In the opening scene of The Seventh Seal (1957), the figure of Death approaches the returned Crusader Antonius Block, who sits alone on the beach, waves crashing beyond him. Death introduces himself, explains that he has walked beside Block for a long time, and it is now time to come with him. Very well, Block says – “My body is afraid, but I am not.”
As Death moves closer, Block hesitates, pleading, “Wait a moment.” Block then offers Death a game of chess – with two conditions. As long as Block’s side stays alive, he lives; and if Block wins, Death must set him free. The game begins and the movie proceeds, following Block through a homeland he barely recognizes – ravaged by a plague, whose citizens have turned desperate and violent. Block’s clever chess playing keeps him alive, one move at a time, as he scours the land for signs of hope and for a chance to perform his “one meaningful deed” before death.
I’ve chosen to reflect upon The Seventh Seal today for two reasons. First, the actor Max von Sydow, who played Antonius Block, just died in early March 2020 (right before coronavirus elevated to national emergency status). It seems only appropriate to honor him, given the circumstances. Second, I think this film offers wisdom for how to live in these uncertain times.
Like everyone else, I never imagined that I would live through a global pandemic as severe as the Spanish Flu. Yet, here we are. Many are sick and dying. Those who are physically well are suffering emotionally and spiritually. Some have used this moment to fulfill their talents in heroic self-sacrifice. Others have used this moment to manipulate their fellow humans. At current writing, we are all self-wardened prisoners of our own homes. The world has seemingly flipped upside down in a mere matter of days.
How can we live, hope, or stay sane amidst such craziness?
Antonius Block inspires me – and not only because he is brave enough to challenge Death. Like Block, I too am vulnerable to despair. There is a terrific scene in which Block enters a church confessional, spilling his heart and his doubts to the priest, only to discover that the church has been abandoned, and the man he is speaking with is Death. Despite this shock, Block continues to play chess and refuses to surrender his freedom. I am with Block – let us keep playing the game, even when all seems lost.
At another critical point in the film, a crowd of flagellants appears in town, dredging their huge, grotesque crucifix through the mud as they whip each other’s backs raw and their preacher harangues the townspeople. They silence and stun the crowd – yet Block and his companions do not join them, and soon the flagellants go along their way. Their departure is fitting, as the ultimate spirituality of this film is about the interior life and the individual quest for redemption, rather than the slavish subjugation of our wills to brutish cult leaders.
Unsurprisingly, some religious figures today have capitalized on our current, collective fear – sometimes hinting and sometimes boldly decreeing that the coronavirus is a chastisement and punishment from God. Such assertions are without evidence, merit, or respectability. Do you, reader, believe such death-eaters to be deserving of our serious attention? Neither do I. Let us allow these mournful figures to clatter on down to the next town – they’ll be on their way soon enough.
There is another scene, terrific as the rest, in which Antonius Block befriends a traveling actor and his family. In a moment of serenity – even as the plague dangers creep closer and closer – the group shares a picnic on the hill, in which Block is able to locate an antidote to the fear that dominates his world: gratitude. Holding a bowl of berries gathered by Mia, the young wife and mother, Block says:
I’ll carry this memory between my hands as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk… And it will be an adequate sign—it will be enough for me.
This hillside sacrament of simplicity awakens the true Crusader within Block – one who cherishes life, befriends Death, protects others before himself, and embraces the unknown. This is the transformed person and the selfless spiritual seeker I aspire to be during this coronavirus madness.
Peace and good to you. Stay safe and be well.