The last week has been one of the strangest of my life to date. It seems as though every day we’re hearing about one unprecedented measure or another that our community, province, and nation are undertaking to flatten the curve from COVID-19.
While many of these measures were predictable, the demands of social distancing are far more encompassing than I ever would have imagined. And even as I have been writing this, the Alberta government cancelled school and post-secondary classes for an indeterminate amount of time – with a third of the school year left to go.
As a school chaplain and a father of five children (four of whom are in school), I find myself questioning what these next months will mean – for the safety of my family, for the work and ministry I usually do, and for the world at large. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m more than a little fearful of what this will all mean.
In face of my fears, you might point out the fact one of the most often repeated phrases in Scripture is some variation of ‘Be not afraid,’ ‘Do not be afraid,’ or ‘Do not fear.’ It’s found on the lips of prophets, angels, and our Lord Himself, responding to every imaginable situation.
One that I’ve returned to again and again comes from John’s Gospel, during what’s known as Jesus’ last supper discourses: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). These are words that were meant to encourage the disciples not only through His own crucifixion – but also through the suffering which they would be asked to endure.
While these, and other similar words from Scripture have often brought me hope, there are times when simply hearing or reading ‘Be not afraid’ isn’t enough – this can apply whether you’re dealing with a child’s fear of the dark or a crisis like the pandemic our world is facing today. We need help to bring these words to life. I think this is what G.K. Chesterton was reflecting on when he wrote an essay titled The Red Angel, about the essential value of fairy tales:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
In this current crisis, I’ve found myself considering the words of J.R.R. Tolkien alongside those of Jesus. My particular “St. George” has been found in a particularly moving scene from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit who makes the unlikeliest of heroes, comes into possession of a great ring whose destiny will sway the future of their whole world. Frodo, overwhelmed by all that’s going on, turns to the wizard Gandalf and says: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
I can identify with this feeling! Over the last week I’ve often found myself longing for simpler times, less responsibility, and an outcome I can more easily foresee. And so I am grateful that Frodo’s words are followed by these words of Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”
It’s this last point I keep coming back to: the ‘other forces’ Gandalf knows are at work in Middle-Earth. In spite of all he has seen and will see, Gandalf is not simply offering a trite encouragement to Frodo, he’s sharing the reason for his hope (1 Peter 3:15). While it’s fair to say that Gandalf doesn’t know either how things are going to work out – and for all of them, especially Gandalf, it’s going to get worse before it gets better – he is rightly certain that there is some great hope working in their favour.
All of that being said, we need to remember that we are far better off than Frodo or Gandalf. Our hope has a face and a name: Jesus Christ. Jesus has not only faced the worst of our fears: He has conquered them all. We need to cling to this no matter what unexpected things come to us this week, or next month, or a year from now.
Like St. Paul, we should be persuaded that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39.) We, too, can be rightly certain that there is a great hope always working in our favour.
At this time of ‘social distancing’ where many of our usual diversions are not available to us, it just might be a good time to dive back into stories. Stories that will help us fill the time, sure, but especially those stories like The Lord of the Rings which can help give a face and a name to the Hope we know we have – especially in these moments where our hope is beginning to feel more tenuous.
“Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” -G.K. Chesterton
— Mike Landry is chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, and serves as an occasional guest speaker and music minister in communities across Western Canada. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain, Alta. with their five children.