On December 5th, the Eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, I fell ill quickly. Three days later I found out it was COVID-19. Despite my best efforts to mask, distance and limit being out the virus found me. At the time of writing this I am now two days feeling pretty good – Day 12 total of my time in quarantine in my attic. Fortunately I did not require hospitalization as so many have. It seems I was one of those who have whatever – gene? blood type? combination of factors we’re still learning about – that caused me to have what I can concur with others who describe being “the sickest I’ve ever been but the weirdest sick I’ve ever been”. It was enough to wipe me out for a week and a half but not enough to be hospitalized.
Needless to say – I do not recommend getting COVID.
In the parlance of John Green’s “Anthropocene Reviewed” I would give COVID-19 zero stars. I suppose on a different scale I might rate it higher just based on the fact that it ‘lived up to the hype’ – this was certainly no “just a flu” – but that seems far too morbid to even explore right now, considering the almost incomprehensible reality that as of the time of my writing this nearly 1.7 million people worldwide, 315,000 in the US alone have died of COVID, and the rates remain steadily high.
Of course, as an Orthodox Christian my faith tradition does bid me to consider the experience of being isolated for two weeks, too sick to do much for most of it, but stuck with plenty of time alone in contexts other than just the physical or temporal. Our rich history of monastics, hermits, and ascetics, along with a robust theology concerning the meaning of suffering supply ample subjects for contemplation while being, well… isolated… and sick.
I’m afraid for the most part I wasn’t a very pious patient. I did read a few things, which I will get to later, and I did have some reflections, which I will get to sooner. But for the most part I’m afraid I only had the bandwidth when not sleeping (covid brain is a real thing) to binge some Netflix and watch a lot of football (soccer). In my defense of the latter, Pope John Paul II did once say “Out of all the unimportant things football is the most important.” So perhaps I can receive some grace on that one.
But something that I have been reflecting on has less to do with dealing with finding meaning in personal suffering and more to do with finding meaning in bearing something that is deadly – to others. The night I got the notification of my diagnosis I had a flurry of emotions and thoughts. Among the most frightening realizations was that I likely exposed my wife and might have exposed my mother who lives with us. My wife has a lot of autoimmune issues and my mother is over 80. So there was a waiting game. My wife ended up testing negative a few days later and my mother has not had any symptoms. Thanks be to God. But it was frightening to think that I bore within myself something so deadly – potentially to the people closest to me. Then my mind went to the thousands dying every day, the hundreds of thousands hospitalized. In my body was the same death-dealing virus as had killed and severely wounded so many. It was a strange feeling.
In his epistle to the Romans Saint Paul says something that’s been rattling in my brain thinking about this. “What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). In context, St. Paul is writing about spiritual things – about sin – the “law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:23). But one thing that the Orthodox Tradition especially highlights is the connection between our spiritual lives and our physical lives – the eternal and the temporal.
Orthodoxy ferociously rejects dualism. The eastern Church invites one to consider an undivided life. So, sitting in isolation with a virus at war in my body is an invitation to consider the connection with the eternal ‘body’ the eternal ‘war’ at hand. Orthodoxy also rejects the extremes of determinism or randomness. It is not so much either “God sent this virus to teach a lesson” or “God has nothing to do with this virus – it’s all by chance”. Rather, there is sickness and death in this world – it is part of the disorder of things. It is connected to sin, but we are bid to not look elsewhere – to blame someone else for why – but to take the opportunity to look into oneself. No – it is not necessarily personal sin that caused me to get the virus even though I was careful. But having the virus is a chance for me to consider how my sin contributes to the disorder in the world and repent of it.
So, like the fact that the virus I have carried for these two weeks is not just a danger to me but to others the sin at work in me is much the same – even deadlier because it can deal blows that harm the soul. Just as my response to carrying this virus matters, and is a matter of life and death, so is my response to the sin I carry in me. You see, if I were to respond to having this virus with pride and vainglory, taking no precautions, choosing my own desires above my neighbor, then the death in me is passed on. However, if I ‘go to my cell’ do the ascetic work of isolation and care for my condition it is likely that others will be spared.
The strange thing about this virus is that we know that people can carry it without any symptoms, without even knowing it. We also know that this is why we are asked to have in mind this fact and are to take precautions like masking, distancing and doing without gatherings and activities we want to do for the sake of our neighbor – even if we don’t have it or know we have it! In the Orthodox Church our prayers of repentance always include the lines “for sins known and unknown – committed in knowledge or in ignorance.” In a way, we are called to proactively do the work of repentance knowing that we cannot even know the ways our thoughts or actions might add to the disorder, the sin, the death in the world. This is not some kind of self-flagellation it is an acknowledgment of reality – there is sin at work, in me and in the world – I may not know it acutely but I will ask God to forgive and guide me so that others are not harmed.
I mentioned earlier that I have read a few good things in the midst of this quarantine. A mentor of mine recently introduced my wife and I to the 17th Century French mystic Francois Fenelon. I appreciate Fenelon because much of his spiritual advice (collected in the excellent “The Complete Fenelon”) is directed towards people living in the world – to be specific he was among those who gave advice in the court of King Louis XIV. He is speaking to people no doubt faced with no shortage of examples of death at work in the world – including a series of “Great Plagues” that were part of the second great pandemic. Fenelon’s advice does not shy away from drawing his audience back into the work of the heart in order to be able to face the world in a healing way. There are many great sections that have brought comfort (even if sometimes with a hard word) to me in the evenings I was awake. But I will conclude with a short passage concerning redeeming the time – a concept that is central also in the Orthodox Church – what we do with the time we have, with the circumstances we face, namely by first dealing with the death at work in our own heart, is precisely how the temporal can be made eternal, the physical and spiritual become undivided, the healing of this body of death can occur.
“All our heart and all our time are not too much to give to God. He gave them to us only to serve and love Him. So let us not hold anything back from Him. We cannot be doing great things all the time, but we can do the things that are suitable to our condition in life. We are already doing a great deal if we hold our tongues, suffer, and pray when we cannot do something outwardly. To offer up to God each mishap, setback, complaint, or confusion; to comfort a sick person, encourage a downcast soul, prevent suffering at its onset, teach a person who needs instruction, or soften the heart of someone who is bitter – all these things serve to redeem eternity through the good use of our time.” – Francois Fenelon
Sincerely praying you and yours are staying healthy and safe. Friends, please do work to redeem this time where there is much sickness and death around us by caring for your neighbor by masking, distancing and making the sacrifices of not gathering, as hard as that is. Praying that God meet you in the midst of the struggles you face and bring you His peace.