Monday, April 6, 2020

The Virus as a Spiritual Magnifying Glass

We have all observed this if we have been paying attention. Either paying attention to ourselves, which is optimal, or paying attention to others, which is less so. Both in ourselves and in others we can observe that with the onset of the pandemic (or maybe it is the quarantine itself) our temptations have been magnified greatly, and if we haven’t been very attentive to this, perhaps our sins have been multiplied accordingly because we have not cut off these temptations. If we use the metaphor of the Spiritual Hospital for the Holy Church, which the fathers of the Church often do and which I think is very helpful for us in our days (not that what I think matters), then Great Lent is the intensive care unit. Everything is more intense (as one might expect in INTENSIVE care) during Great Lent. We often see ourselves, at least to some extent, as we really are. Warts and all. And we don’t like it. Because we think we are pretty OK as a rule. Maybe not great, but certainly not worse than average. When one is far from the light it seems one looks pretty good. But the nearer one comes to the light the easier it is to see the blemishes – the defects. That is true of our clothing when we put it on in the dark in the morning. We might not realize we have a blue and a black sock on until we get to work and look at ourselves in the full light. And that is true of our souls as well. When we are far from God we are in darkness or semi-darkness. Certainly we are not in the full Light of the Divinity. But during Great Lent, if we expend even a small amount of effort, we begin to draw nearer to the Divine Light, and we begin to see ourselves for who we really are. This is why all the saints confessed themselves to be great sinners, although abjectly it was “obvious” to those observing them that they were extremely virtuous. As they were transformed into the children of God they drew nearer and nearer to Him, and the light of Mount Tabor illumined them to such an extent that even the smallest spiritual blemish was starkly obvious. That happens to all of us just a bit during the usual Great Lent.

But this year the effect has been magnified to a significant extent – this is not a “usual” Great Lent by any means. The pandemic/quarantine has acted as a magnifying glass for all of us (myself very much included), and the temptations have multiplied greatly. This in fact could be something welcome if we are watchful and ready to learn from what we are being taught by the Lord. We are not shown our sins so that we can take theoretical note of them. We are being shown our sins so that we can act against them. St. Anthony the Great said that “...if you know yourself you know everything...”. That is, if you know your spiritual proclivities you can use the brain the Lord gave you to avoid them, or at least be on your guard so that you can fight them valiantly. Great Lent usually pulls back the curtain on this spiritual reality for us at least a little bit each year, as long as we try at least a little bit. But this year the curtain has been essentially torn down and the effect has been greatly magnified.

So let us take this opportunity to learn, according to the instruction of St. Anthony. Most of us are being shown our spiritual reality like never before in our lifetimes. That does not mean we should fall to these temptations to a greater extent than we ever have! It means we should learn to a greater extent – and struggle against these sins to a greater extent. But who is showing us this reality as never before? Is it us with our great ascetic exploits? Of course not! It is the merciful Lord! So if He is showing us we can be sure that He will not curate this exhibition of our sins only to abandon us to fall into despair for having witnessed them. On the contrary, He will not flee in the least, but rather He will stand by us and fight along side us if we only will struggle to overcome these temptations that He is so mercifully and starkly showing us.

In the spiritual life we work in synergy with God. It is our effort and His Grace that allows us to make progress. This cooperative effort with God is the only path towards victory. We can struggle alone and make some progress, but pride will eventually cast us down. We can wait for God to act while we are theoretically taking note of our sins without expending any effort ourselves or asking God’s help, but our waiting for God to act without our effort will surely be in vain. No – we must work diligently, asking the Lord’s help in our efforts and His Grace to crown our struggle. We work WITH God, and knowing what we are working against (the vices) makes this effort much more fruitful. Due to the situation we find ourselves in this year during Great Lent (and if anyone thinks that it is a matter of happenstance that the virus invaded our lives just as Great Lent began I would strongly beg to differ), where we are being shown our sins to a greater extent than perhaps ever before in our lifetimes, I think we can be confident that the Lord, to a greater extent than perhaps ever before in our lifetimes, is with us. Struggling alongside us. Strengthening us in the fight. Blessing our effort.

Let us thank the Lord for His mercy. We have been given a great gift even as we are suffering a great tribulation of the pandemic which besets us now. And this is always true of us Orthodox Christians. We see the glass as half full rather than half empty. We see and strive to see the silver lining in the cloud. We understand that there is a blessing in every difficulty. And that is true during this time of the coronavirus. There is always some good in any bad. And it seems that the potential good we are being given is this magnification of our temptations. Let us strive to make this good indeed. Let us strive to make this a blessing. Let us strive to thank God actively by fighting actively against the sins and temptations that are so clear to us (or would be so clear to us if we were paying attention) now. Let us be attentive to our spiritual lives! And if we make even a small effort – if we only take one tentative step towards enjoining the fight – we can have great hope that the Lord will be there with us: to help us, to bless us, and to guide us to the eventual victory. Perhaps this Great Lent is just the first in a series of battles against the sins that we are seeing clearly now for the first time. With God’s help we will win these battles. When we forget to ask God’s help, or when we pridefully get in God’s way as He tries to help us, we might lose a few battles. But if we entreat the Lord’s help zealously we WILL win the war. And the prize of that victory is great. It is the pearl of great price. It is salvation. May the Lord grant us the will to fight, the wisdom to entreat His aid in the battle, and the victory!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory

P.S. To help us in our struggle to obtain peace in this crisis the Patriarch and our Metropolitan have published instructional material for us. We include this here for your edification. Please take a few minutes to read these now.



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