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Nunc Dimittis


On the Hapsburgs, fleeing Vienna, and coronavirus


Vienna’s good at plague. Walking down the Graben towards Café Hawelka, on March 10, the first day I was there, I was struck by what looked like an exuberant flame of white stone and brass, a monument of some kind, obviously Baroque, just about as Baroque as you can get, in fact, without being made out of pink marble or draped in lace. It had three main faces, each with a shield on it: “Deo Patri Creatori,” read the one towards me. I walked around to the other sides: “Deo Filio Redemptori,” and “Deo Spiritui Sanctificatori.” Between two of the main faces, there was another plaque:

Tibi Inquam Sanctissimae ac Individuae Trinitati, Ego Leopoldus, Humilis Servus Tuus Gratias Ago Quas Possum Maximas Pro Aversa Anno MDCLXXIX. Per Summam Benignitatem Tuam ab Hac Urbe Et Austriae Provincia Dirae Pestis Lue Atque In Perpetuam Debitae Gratitudinis Tesseram Praesens Monumentum Demississime Consecro

That was the day we heard that Karl von Habsburg, Leopold’s heir, had tested positive for coronavirus.

Vienna was my last stop on a seven-week-long trip: my flight back to the States was already booked from there, so I hadn’t been able to leave directly from London, which was my previous port of call. But Just Getting Home was the priority. At the Hawelka, I ordered an Einspänner, espresso with huge amounts of whipped cream on it. Legend has it that it was originally for fiacre drivers: the whipped cream served as a little lid, keeping the warm espresso from spilling. I was on a deadline, but before I got going on my piece I rebooked my Norwegian Air flight to the earliest available alternative, on the fifteenth. 

I had many visits planned: with a member of an Anabaptist community called the Bruderhof who had moved with his family to start a new body in Retz, with the support of Cardinal Schönborn; with various friends of Frederic Morton, the historian I was there to profile for City Journal; with Pater Edmund Waldstein of Heiligenkreuz.

Of course it was all off—all except for lunch with Pater Edmund the next day in an increasingly quiet city ahead of the inevitable border closing.  

And the next morning I got an email: my Sunday flight had been cancelled. And then came the announcement: on Sunday at midnight, Austria was indeed closing its borders. 

“Look,” Pater Edmund said at lunch, “it’s not a problem. Just stay at Heiligenkreuz.” We were drinking white wine spritzers at a restaurant run by Jesuits. He was supremely relaxed, hanging his hat and coat on the hooks by the door—in Vienna you do not drape your coat over the back of your chair.

I don’t think I started crying. “Are you sure?” 

“Of course, absolutely, you’d be welcome. You finished? Okay, we’re going to Karlskirche.”

There was the pink marble: it out-Baroqued Leopold’s plague column. The church was built by Charles VI, his heir and Maria Theresia’s father, also an offering, in thanks for the city’s survival of the last great plague, in 1712. Pater Edmund took me inside and prayed for God to send his angels to protect us—all of us.

I called my mother. “Are they Augustinian monks? Charles thinks very highly of the Augustinians.” (This was not Charles VI, but rather her friend Charles, now living in Romania, who was trying to calm her down and explain to her that Austria was probably one of the safest places to be during a global pandemic.) I told her that Heiligenkreuz was Cistercian and that the monks had survived a lot of plagues in nine hundred years. She wanted me to check in with the American embassy.

That was Friday. I searched one more time and found a flight leaving Saturday evening. That morning I walked the two miles down Währinger Straße, past the Volksoper, closed for the duration, to the Innere Stadt, to Café Central. You don’t stroll down boulevards in quarantine; you don’t go to coffeehouses. And Café Central itself would be closing as of midnight on Sunday as well: the strange waxwork of Peter Altenberg must now be sitting by himself, the top-hatted maître d’ and the distinguished-looking waiters on furlough.

I’m in New York City now. We haven’t reached the peak yet, and you who are reading this will know more than I who am writing it what will happen. I, like you, like the rest of the world, am waiting for what’s next, trying to prepare, trying to take care of those I can in ways I can, trying to keep my head. And praying a lot. 

New York doesn’t know what Vienna does: that God preserves cities from the plague; He gets them through. It’s a thing He does: one of his trademarks. When, if it pleases Him, Café Central re-opens (and the Landtmann, and the Hawelka, and I’m sitting there again drinking Einspänners and trying to meet a deadline, those places will also be monuments to the faithfulness of the God who will have preserved us through this time of pestilence, as He has preserved our fathers.

Susannah Black is a writer and editor of Plough Quarterly and Mere Orthodoxy.

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