Fr Jonathan Munn has written a touching reflection on his blog Pestilence and Penitence.
As with our social life, people are indignant about being told to shut themselves in. There are still people in the streets in some places gathering, socialising, kissing and hugging, shaking hands. Some are still saying that the virus is a hoax or “just the flu”.
I have already given my reflections on being very privileged to be living in quite a large house in the country, having a chapel and being a priest. I will certainly be judged in proportion to my privilege! Many live in small apartments or are homeless. Parents have to live with bored children who don’t understand why they’re not allowed to go outside and play in the street with their mates.
Like Fr Jonathan, I often read about opinions of people who bitterly criticise the “lack of faith” of bishops and priests who incline to common regulations about gatherings of people. Last Sunday in Paris, hordes of people were picnicking in public gardens in Paris – “The virus is elsewhere. I’m not going to catch it”. If they do, they will probably recover, but their grandparents they go on to visit will die!
For once, our political authorities (at least here in France, Italy, Austria) etc. are not working for the money of the rich but for the good of the population, the common good. President Macron spoke again yesterday evening as a statesman. It might have been his “De Gaulle moment”, but public health and survival come before economics. Economics can be reconstructed. The lock-down regulations also concern churches.
I am also privileged in being less dependent on social life than many people. For one, I have an Aspergers level of autism, so being with people for its own sake is not my priority in life. That doesn’t means that I don’t care about others or respect them. This is fundamental to Christian morality, charity which is greater than both faith and hope. I live alone much more easily, and at this present time, it is an asset. I also have a certain experience of monastic life through having been a working guest for six months in a French abbey. Priorities are different. With these “other” priorities, I have plenty to do with books, my chapel, the internet, the organ, my boats to get into shape for the new season and the garden. It is another philosophy of life that “neurotypical” people can learn to an extent – how to spend time alone and keep in touch with family and friends by telephone and internet-based communication.
I mentioned a couple of days ago the notion of “giving up religion for Lent”. This does not mean rejecting God or a life of prayer. It means living a spiritual life without the social dimension and the externals of church – and just for a time.
Isolation and retreat from the world are essential. It has always been a part of my life with my training for the priesthood and life in seminary, the periods of silence and study, and social life in recreation times. Silence and solitude (or the time we are not with the wife) are essential for our self-knowledge and consciousness. Also, this is Lent. Many Christians go and spend the time as guests in a monastery. This year, it is at home, treating all external people as potential forms of infection.
Yes, I do think that our real dis-ease is spiritual. We protect ourselves and our loved ones by quarantine against physical disease, but this is also an opportunity for the most profound retreat of our lives.
If we are priests, we can celebrate Mass sine populo and do videos or streaming to enable others to see and hear from a distance. When we are not priests, we can pray the Office and use formulas of prayer to unite ourselves with a priest doing his duty alone in the church. Is this not how things are already outside times of epidemic? People complain that they don’t have enough priests, and then reject a priest who would be willing to serve them because his “ordination pedigree” wasn’t quite “perfect” enough. Congregations with priests are often the most ungrateful and destructive to the man who is doing his best to serve the Communion of the Church. I have often said “Let them live in China, North Korea or Saudi Arabia”. Now they have an epidemic!
From today, the law in France binds us to stay at home except for going to work when distance work is not possible, essential shopping, going to the chemist for medicines or to see the doctor (for problems other than this virus), helping people who most need it or for things like going for exercise or walking the dog without socialising. There are police and gendarmes on the roads, and we have to show an official paper on which we state one of these reasons for being out. This first period of quarantine is for two weeks, and we can expect that the government will need to extend it. On one side, this is a law I am glad to obey, but it is something we had already begun to do for the very purpose of what the State is requiring for those who do not understand.
This thing is going to begin with many people getting bored and looking for ways to game the system. This is France! There will probably be a certain margin of tolerance. People will probably watch a lot of television and play computer games. Perhaps some will develop a taste for reading real books and playing board games like chess or scrabble with the family. As the soul seeks more meaning, a person resorts to prayer and supplication. For me, two weeks in quarantine is nothing, but an eternity for others. I already hear shouting from my next-door neighbour where there are two teenage boys. There is no school or university. Libraries are closed.
Two days ago, it was the third Sunday of Lent, the day when the catechumens in the early Church received their first exorcisms. The Jews of old made little distinction between physical sickness and a state of sin. There is a strong analogy between the powers of darkness, evil spirits and viruses.
The Gospel. Luke xi. 14-28.
At that time, Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered. But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.
The last state of that man is worse than the first. Possession by a virus is very similar to the spiritual equivalent, and the idea is chilling. Viruses were once thought to be poisonous chemicals, but are generally thought of by scientists as life-forms – except that they are in a grey area between life and inanimate matter. They cannot reproduce on their own, and have to live as parasites in living cells of the host. What they do to the host’s cells is what causes the illness. The Latin word virus means poison. A chemical poison like cyanide works by depriving red blood cells of the capacity to carry oxygen. The host dies from asphyxiation. We see similarities between chemicals and viruses at the frontier between life and chemistry, but the virus is essentially made of DNA (RNA) enclosed in a protein container. The chemical structure is highly complex like simple living organisms. They have no life of their own but depend on the living cell for its life.
What defines life? Is it the ability to be autonomous and to reproduce, but with a lifespan limited in time. Viruses can be inactive for thousands or millions or years and be in a perfect condition for taking life from any living cells they find. They can be killed (destroyed) by chemicals or extremes of heat. Another way to think of this is looking at a part of our bodies, for example fingers or brain neurons. There needs to be a degree of complexity between these components for life and consciousness to be defined. Viruses are extremely diverse in their form and the kind of effect they have on living organisms. There are theories that some viruses might be survivals of decomposed cells that seek new life, a kind of “zombie” existence. The most successful virus is one that does not kill its host or cause critical illness, but one that leaves the host apparently healthy whilst living the life of its host. The science of viruses is incredibly complex even for the boffins in their laboratories.
My point about the virus is that it is for the physical body (a manifestation of consciousness) what the evil spirit is for the soul. The evil spirit has no life of its own, but seeks life from its host, and avoids what would not be in its own self-interest. In my own thought, I make no real distinction between consciousness and matter, the supernatural and nature. There is a real parallel as when the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Imagine that being the “attitude” of the virus that takes advantage of the very efforts made by a person to be clean and hygienic, yet creates the very favourable conditions for the viruses to thrive.
Sometimes, human (and non-human) souls become possessed through no fault of their own (eg. dabbling in the occult). Some descriptions made by exorcists find a certain likeness between these parasitic evil spirits and a biological agent like a virus. For this reason, we cannot rely purely on medical means to resist this virus (since our immune systems are useless against it). We have also to treat it as an evil spirit, the Tempter, the one who tries to entice us into materialism and lust for power and money. Yes, we wash our hands, but we also wash our hands at the Offertory of Mass to be as worthy as possible for our contact with the Mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Our war is not one of flesh and blood, even though the virus is something that can be seen by electron microscope, but against that almost lifeless and parasitic consciousness that has blighted humanity and the world from the very beginning.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints. Eph. vi. 12
And this kind of spirit can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. Jesus spent forty days in the desert all alone, which gave him the spiritual strength to affront the enemy. Beside that, it matters little whether those who lust for social contact can be physically present at Mass.
We are living at the beginning of a dark night of the soul, with some hope that what will come out of it will be Berdyaev’s New Middle Age, that world beyond for which we yearn. A part of this dark Ungrund will be our time of solitude and retreat. In our own homes, we can pray for and offer hope to those who are sick or who are worried about whether they have caught the virus before battening down the hatch.
It is our rejection of God that means we must take the consequences of our actions whereby this virus lives in the disorder we created for it.
This is a profound thought, whether the virus was caused by man’s treatment of this planet and the environment, or via some evil scheme gone-wrong to inflict biological warfare on the “enemies of the people”. There are theories – maybe with some element of truth or completely wrong. I do not believe this to be the end of the world. We will survive this plague as humanity has survived others even more murderous like Ebola or the Bubonic Plague (Black Death). May the future world be less about money, consumption and growth than about humanity, love and the harmony of all creation under God. Maybe the New Spring will come as our incessant gales and rain give place to sunshine, birdsong and colourful flowers…