Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Affliction and Plague

Are you afraid? Are you concerned about dying? Are you frightened that something out of your control will end your life? How many of you, upon reading those questions, immediately thought about the coronavirus? If so, you should know that there is a good side and a bad side to that. The good side is that it is always helpful if we take seriously the fact that we have to appear before the Judgment seat of Christ someday. The bad side is that you may be fearful of the wrong thing.

To a certain degree we should be afraid--always--but not necessarily of some virus that can end our lives. Our Lord tells us often that our "fears" should have the right priorities. See, for example, the familiar passage in the gospel of Matthew:
[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (10:28).
Of course, our Lord does not want us cowering in fear about the possibility of spending eternity in Hell, but He does want us to have some kind of fear about it (or He would not have told us to do so!). The godly fear that we are supposed to have about the almighty power of our eternal Judge should always be with us. Yet, we all know that it fades at times. When that happens we need a good reminder to help get our minds back on track.

So then, what are the things in your life that cause you to worry? If you are truly worried about dying from the latest virus, I have to ask, "why?" What is it about leaving this world that causes you fear? Is it because you are unable to let go of things in this world (which is sinful, by the way)? Is it because you are genuinely frightened that you may not do so well when you stand before the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 3:13-15)? If neither of those are a concern for you, then why are you afraid? If you are properly detached from the things of this world, your faith is strong, and you are in a state of grace (and thus, been to confession recently) then you should be confident in Christ.

There is a wonderful passage in the book of Sirach that speaks of fear and the things that go along with it.
Much labor was created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day they come forth from their mother’s womb till the day they return to the mother of all. Their perplexities and fear of heart—their anxious thought is the day of death, from the man who sits on a splendid throne to the one who is humbled in dust and ashes, from the man who wears purple and a crown to the one who is clothed in burlap; there is anger and envy and trouble and unrest, and fear of death, and fury and strife. And when one rests upon his bed, his sleep at night confuses his mind. He gets little or no rest, and afterward in his sleep, as though he were on watch, he is troubled by the visions of his mind like one who has escaped from the battle-front; at the moment of his rescue he wakes up, and wonders that his fear came to nothing. With all flesh, both man and beast, and upon sinners seven times more, are death and bloodshed and strife and sword, calamities, famine and affliction and plague (40:1-9).
Notice what the author is telling us. He wants us to realize that there are a lot of things that everyone can be fearful of (and no one is without fear). Notice, specifically, that his list includes, right at the end of my quotation, "plague". In the Scriptures, a "plague" is not always a judgment of God; but it can be. This means that whenever a massive sickness spreads around us, we should ask ourselves, "if this is a judgment of God, what does God want me to learn from it?" Can you do that right now? If not, it likely means that your heart is so fixated on the things of this world that you cannot see the things of the next world -- and that is a dangerous state to be in (more dangerous than having an incurable virus!).

Right now, there are a few things that actually do have me a bit worried (not fearful, just a serious concern). I am more "worried" about a potential lock-down in the area I live in and the restrictions that go with it than I am about the virus itself. I am also worried, just a bit, about the panic that people are in; this can hurt more people than the disease can. We should be concerned about these things, because when they happen, sometimes people get a bit nutty. They start scrambling in desperation because they believe that physical death is the worst thing that can happen to them (and it is not). Those fears, however, are small.

When we encounter things like this virus, it is the time when we should be thinking more about our spiritual state than our physical state. That does not mean that we are supposed to ignore our physical health. It does mean, however, that we need to keep our priorities straight (as I said above). Try, right now, to measure your concerns. What really takes a higher level of importance in your heart? Is it whether you catch the coronavirus or is it whether you die in a state of grace? I have no idea whether the coronavirus is going to become a global catastrophe like the bubonic plague, or the flu pandemic of the last century. Whether it does or not, whether you catch it or not, each of us needs to make sure that we are working on our spiritual well being.

Although I am not sure it would work, the suggestion from the Polish Bishops is the exact right perspective. They apparently said that in order to decrease the numbers of people in the Mass (smaller groups = less likelihood of spreading the virus) then Churches should have more Masses, not less! If a parish that fits everyone into one Mass on Sunday had 5 Masses on Sunday, then you would have 1/5 of the people in the Church at a time (and the greater spiritual impact of more Masses offered up!). Aside from the exhaustion potential for someone like me who already does 4 Masses every weekend (I know how tired I am after 4 Masses in 24 hours, I am not sure what I would feel like after 20 Masses!). The point is correct though. We need greater spiritual devotion right now, not less.

The passage I quoted above from Sirach does not end where my quotation does. It goes on to point out just what we all need to hear right now.
Riches and strength lift up the heart, but the fear of the Lord is better than both. There is no loss in the fear of the Lord, and with it there is no need to seek for help. The fear of the Lord is like a garden of blessing, and covers a man better than any glory (40:26-27).
We all can get sick, and every one of us will die eventually. This means that our fear of death is a reality, and it can even cripple us. When we are crippled by the fear of physical death, then we need to get help. The fear of the Lord, however, will never cripple us. It will, in fact, give us strength; strength to move on, and strength to stand fast in these troubling and confusing times.