Disease, Deprecations, and Deliverance in an Age of Safe Spaces | Reflections from a University President
March 16, 2020

From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.

The Fourth Deprecation from Thomas Cranmer’s 1544 Litany1

A deprecation, such as that above, is a prayer to be spared from disaster, its Latin root deprecari meaning to repel or avoid physical calamity by prayer. We rarely hear the word deprecation in this 16th– and 17th-century sense anymore. And, in fact, we rarely hear such a prayer anymore, as many of those things Archbishop Cranmer lists do not particularly frighten us or cause us to seek protection, from God or otherwise—at least not in any regular fashion. Many of the things that once were routine exposures to death, to mortality, are now militated against by experience, by medicine, by technology, or by engineering. For example, the deprecation in William Whiting’s great hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”—“O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea”—was just 160 years ago quite literal, but is now almost wholly metaphorical.

Indeed, the very notion of being “safe” has been so defined downward (at least on many secular university campuses) it often now for many has little to do with physical safety and preservation, and instead is used to describe protection from unfamiliar ideas, less-than-pleasant words, or trifling inconveniences. As profoundly silly as that may be, we should probably be thankful that undergraduates have been fretting over pronouns instead of polio. Such are the blessings of this age that rarely does one have to worry continually about one’s death or that of one’s family and friends. But eventually danger comes to us all, without exception—as does death.

Suddenly now we are confronted with a hitherto unknown, invisible infectious disease, known by most by as Coronavirus.2 As I write this, all of our assumptions about life and longevity, about dinner tomorrow night or retirement two decades hence and everything in between have seemingly been put into question by this pandemic and its health, societal, and financial implications. We unexpectedly feel quite unsafe, (or at least uncertain about our safety) and the extent of that lack of safety is measured in the continually updated infection-number denominator under death-count numerator. The Litany deprecation’s “plague” and “pestilence” suddenly seem apt and relevant words, and not in the least metaphorical.

There is nothing particularly new about such a pandemic, of course. Just in one century’s time, those my age survived the 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic; our parents and grandparents polio; and their parents and grandparents the Spanish Flu—among many other epidemics. And, general good health notwithstanding, there remain many threats to our mortal lives that are invisible to us and unpredictable—ones we can avoid thinking about because we are adept at pretending they are rare or distant. But this one seems different because the information about it, such as it is, is in front of us continually via the media, conventional and social. And because we have redefined safety far from what it really means, we are suddenly jolted to the core and made to reconsider what really matters and what really threatens us. The cost of fretting about pronouns instead of polio is that we aren’t ready for our return to reality—to the reality of our mortality.

The speed of this recalibration was driven home to us last week at my university. Twenty-one of our students and one professor who had returned home from an Israel study-abroad trip were the next day told by public health authorities they had to self-quarantine. All of them had been on the same tour bus as a student from another university. That student had taken ill with flu-like symptoms, but tested negative for the flu, so was tested for Coronavirus. One of our students then had like symptoms and flu-test results and was also tested for Coronavirus.

For five days these students and professor were confined to their living quarters, until negative test results for both students ended the self-quarantine. The upheaval to our operations had been extreme, but only a fraction of how debilitating it would have been (read: could yet be) if an actual case arises on the campus—as prudence dictates we must assume will in time happen. As most colleges now have, we decided to shift to on-line instruction for the foreseeable future and empty out the campus to the extent we can. We are, after all, a small Christian university and not a state hospital.

But now everything we do is with the reminder of this malady and mortality. Every cough or sneeze causes others to wonder if that person will be the first case. We have sent our older and health-compromised employees home. Simple questions of meals and housing and class schedules become questions of how to best protect and preserve health. All those things that seem to make a university a university—and particularly one such as we have—are being undone for a season: classes meeting, faculty and students eating together in the dining hall, our worshiping together in chapel, athletes competing, choral groups singing, alumni reuniting, students coming to the president’s house, and more. As are our personal and family lives, there is an up-endedness about where we find ourselves, and a deep desire to return to normal and to a sense of safety.

I have written elsewhere on this site about the theodicy question that attends such times. But however one tries to resolve that ancient quandary, it seems plain if one believes in God’s providence there is revealed in these circumstances God’s calling us: to return to him apace, to trust him wholly, and to do his work resolutely. Our uncertainty draws us to the certainty of our Sovereign and Holy God. Our fears cause us to seek God’s peace and protection. Our deep desire that we and others be spared pain rightly prompts our deprecation—one that God desires.

The Psalms of communal lament3 seem particularly appropriate at such a time—even when we are not able to join physically with our fellow believers. Their form is (like the form of a collect) a good outline for how in our extemporaneous prayers we can also approach God in prayer. These laments generally have six components: an address to God; a description of the peril from which we seek relief; an affirmation of confidence in God’s listening and acting; a petition asking God to do something specific; an expression of confidence that God has heard our prayer; and a promise to thank and praise God when he acts. This progression also mirrors what our deep yearning is—to move from suffering to rescue to thanksgiving.

As we look ahead at all the many ways this interruption in our normal work at the school can make us better, I see at the least the potential that this might be, in ways that our nation has not experienced since 9/11, a reminder that there is more to our lives than the material, the political and the ideological. Perhaps the isolation implicit in the days ahead will reinforce the emptiness of dwelling within and focusing on oneself, and remind us of our deep need for others and community—and especially Christian community—beyond the virtual. We can hope the sadness of seeing others suffer—if not our own suffering, also—will remind us of our duty always to welcome, to comfort, to heal, to encourage, to love.

Young people especially, for entirely understandable reasons given their years, too often join with young Augustine in saying “not yet” when it comes to responding to God’s place in their lives. Maybe the example and guidance of our extraordinary faculty, staff and coaches toward students’ embracing a life of faith will have greater traction when this passes. Perhaps more people will appreciate the value of Christian higher education as an education that prepares one for life that truly, absent the saving love of Christ, has no real safe spaces. Whatever happens, we are also reminded afresh that God is in control and will redeem even the worst of this for his good purposes.

A good friend, knowing my love of the Book of Common Prayer, surprised me this week—in the midst of all our Coronavirus turmoil—by sending me a beautiful 1662 edition that had been printed in 1669. It was overwhelming opening this beautiful book that had lasted physically and in its words for over 350 years. Indeed, only four years before this Prayer Book left the presses in London, that city had lost a quarter of its population to the Great Plague. Then a year later, as the plaque was finally abating, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the medieval City. This Prayer Book was thus itself, by its pages and its words largely drawn from Scripture, a comfort and a reminder of the transient nature of perils such as those we may well yet face and of the steadfast love of God. That Prayer Book’s Litany included the same words above, four words that, joined together, affirm God’s goodness, sovereignty, power, and love—words that with confidence we all now pray:

Good Lord, deliver us.

Alexander Whitaker is President of King University, a Christian university in Bristol, TN.

  1. The 1544 Litany was the first authorized vernacular-language service in English. Thomas Cranmer wrote it pursuant to Henry VIII’s direction.  He drew on both ancient and contemporary sources (including, bravely, Luther). ↩︎
  2. “Coronavirus” is a type of virus, rather than a specific one.  The specific virus is named COVID-19, but the more generic name seems to be that now most recognizable. ↩︎
  3. Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, and 90 are generally those considered communal-lament Psalms. ↩︎
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