Wednesday, April 8, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter,  

       Again, we ask, what’s the Christian thing to do during and after a pandemic? We began this series by saying: we live in Christ and through Christ with the goal of becoming like Christ. Jesus was inspired and guided by qualities of character called “virtues,”  “habits of the heart” – things we do as a discipline until they become second nature, until they become our characters. 
 The three theological virtues are 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. In the previous pastoral letters, we considered how the cardinal virtues of prudence (facing the facts/ living in the real world), fortitude (courage infused with strength and endurance), and justice (treating people as if they matter) can be practiced in the context of covid-19. Remember the virtues are connected. Each depends on the practice of the other three. A virtuous character has to be balanced and inter-related. 
     This week we turn to the cardinal virtue of temperance, a moderation in our cravings, aversions, and passions. Thomas Aquinas called it “serenity of spirit.” The Biblical term is usually translated as “steadfastness” or “self-control.” Temperance isn’t an absence of irritation or other bothersome feelings. It isn’t about what feelings come. It’s about what we do with them. We tend to latch onto a passing feeling and turn it into a mood or even an attitude. Oddly, the more unpleasant a feeling is, the more likely we are to try to stir it up and generate thoughts, arguments, and imaginings to show this feeling is right. But feelings are not right or wrong. They are feelings, a legitimate part of life experience, but not to be confused with truths.
     A major life disruption like this shutdown is bound to stir up some problematic feelings and confront us with existing problematic feelings we might otherwise avoid through work and social interaction. Anxiety about the real danger posed by a pandemic is a difficult feeling to manage. Then there is the financial stress caused by slamming the brakes on the economy. 
     These feelings are problematic inside our own individual minds and bodies, and they reach outward politically with implications for justice. Recessions almost always lead to the rise of political extremism as happened after “the Great Recession” of 2008.[i] In Our Political Nature, Avi Tuschman observes that economic crises are followed by populist extreme movements that can be either left-wing or right-wing (or both at once) and do not correlate to the self-interest of the extremists.[ii] It’s a reactive fear spasm, not a thought out policy, but its consequences can be real. 
     Such political extremism expresses on a societal level what is happening in our personal lives. Dr. Sandro Galea of Boston University School of Public Health says, based on the fallout from other social disruptions, we can expect the coronavirus pandemic to leave lasting mental health wounds for years to come.[iii] The recent stampede to buy guns and ammunition is both a concern for future gun violence and symptomatic of surging fear-based hostility.[iv]
     Faith is considerably more than a political agenda or a mental health aid. But faith does have political and mental health implications. Faith applies to every aspect of our lives. Temperance is the point at which faith flows out from belief that God is the first and the final word (the Alpha and the Omega) into how we manage our own cravings, aversions, and passions. Self-control is crucial to Christian living. 
“(A)dd to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance . . . .” 2 Peter 1:5

“(T)he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentlenessand self-control.” Galatians 5: 22-23

“Be sober-minded. Be watchful.” 1 Peter 5: 8

“A person without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Proverbs 25: 28

     Perhaps because of the various religious movements starting with the Great Awakening that have linked our faith to exuberance and passions, we don’t associate Christianity with serenity, moderation, and self-control. Those terms conjure up the image of various Eastern religions instead. But from the beginning, Christianity has included the practice of setting human emotions in the context of faith and expressing that faith by balance in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

     Christianity did not invent temperance. It was there in Judaism and in the values of Roman civilization in which Christianity took form. So it’s fair to draw on a pagan source (though not one always friendly to Christians), Marcus Aurelius.[v] Here are seven practical pointers from that philosopher king of Ancient Rome to help with our practice of temperance:

     “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.
     The needs of a happy life are few.
     You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.
     The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
     Waste no more time arguing what a good person should be. Be one.
     Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
     Understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it then to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone and never in your power again.”

The Mind Café blog elaborates on these 7 quotes to apply them specifically to the coronavirus context.[vi]Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is a more directly Christian source on prudence: 

“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference. 
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.”
     Living out of this prayer, living the life of prudence, can make all the difference for how we experience this crisis, and even more importantly, how we live on beyond it. Temperance expresses prudence, seeing things as they are rather than how we wish they were or are afraid they might be. It is an aid to fortitude, the courage we need to live in this world, which is full of challenges, always has been, always will be. Temperance matters not only for our individual peace of mind but also for the common good enabling us to practice justice even in the face of injustice. Most importantly, temperance is the practical application of our faith that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the only foundation of lasting happiness in Christ. 
Blessings always,
Bishop Dan

[iii] We found that the prevalence of depression and PTSD among populations after collective actions like protests and riots is comparable to levels experienced after natural disasters and terrorist attacks. This was the case for populations directly and indirectly affected by such events, suggesting a “spillover effect,” as anxiety over a disruptive event ripp through communities. We see similar effects after natural disasters, where mental health consequences can include depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders

[v] Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher. Stoicism isn’t just keeping a stiff upper lip. It is grounded in a worldview that influenced Christianity, particularly St. John the Evangelist. Stoicism saw the world as operating within a divine order called “the Logos”(as in logic). John’s Gospel starts, “In the beginning was the Logos” (translated as Word) and associates the Logos with Jesus Christ. In his Confessions, St. Augustine identifies Christ with the “First Principle” or order through which God created the world. 
[vi] Another blogger uses 7 different Marcus Aurelius quotes for difficult times in general. I don’t take them all as gospel, but they are worth reading and we can glean something of value from them. Nothing true is foreign to Christ.