Sunday, March 22, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter,

     What’s the Christian thing to do during a pandemic? The Bible isn’t very precise on the subject. Christian history is a little more helpful. Our defining moment was Galen’s Plague (165 – 180 AD). In that case, the wealthy pagans socially distanced by fleeing to their country estates and abandoning the sick and the dying in the cities, but Christians stayed to care for the sick and bury the dead. The situations are different, so an exact replication of what the Christians did then is not necessarily our answer. But the morality out of which they acted should be our guide.
     Christians are not defined by a rule book. We live in Christ and through Christ with the goal of becoming like Christ. Christ was not shackled by rules. Rather, he was inspired and guided by qualities of character called “virtues.” Virtues have been called “habits of the heart.” Bishop Curry calls them “habits of grace” – things we do as a discipline until they become second nature, until they become our characters. 
        Christianity has an expansive list of virtues; but there are seven big ones: first, the familiar theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – “and the greatest of these is love,” Paul says.[i] The core of the gospel message seen in the example of Jesus and the teachings of Paul is just this: What matters is not how long we live but how well we live. A good life is lived out of an open heart. Love is what opens the heart. 
        But love isn’t a feeling. It’s a way of life, a habit of the heart. It lives and acts through other virtues– and the four cardinal ones are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They are “cardinal” because they are the foundations for all the other qualities of character, the trunk from which other virtues are branches. The cardinal virtues are the backbone of our morality. Christians did not invent or even discover them. They came to us from Plato via Cicero, but we baptized them and wove them into our system of morality. 
      In this time when there is much good and civic minded behavior but also denial, panic, hoarding, and cynicism, we may be more morally threatened by our fear-based reaction to Covid-19 than we are physically endangered by the virus itself. On the other hand, this may be precisely the kind of challenge that can ennoble our lives. We could come out of this a worse people or a better one. This may seem perverse, but we just re-watched the movie “Contagion,” the star studded story of a pandemic more lethal than Covid-19. It is melodramatic, but with a purpose. We see some people behaving extra well and others, extra badly. It’s a caricature of what we see today. A health crisis does two moral things: it exposes who we are, and it offers us the opportunity to become better -- or worse. 
       This week, let’s consider prudence – called “the mother of virtues” because without it, the others are impossible. Common parlance associates prudence with caution. But the dictionary definition is “wise in practical affairs.” In moral theology, prudence is facing the facts, getting real, not letting our feelings or anyone else’s hype carry us away. Prudence has been defined as “the knowledge of reality.” But it isn’t just knowing. “This knowledge of reality must be transformed into the prudent decision.”[ii] Prudence is seeing things clearly as they are and acting sensibly in light of the concrete reality. Buddhists call it the practice of “right action.”
Prudence largely resides in our frontal lobes. A lot of feelings surge in our amygdalas, particularly fight/flight responses. That’s a natural response to some situations, but the problem is that when the amygdala takes charge, we generate thoughts or latch onto messages to support those racing feelings. Those thoughts and messages are not necessarily true. Prudence does not deny our feelings, but it does keep them from running away with us. It is the ability to respond rationally instead of reacting emotionally. 
        There is a sub-category, a derivative virtue, of prudence that is particularly important for us right now – solertia in the LatinWe translate it “shrewdness” which does not mean being sneaky.[iii] In moral theology, it means:
     a perfected ability, by which a (person) 
     when confronted with a sudden event, does not 
     close his eyes by reflex and then blindly, 
      though perhaps boisterously, take random action. 
     Rather with the aid of “solertia,” (shrewdness) he 
     can swiftly but with open eyes and clear sighted 
     vision decide for the good avoiding the pitfalls 
     of injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.[iv]

        Shrewdness is a mix of facing the facts, nimbleness to adapt to the new challenge, and common sense. The best expression of shrewdness I know is the late Kenny Rogers’s hit, The Gambler.[v]        
       Now for every virtue there is an opposing trait called a “vice.” Forget Miami Vice and Vice Squad. In moral theology a vice is simple the opposite of a virtue, a bad habit of the heart, a habit of disgrace. But the vice of  imprudence forks into two forms. The first fork of imprudence is denial. We are still hearing a lot of denial, even from our governmental leaders. We hear people refusing to face the challenge by calling it a hoax. But people are undeniably sick and some of have undeniably died. A lot of people are out of work. The pandemic is real, and the prudent person acknowledges it. The shrewd person finds smart ways to deal with.
     The other fork of imprudence is hysteria. This is the Chicken Little phenomenon.[vi] We listen to unreliable fearmongers spreading the contagion of panic. For example, consider how lethal the coronavirus is. According to, it is 35 times as lethal as flu; the Washington Examiner says 20 times; the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease says 10 times. But Kaiser Permanente puts it in context: the mortality rate from flu is a little under 1%; for coronavirus, it is probably 2-3%; compare to SARS which is 10% and MERS which is 35%.[vii] Bottom line: Covid-19 is serious. It’s dangerous. Precautions are prudent. But it isn’t Armageddon. There is a strong argument that our exaggerated fear of the virus poses a greater threat to our personal and social well-being than does the virus.[viii] We are actually physically safer if we take precautions but get a grip on our thoughts so that they don’t exacerbate our fear. 
       For now, it is enough to say that neither denial nor hysteria face the facts. Nor does either equip us to swiftly but with open eyes and clear sighted vision decide for the good avoiding the pitfalls of injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.[ix] The cardinal virtues are interdependent, so prudence is the foundation, but takes a smattering of fortitude to dare to face the truth. And both are rooted in the Psalm 23 kind of faith in God.[x]
        Next week, we will look more closely at fortitude or courage. But for now, I commend to you the virtue of prudence, seeing things as they are and taking appropriate common sense action. You will continue to hear conspiracy theories of both denial and hysteria. The most recent I have heard is that the President is a closet leftist and has himself concocted and spread the virus to wipe out Boomers and hand the country over to the Bernie Sanders boomers. The human imagination is limitless, for good and for ill. Prudence is settling down, getting real, and acting sensibly.
       So, here’s what this is all about. The pandemic is a moral test that shows us who we already are, what sort of stuff we are made of. It is also a moral exercise in which we have the opportunity to grow in Christ and through Christ into the likeness of Christ. We do that by practicing the virtues that constituted Jesus as the Christ. For today, let’s start by saying Jesus was nobody’s fool. He didn’t deny reality. Nor did he freak out. Jesus walked the earth, his feet on the ground, saw things as they are and reacted accordingly.  
       As Christians, we are called to do likewise. WWJD. You know the agreed precautions. But the key thing for us is why we take precautions. It is not to save our own hide. It is an act of compassion for others. The main risk posed by the virus is that it will overwhelm our health care capacities so that people who could survive will not because they do not get proper care. We are nowhere near that now. But we could well be very soon if we do not “flatten the curve” by taking precautions. As the Christians served those afflicted by Galen’s Plague in the 2nd Century, we serve the sick and those “at risk” by taking the precautions prescribed by the CDC. Remember a good life is lived from an open heart. Fear closes the heart. Love opens it. 

        So, when you feel afraid, try this nifty little spiritual aikido move. Feel your fear, but then remember the fear of others, remember those who are sick, those who are bereaved, those who are out of work, those living on the streets. Let your fear become the starting point of compassion. Pray for them. Here’s a litany you might use. Then do something kind. Call someone. Send them a note. Make a gift to the food banks that are under strain. This is a time of trial but also a time to grow into the likeness of Christ by practicing his virtues. 

Blessings always, 
Bishop Dan

[i] I Corinthians 13: 13
[ii] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues
[iii] It’s the more literal meaning of the Biblical Hebrew word hachma which we translate as wisdom.
[iv] Pieper, supra.
[ix] The vices opposite to the other cardinal virtues, fortitude, justice, and temperance.