Dear People of Holy Comforter,
What’s the Christian thing to do during a pandemic? Last week, we began this series by saying: We live in Christ and through Christ with the goal of becoming like Christ. Christ was inspired and guided by qualities of character called “virtues,” “habits of the heart.” “habits of grace” – things we do as a discipline until they become second nature, until they become our characters.
There are three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love. Those ways of being generate four cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice, 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. Last week we considered how the cardinal virtue of prudence (facing the facts/ living in the real world) can be practiced in the context of covid-19.
This week we turn to the cardinal virtue of fortitude. The core meaning of fortitude is courage, infused with strength and endurance. We may think of these qualities as more for action heroes than Christians who are supposed to be nice and perhaps a touch pusillanimous. But St. Clare of Assisi’s last blessing was, “Love without fear. Your creator has made you holy.” The commandment Jesus gave most often to his disciples was “Do not be afraid.” The Bible tells us not to be afraid 365 times. Living the Christian life, especially in challenging times, takes fortitude. Last week, we said Christians don’t live in denial or hysteria, we face reality. But reality can be threatening, so prudence takes some courage.
Fortitude isn’t being a swaggering tough guy whose life is all braggadocio. Quite the contrary, theologian Joseph Pieper says, “Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude . . . . To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. Indeed fortitude rules out . . . the sort of fearlessness that is based on a false appraisal and evaluation of reality.”[i] Prudence means recognizing and acknowledging our inner reality as well as our outer circumstances, and our inner reality includes some fear.
“Do not be afraid” does not mean “do not feel fear.” It means don’t live in your fear. Don’t believe your fears. Don’t let fear control your life. Have your fears; but don’t let them have you. As Nadia Bolz Webber put it in a recent covid-19 sermon, “Don’t let fear define the contours of you heart. Love does that.” I commend to your reading everything she has ever said about fear. For example, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2016/08/yeah-another-sermon-on-fear/
Nothing finally makes us safe. Fear decidedly does not keep us safe In fact, over time, anxiety increases our basic level of inflammation which may make us more susceptible to infection.[ii] And it makes us do stupid stuff that is bad for us and for others. Prudence makes us safer than foolishness. But fear does not keep us safe. It incarcerates us in small lives. Fortitude, with its roots in faith, hope, and love is essential to the life well lived.
So what about our fear right now in the midst of a pandemic? When we see fear running amok around us, it’s hard to tell what exactly people are afraid of. There are spasms of scarcity mentality manifesting as panic buying and hoarding on the one hand (toilet paper???) and as price gouging on the other. Gun and ammo sales are up dramatically.[iii] And there is wave of xenophobic racist violence against Asian-Americans.[iv] These experiences bear out the insights of scholars in fields from psychology to communications about how fear works in society. Fear is both dangerous and contagious. Fear of one thing gets generalized into fears of many things, and after the threat goes away, the fear remains. To be prudent in these times, we need to be as conscious of the dynamics of fear as we are of viruses; and we need to practice psychological hygiene.
“James Dillard of Penn State, an expert in communication, (observes): “Every time somebody mentions the coronavirus to you, you recall everything you read about it and the feelings you experienced at the time.” He says, “So your fear is triggered again.”
“Once the world feels like a dangerous place, where bad things can happen any moment, fear knows few limits.”
That’s problematic for several reasons. Chronic stress not only results in long-term health consequences, but it can prompt people to make unwise choices, such as buying up masks that health care workers need or making unnecessary visits to already-overburdened hospitals or clinics.
(F)ear spreads primarily through person-to-person contact — including in nonverbal ways. As a 2015 study reported, research has demonstrated that exposure to body odors from frightened individuals elicits fear in others. The smell of fear is a real phenomenon.
Today we have a much more efficient means of transmitting anxiety: social media. Jiyoung Lee, an assistant professor in the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences, has studied online emotional contagion. She argues virtual discussions with friends can be positive if accurate information is shared and people are reassured.”[v]
If you do not read or heed another word I say, read this article https://elemental.medium.com/how-to-manage-your-fear-during-the-coronavirus-9a7cdca13122 and read or listen to Nadia Bolz Weber’s sermons on fear.
So what are we afraid of? Death, illness, financial stress, loneliness, loss of the meaning we find in our daily activities? When the general spirit of fear is on the loose, it’s apt to infect us. To get our feet back on the ground and focus on our own fears instead of being caught up in the general panic, it helps to identify the threat and look it in the eye. This is the beginning of fortitude. Name the fear.
Then notice how it feels in your body. Do not identify with it or judge it as valid or invalid. Just let it be the feeling that it is and hold it as you might hold a frightened child. Let it be, but do not let it rule. Instead, remember that others are feeling fear too. Then pray for them and find some small act of kindness you can do, even at a safe distance, for somebody – a call, a note, order them something online, any act of kindness will do. St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Theresa both said we live our faith not in grandiose gestures but in “small acts done with great love.” The art of living fearlessly in a fearful time is to make our fear the occasion to practice love because our Bible teaches, “There is no room for fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.”[vi]
Let’s go a bit more deeply into a specific fear that confronts us right now – not so much fear of the virus as fear of the isolation we are experiencing. This is harder for the extroverts, but it is a challenge for all. It is particularly a challenge for those who live alone. Some of us may feel more challenged not by solitude but by feeling cooped up with those who are near and dear, but would be more dear if they were less near 24/7. But even that is a kind of solitude. When we are cut off from normal social channels, we can experience s solitude a’ deuxor even a quatre’. (There are other dimensions to the “cooped up” challenge, but they fall under the virtue of temperance. We’ll get there in a couple of weeks.)
In the 4th Century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers took up solitude as a spiritual practice. I tried it myself a few years back, spending a month in solitude in Southern Colorado. The hermits of old did not find peace and harmony in their hermitages. They were beset by an assortment of demons.[vii] It turns out solitude is a troubled land, as Jesus found during his 40 days in the desert. In a less dramatic way, that was my experience. All sorts of things I’d thought I’d escape were still there in my mind and they loomed larger.
In more ordinary times, we keep busy in part to avoid things we’d rather not face. In solitude they are unavoidable. All sorts of thoughts and feelings – shame, anger, remorse, regret, doubts, etc. – come to the fore of our consciousness like demons. If the solitude is imposed by circumstances instead of freely chosen, that can be all the more daunting. It takes a double dose of fortitude.
So what to do with inner turmoil in solitude? Remember your solitude is like the cave in Star Wars V. Luke goes into the cave, confronts what appears to be Darth Vader and decapitates him, but when he examines the head, he finds it is himself. We meet ourselves in solitude. Our first impulse may be to decapitate, amputate, judge, eradicate. Luke learned that does not work so well. So, try this instead.
The first step is to take on one demon at a time. Deal with what’s most pressing and put the others on the shelf with a promise to get back to them later. Then – again as with your fears -- name what is troubling you, notice how it feels in your body. Next recall the story of how it came to be. Journaling can help with this part. When did you first feel this way? Set the feeling in a narrative. That lends a coherence to the experience. You may discover parts of yourself that have been disowned, sent away like Ishmael. Then take it with you to Jesus in prayer. “Salvation” means to be made whole. You may come out of this time of solitude more whole than you went into it.
It can also help to check in with a trusted friend. And it’s good to keep in touch with your faith and the wider community of faith. You can find ways to do that on the Apart – Not Alone section of our web site. https://www.holycomforterchurch.net/apart-not-alone
I especially encourage you to join with our whole diocese in live stream worship at our Cathedral on Sunday mornings. (You’ll hear 3 of my 5 favorite preachers in Colorado. The other two are Mother Kim and Mother Weezie at Ascension.) https://www.facebook.com/sjcdenver/ You do not need to be a member on Facebook or be a part of their page to access it.
You are also connecting with us whenever you pray our common prayers. If you have a Book of Common Prayer, I suggest you go to the Daily Devotions pp. 136 ff or online https://www.bcponline.org. Most find strength in the 23rd Psalm. I recommend the First Song of Isaiah (Canticle 9) at BCP p. 86.
Virtues are for every day, but they are tested and most vigorously exercised in times of distress. For now, we practice a fortitude that makes room for some feelings of fear, a fortitude planted on the firm foundation of God.[viii
The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those who know your name trust in you,
for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.
Psalm 91: 9-10
[i] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues
[ii] “Unidisease” in Michael Kerr, Bowen Theory’s Secrets, pp. 297-321. https://www.amazon.com/Bowen-Theorys-Secrets-Revealing-Families/dp/0393708128/ref=sr_1_1?crid=11HZHA2S7LXTA&dchild=1&keywords=bowen+theory%27s+secrets+revealing+the+hidden+life+of+families&qid=1585252630&sprefix=Bowen+Their%2Caps%2C267&sr=8-1
[vi] I John 4: 18
[vii] Lives of the Desert Fathers https://www.amazon.com/Lives-Desert-Fathers-Monachorum-Cistercian/dp/0879079347