Columns

La Corona: John Donne Shows Us How Prayer and Faith Can Fight the Virus

Members of Congress and staff gather for prayer on the steps of the Capitol on June 13, 2016, after the Orlando nightclub terrorist attack. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In response to the deluge of articles, reports, blogs, vlogs, news items, panel discussions, and press briefings that confront us at every turn regarding COVID-19, we apprehensively follow the prescriptions and advisories intended to combat the pandemic. We wash our hands five times a day, we practice “social distancing” (a new term that has entered the lexicon), we hunker down at home, we go into quarantine, we put our wavering hopes in hydroxychloroquine, and we hoard, hoard, hoard though the shelves are now as bare as they perennially were and are under communism. And we worry, too, that the cure may be worse than the disease as financial markets tumble, businesses close, unemployment skyrockets and the supply chains are indefinitely disrupted.

Aside from the various cautionary practices daily recommended and instructions regularly issued, personal and collective prayer has also come to be recognized as an antipathogen. Pope Francis called on followers to pray for the suffering. A National Day of Prayer has been organized in the U.S. to allay the disaster that has befallen us. “No matter where you may be,” said President Trump, “I encourage you to turn towards prayer in an act of faith.” Some theologians and no doubt laypersons believe that the Lord’s wrath has been visited upon a decadent and corrupt society, a modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah threatened with the viral equivalent of “fire and brimstone,” which prayer, contrition, and repentance may serve to mitigate.

I have nothing against prayer if it leads to introspection, humility, and personal strength to withstand the trials that afflict us and others, but prayer must be accompanied and supplemented by benign, determined, and virtuous action. The only way to find safety in Zoar (Genesis 19: 22-23) is through profound social and cultural change to overcome our moral decay. Our society indiscriminately slaughters its unborn. Such a society cannot find favor in the eyes of the Lord; consequently, the vast and lucrative abortion industry that thrives in the nation needs to be ended. Those seeking abortions should be subject to counseling and to medical intervention only in cases that are critically pressing.

Moreover, we should pass legislation to monitor and curtail insider trading and general rapacity that passes for congressional business as usual in which government officials on salary emerge as millionaires. Schools and universities that infect the minds of the young with false doctrine should be defunded and depoliticized. Similarly, an almost universally lying media guilty of violating professional standards codified in the Global Charter of Ethics should be arraigned before the courts. Much needs to be done to set the nation on a right, honorable, and constitutional path, difficult or improbable or unrealistic as the task may prove. Indeed, serious work would have to be done if we wish to keep the Republic, as Benjamin Franklin warned. This is the most effective form of prayer.

The 17th-century poet and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral John Donne wrote a moving series of holy sonnets called, ironically in the present context, La Corona, a brilliant and complex “Heroic Crown,” or Corona, extolling the virtues of faith, humility, and spiritual self-awareness. Faith is a “crown of glory, which doth flower always” and provokes “a strong sober thirst” for “miracles exceeding the powers of man.” But faith does not solely imply surrender to the will of God and reliance on prayer and miracle; it requires a struggle against “envy…weak spirits [and] ambitious hate,” a willingness to burn our “drossy clay” and to fight against “the worst” who reduce “self-life’s infinity… to an inch.”

In our more secular terms, faith implies a resolution to transcend our self-infatuated and worldly pursuit of power and wealth at the expense of decency, trust, honesty, and the teachings of morality. Unfortunately, as Donne puts it, “the worst are most” and—in the current situation—they are those who seek to profit from the calamity that harrows us by sowing panic and confusion, using the state of affairs to promote their ideological interests, and striving to score political points. “The worst,” as William Butler Yeats writes echoing Donne’s sentiment in another great poem The Second Coming, “are full of passionate intensity,” a quality which the enemies of the civil order and of good political housekeeping command to their advancement.*

Whether or not the Coronavirus is a divine judgment on a degenerate society, I believe in the efficacy of common sense and pragmatic sobriety, in taking precautions, in refusing to panic, in rejecting the temptation of doom-and-gloom imaginings, in exercising, as scholar and historian Victor Davis Hanson informs us, what the Greeks called pronoia, “strategic foresight,” in relying on medical innovation and standing by a responsible leadership that has a draconian cost-function decision to make where the stakes are existential, and in opposing in thought, word, and deed “the worst” who propagate fraud and deception among us.

More broadly, once the crisis passes, we must consider the necessity of decoupling from the sources of infection, restructuring the global trade, industrial, and diplomatic order to secure and strengthen our borders, and tackling the problem of profligate spending and runaway debt that augurs eventual societal collapse, which the spread of the pestilence has brought to public consciousness. This is how to fight the Coronavirus and its exploiters for advantage, an empirical reading of La Corona. And if this is how prayer may be understood, then I take up my station at the altar.

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* Yeats was instrumental in reviving Donne’s reputation in the modern era and knew his work intimately, but did not share Donne’s sanguine Christian faith.

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David Solway’s latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London. A CD of his original songs, Partial to Cain, appeared in 2019.