COVID-19 is not the first plague Christians have grappled with.  Of course, we think of the Black Death – and Monty Python’s depiction of it – but perhaps reason away any contemporary relation to the middle ages, void, as it was, largely of modern understandings of microbiology and public health policies.  Yet we should not be too hasty so as to divorce any opportunity of learning from Christians of yesteryear; it was those middle age Christians who developed the ars moriendi literature, after all, helping all learn ‘the art of dying’ in the 14th century.

With people dying by the millions from a contagion merciless against the poor, rich, lay, and clergy alike, a pastoral challenge presented itself.  How are so few priests to visit the many sick and dying people, especially when they meet their demise so quickly?  Focused much upon the art of living – striving for virtue, engaging ascetic practices, participating in the Church’s sacramental economy – how may Christian lay people and clergy alike grow into the full stature of Christ, as Paul says, amidst such dark days filled with suffering and death?  Enter the ars moriendi, spiritual handbooks for helping suffering souls prepare for their death by resisting the common temptations of the dying and calling upon the Lord – the victor over sin, death, and plagues – to carry them safely to their eternal home (see this also).  Those Christians truly took Matthew 25 to heart in the midst of trying times: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you did it to me.”  They did all they could to bring the saving grace of the Lord Jesus to the sick and dying.  We ought to learn from it today, and work to help people die well in the best ways we know how in each of our own contemporary clinical contexts.  Medicine ought to be about more than perpetually beating back death individually and collectively; clinical and policy work ought to be integrated within our Christian vision.

Perhaps more inspiring than the Bubonic Plague, however, was the Christian response to the ancient Plague of Cyprian, named after the detailed account left in St. Cyprian of Carthage’s writings (~200-258AD).  Historian Gary Ferngren provides a gripping narrative.  Christianity during the 3rd century, prior to Constantine’s edict of Milan, was officially an illegal sect undergoing intermittent persecutions from both local Roman authorities with bones to pick against bishops and the occasional vicious emperor wishing all subjects to burn incense to him as a god.  Obviously these were not easy times for the young Church, and innumerable martyrs come from these early days.

Yet heroes arose when the plague struck around 250AD.  Christians from across the spectrum of formal medical training were ready for a profound ministry, while their pagan co-citizens – including the Greek-style physicians – largely fled the city.  Contagion swept across the empire, provoking as much fear and despair as suffering and death.  Up to 5000 people a day died in Rome alone – including two emperors –after bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, deafness, blindness, paralysis, swollen throats, and bloody eyes (medical historians wonder if the culprit was a hemorrhagic fever virus, like Ebola).  Pagans thus blamed the gods for this pestilence of such horror and magnitude.

According to a certain Pontius:

All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.  

Cyprian concluded, It appeared as if the world was at its end.

The Christians were ready to respond, however, and not out of confidence in their scientific prowess or anxiety over the end of the world.  Theirs was true love.  Despite their small numbers and intermittent persecutions, they had built up an impressive network of charity and financial resources to care for widows, orphans, and the sick – pagan and Christian alike.  You might imagine Christian physicians, deacons, subdeacons, and more rushing into the heart of their respective cities, and passing their pagan neighbors heading the opposite direction for the hills, abandoning sick friends and family in the process.  Recalling the great commission, those devoted Christians heard their Master continually say, “I was sick and you cared for me.”  Many, of course, lost their own lives to the virus, though as martyrs, in a sense; they were certainly witnesses to the unstoppable divine power directing their sect.  What sort of group could be so audacious as to run to the middle of a plague?  Narratives from secular historians cannot deny the bold Christian charity during the plague of Cyprian.  It was out of this world.

Understandably, many of the sick and dying were incredibly moved at the compassion shown them by these Christians they had never met, but the impact proved even bigger.  Many converted to the faith, and played a major role in the empire becoming Christian as a whole.  The culture critically began to shift from an oppressive empire valuing the healthy and wealthy noblemen to a Christian society acknowledging the Image of God in each person.  The poor and sick – who one ancient saint called the “Church’s riches” – began to be more than throwaways.  The change was far from overnight and took an emperor of good will to legalize Christianity and make it the official state religion, but it was irreversible.

We are not left with a litany of stars from either the Bubonic plague nor the plague of Cyprian, but we are left with a testimony and an example to emulate in healthcare – at all times, but especially during this current pandemic.  Christians in healthcare are able not only to survive a plague.  They can turn it around for the glory of God.