomorrow are renewed” (Lam 3:23).

Fourth Lamentation (Lam. chap. 4): fall of the Capital

The prophets of Israel were not political, but they had political actions because they lived in a kind of theocracy where priestly and prophetic functions were linked to the kings on duty, who came to them not only to be anointed as such but also to consult their oracles and request their intercession before God. However, they were often also victims of the wickedness of rulers, persecuted, imprisoned, and even killed.

Jeremiah’s Lamentations were no exception. The banishment to Babylon in 587 a.C had first and foremost a great political impact. Along with the destruction of the temple, his religious and moral identity wanted to be razed, but it remained complete for a small group that remained faithful to divine promises, to common religious practices and, above all, to the moral principles suwn in the decalogue. For this people, national and political identity coincided with their religious identity. The repercussions of banishment are necessarily political, so the role of prophets is of great prominence and meaning.

“The guilt of the capital surpasses the very sin of Sodom, which was annihilated in an instant without the human hand intervening. succumbs to the capital. They never believed the kings of the earth or all who dwell in the world, that the adversary and the enemy would enter through the gates of Jerusalem. Our steps were guarded, we were forbidden to walk through the squares” (Lam 4:6. 10. 12. 18). The prophet judges the bleak situation as a result of sin, comes from God the punishment that came by surprise, and forced greater vigilance and restriction of mobility. These are times of crisis. Prophets speak plainly:

“We thought we were invincible. We were going to quadruple global production over the next three decades. By 2021 we would have the highest growth so far this century. We killed 2, 000 species a year flaunting brutality. We had established as moral that good is all that increases capital and bad that diminishes it, and governments and armies cared for silver but not happiness. It became normal for the world’s ten percent richest, including Colombia, to keep 90 percent of income growth each year. We had excluded indigenous peoples and black people as inferior. The young men had left the camp because it was shame to be peasants. We were paying research to corner death beyond the 150th birthday.

“There were awkward questions. To silence them we invented that we could do without reality. With Baudrillard and other philosophers we were alienated into a “un-realized” world and chose powerful leaders who set aside the truth; and we gave ourselves to consume junk and fantasies and emotions that we found on Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, celebrities and even network pornography, where we stuck our heads like ostriches. There were indigenous peoples and young people and groups of women and men who told us that we had lost the path of reality and mystery. That the conditions were given for a planetary fraternity. We told them back and enemies of progress. Declaring himself an atheist, which can be an honest intellectual decision, became not a few shows of sufficiency. Homo Deus, God Man, was the title of Noah Harari’s book we devoured. But all of a sudden the reality came. The coronavirus brought us out of the illusion of being gods. We were confused and humiliated watching the actual numbers of infested and dead rise. And we don’t know what to do. In the face of reality, Harari called these days the spirit of solidarity he did not see before.” [2]

In the face of this fall, not necessarily of an ancient capital like Sodom, nor of modern capitals such as Wuhan, Madrid or New York, nor perhaps of capitalism, what will we learn for the immediate future of humanity as this horrible night ceases?

Fifth and Final Lamentation (Lam. chap. 5): suffering of the elderly

The suffering of infants and children, women and widows, young and old, priests and prophets, and even the rich, has echoed in the prophet’s lamentations. “They lie on the ground in the street together children and the elderly, my maidens and my young men fell to a knife” (Lam 2:21). “On earth sit, in silence, the elders of Zion, the capital; dust has been laid on the head and the sayal has been snug” (2, 10). Even the rich have a hard time. “Those who ate delicious delicacies faint in the middle of the streets; those who grew up among purple scramble the sterols” (4:5). Not even the elders have been respected, “they no longer come to the door, the boys have stopped their songs” (5:12: 14).

Much has been said that the virus has not respected social class, poor or rich countries, but neither do grays, taking away by thousands, particularly the elderly, but also people of all ages. Older people’s homes have been among the most numerous victims. We still don’t know what the behavior of the pandemic will be like in the Third World. In many parts people over the age of seventy should observe stricter confinement as they are the most likely to contract the disease. It’s really been a real tragedy for our elders. With regard to this suffering of all mankind, the theologe Consuelo Velez tells us:

“In reality, God is accompanying this moment and accompanying each of us so that we may assume this reality and succeed. He dies with every victim of contagion, heals with all who have been able to recover, is afraid of all those who are full of fear of spreading, suffers with the consequences that this situation brings, especially, economically, for the poorest. But doesn’t God have the power to rid us of this evil for good? Once again we can see what the God of the kingdom is like, proclaimed by Jesus: he is not a God of power who magically changes things, but is the God incarnate in this humanity who counts on each of his sons and daughters to carry on human history. To get out of the pandemic we need human effort at the science level to stop the virus and produce a vaccine and we need the generosity of all people to cope with this difficulty and overcome it. This is how God has arranged it in his way of creating this world and trusts us to know how to do it.” [3]

The lamentations of the prophet that we have reviewed in these brief pages and tried to apply to the present day gave way to the joy of return. While that came true, when Jeremiah’s encouragement was better, having given much thought, he wrote a letter to the banished by again telling them words of hope for the future that will begin after these hours of uncertainty and pain:

“Build houses and have them; plant orchards and eat their fruit; take women and father sons and daughters; marry your children and give your daughters to husbands to give light sons and daughters, and grow up there and do not diminish; seek the good of the city to which I have deported you and pray for it to Yahweh, for your good will be yours. I will visit you and confirm upon you my favorable promise to bring you back; that I know well the thoughts I think of you… thoughts of peace, not misfortune, of giving them a future of hope. They’ll summon me and come and beg me, and I’ll listen to them. They will look for me and find me when they wholeheartedly ask me” (Jer 29:5-7. 10-13).

Isn’t it wonderful that these regrets written more than two thousand years ago tell us something today? The Word of God proves that he is to instruct us, exhort us, but also to encourage us in all circumstances. It’s enough to have faith. God guides history. His providence does not abandon us. The Lord, who delivered his people from captivity, knows what is happening to us and will know how to take us from his hand to safe harbor.

[1] Minister of Universities of Spain.

[2] Francisco de Roux, S.J., article “We thought we were invincible”.

[3] From the article “This situation confronts us with human limitation, with our vulnerability”.

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