I penned these thoughts a few months ago, reflecting on the historical meaning of quarantine.
Should some religious faith be quarantined?
Remember when Noah was in quarantine as it rained, while he was herding animals into his boat (Genesis 7:12)? Do you recall when Elijah climbed a mountain for quarantine (First Kings 19:8)? How about the time Jesus quarantined in the desert (Matthew 4:1-2)? Then there were the disciples in quarantine during the time between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension (Acts 1:3). Then of course there was a long period of quarantine for the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33). What do all these biblical stories have in common: self-isolating for forty days (or forty years as the case may be).
To quarantine is to be isolated for a period of time. We’re well award of that now, during a pandemic. What I didn’t know is that the word comes from Italian: quarantina ‘forty days,” from quaranta ‘forty.’ According to the CDC the term came into use during the Middle Ages:
“The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing.”
(by the way, the U.S. now has official quarantine stations in 20 cities).
Many of us have been in quarantine or know people who have. It can feel very lonely to be alone, apart, separated from others. It can also be irritating, agitating and intensely boring to have to stay in our own space for an extended period.
Which leads me to wonder:
What if some religious faith was put in quarantine for, let’s say, forty days? What would happen? Would the world change discernibly? Why even ponder these questions?
Think of the context of those biblical stories. Noah (with family and animals) was seeking shelter, protection from the flood. Elijah was seeking shelter too, even from God.
Jesus was isolating (aside for the moment, why would a divine being need to retreat, rest and pray?). The disciples were sheltered in fear, insecure, uncertain. And, the People of Israel were seeking a new land while wandering in the wilds, unclear of the way forward.
So, these were all “in quarantine” to get more clarity, do some self-reflection and discern what the next steps should be, for themselves, for their people.
As I see it, if more of the religious community took that time to do those things, to gain a better, clearer perspective of what their faith means in the world today, what more they could do to live the essence of their beliefs, maybe something very good might emerge from the floods, the caves, the deserts and the upper rooms.
Religions could re-emerge from isolation, confident of being virus-free (free from the disease of a contagious creed or credulity).
On the other hand, maybe I have this backward. Could it be that religious faith is, in many ways, already in self-isolation, in self-imposed quarantine from the world? (“keep oneself unstained by the world,” the Letter of James 1:27). As much faith is fearfully seeking protection from perceived threats of a perceived hostile culture, perhaps the faithful need to recover a wider, wiser kind of faith, a trust in the present, secular world.
Yes, maybe that’s it. Let’s turn this whole analogy around. It’s time for religious faith to come out, to risk “contamination” in the wider world where so many are isolated for other reasons.
One thing about quarantine: apart from protecting from disease, it can help clear out the toxics in the system so you can come out healthier and join the non-isolated community in making the world healthier. The host of religions might just discover a way to fight other plagues—plagues of poverty, injustice, violence, war.
I wonder, during the plague in the Middle Ages, did the authorities who decided to quarantine people for forty days get that number of days directly from the Bible? Did they think that was a holy or magic number that would purify or protect? I’m not sure.
For some of us, a period of quarantine, for 14 or 40 days, could remind us though we’re isolated, separated from others, it’s for our good and theirs—we know we’re not alone in this. We share human vulnerability and fragility, and hold to a common trust in the amazing work of science. We are grateful for our own persistent resilience.
As with other quarantines in history, we can learn when we need to seek shelter and when we have been sheltered too long. Either way, we know health is essential, in the human body, human society and in religious faith as well.