The combination of fear and ignorance typically leads to panic or hysteria, both extreme manifestations of overreacting. Rather than an individual overreacting, where the consequences are limited, collective overreacting has profound social, economic, and political effects. It’s why we expect statesman to exercise prudent and calm judgment, particularly during times of mass hysteria and media overplay. Those engaged in overreaction either don’t have decision-making authority, are incapable of looking at the
The thinking seems to be this: It was horrible in Wuhan, it is horrible in Lombardy, and horrible in some other country nobody gives a damn about. Therefore, when it happens to my town—and it’s when, not if—it will be equally horrible everywhere. And worse than horrible, because we are not as prepared or as willing to be as draconian as the Chinese. It isn’t horrible this moment, right now, here, but because it will be horrible means it is already horrible.
That seem a fair summary? One survey found “1 In 5 Americans Expect They’ll Be Diagnosed With Coronavirus“.
None of it is right.
In Wuhan itself, the City of Doom, some 2,446 souls departed their fleshly existence earlier than expected. Google tells us the city has between 11 and 19 million, depending on whether you count the entire metro area as “the city”.
The thing I’ve noticed after more than 30 years as a university chaplain is the tyranny of abstract ideas not only in academia but in society more broadly.
This make sense because, well, we educate our leaders in universities. Naturally then, whatever their profession or vocation, unless taught otherwise our leaders in church and society are as prone as their university educated peers to suffer under the tyranny of the abstract. Where I’m going with this is here.
We don’t have discipline over our imaginations. This makes us exceptionally vulnerable to the kind of fear and anxiety we’re seeing now.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prudent. It does mean, however, that we may confuse prudence with folly or recklessness. Without a disciplined imagination we are likely to think the best way to save the village is to bomb it.
Living in Madison has brought home to me how fragile is the American body politic. People here assume, for example, that I don’t want to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because I hate gay people. Those on the other side, assume that people who want me to bake the cake hate Christians.
Of course, I’m a priest and not a baker so the only cakes I bake are at home.
But disagreements about the prudence of public policies are taken as “proof” that the other side is evil. Living in a very socially and politically progressive city and writing for a conservative, free-market think tank has taught me the one thing that unites many people on both the Left and the Right is the frightening ease with which both assume the other side isn’t just wrong but evil.
And, of course, I see this tendency in myself.
Here’s what brought all this to mind (you can read the whole essay here):
The Democrats’ obsession with identity politics has colluded with Trump’s provocations to split Americans into polarized tribes—American versions of Croat and Serb, Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shi’ite, Hindu and Muslim. There seems no way to stop this. An infection—a kind of Ebola—has gotten into the American body politic. It’s the old fable about the scorpion that persuades a frog to give him a ride across the river—and then, in midstream, stings the frog, dooming them both: “What did you expect? I’m a scorpion.” In the 2020 version, the frog is America and both political parties, alas, are scorpions.
Sunday, April 7 (OS March 25), 2019: 4th Sunday of Lent; Sunday of St John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the Feast of the Holy Annunciation of the Theotokos; Martyr Victoria
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18/6:1-20
Gospel: Luke 1:24-34/Mark 9:17-31
Glory to Jesus Christ!
The hymnography for the Feast of the Annunciation includes a conversation between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel.
In response to Gabriel’s announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God, the Virgin Mary asks the angel as to how this is even possible: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
Though she doesn’t understand how God’s will for her is to be accomplished, in humility she accepts the divine will calling herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.”
The humility of her response, however, is not passive. Nor does it reflect a simplification of the complexity of God’s will for her life. Though she responds in a common-sense manner to the angel’s message—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?—the hymnography makes it clear that she is not naïve.
Immediately after raising the biological question, the hymnography tells us Mary turns to philosophy: “How shall I become the Mother of my Maker?’” How, in other words, will the creature conceive and contain in her womb the Creator?
Mary’s questions however are not merely speculative. She is motivated by a concern for the whole human family. She is aware that the last time an angel appeared to a virgin–the Serpent to Eve in the Garden–things ended badly for us.
As we reflect on the Virgin’s hesitancy we come to see that it reflects not a lack of faith on her part. Rather, she is moved by an abundance of charity. No matter how great the honor offered her, she doesn’t want to act impulsively; the reward is great but is great as well.
We can apply to Mary the Solomon’s description of the wise man:
The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Proverbs 14:15-16, NKJV).
Mary is no fool! She is wise and carefully thinks through the implications of her actions.
She reflects on the Angel’s greeting not only in light of Scripture but also science and philosophy. The Handmaiden of the Lord is obedient and charitable but also respectful of reason and what reason knows.
So what does all this mean for us?
In the Mother of God we see the harmony–the synergy–of faith and reason, of charity and prudence.
Faith without reason is mere fantasy even as reason without faith is idle speculation.
Likewise, charity needs prudence since without the ability to give practical expression to our concern for others we are left with mere sentimentality. As for prudence, without love it is cowardice.
When I violate the partnership between faith and reason or charity and prudence and I set the stage for violence. Violence not only in society but in the Church, the family and in our personal lives.
Sentimentality gives rise to violence because it demands recognition. For the one gripped by the passion of sentimentality, it isn’t enough that he feels happy or sad; others must join him in his feelings. And, if they don’t or won’t, they must be made to comply.
All this is so because once we break the inherent connection between faith and reason, between charity and prudence, we set ourselves adrift. We strip ourselves of everything except our current emotion or most recent thought or most pressing desire. We become slaves to our own thoughts, feelings, and desires.
In other words, faith without reason, charity without prudence, is precisely that from which God comes to save us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We see in the Mother of God an icon of the faithful, loving and rational disciple of Christ. In her faith and reason, charity and prudence are not only in harmony with each other but also at the service of the Gospel.
She is as well the icon of the Christian professional, the Christian scholar, the Christian scientist.
We see in her what it means to give ourselves wholly to Christ not only for our own sake but for the salvation of the world. And so we see in her both our vocation as disciples and apostles of Christ but also as citizens of a Republic.
May God through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos grant us a life faithful reason, rational faith, charitable prudence and prudent charity.
March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.
Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?
To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.
If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.
And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.
She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.
Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!
Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.
My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?
Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?
This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?
Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).
Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.
They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.
Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.
What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.
Read Mary’s vita and it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.
At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”
St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.
God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.
So what does this mean for us?
Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?
Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.
Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?
The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.
As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.
The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.
But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.
May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!