And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences (Lk. 21:11). In the Gospel “pestilences” (λοιμοὶ in Greek) are contagious diseases—that is, epidemics. Christ said that there will be pestilences, and they really do happen. They must happen. The Savior tried to make us understand that mass epidemics wouldn’t disappear after His first Coming. Neither would “earthquakes” (that is, natural disasters) and “famines” (social calamities). Such is the law of life outside Paradise. Since man infected the world by sin the world has infected mankind with viruses, microbes and malignant bacteria.
Epidemics, or large-scale ones called pandemics, are like COVID-19. Everybody is equally weak before a raging calamity. Kings and paupers, rich and poor equally flee from fires, are afraid of natural disasters and tremble at the contagiousness of deadly diseases.
William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died of bubonic plague at the age of eleven. Constantine Pavlovich, a younger brother of Emperor Alexander I, died of cholera. Celebrities and nobility, tsars and hierarch would die during epidemics. These sharp-toothed jaws have remained wide open, all-devouring and insatiable throughout the centuries.
There are ten diseases that developed into pandemics:
Flu (all its types)
And the present coronavirus disease—COVID-19.
Like the ten Plagues of Egypt, they disturb people, spreading anxiety and pain. The plagues come one after another, but none of them has been overcome entirely. Like waves of a raging sea, severe pestilences cover, “carry away” those on their way and then recede—only to return after a time. They have raged in all the centuries of our wretched history, although the force of the waves varies.
What is the source of pandemics?
Fears and uncertainty give rise to numerous theories in people’s minds: from a global government conspiracy to biological weapons that have allegedly gotten out of control. But in their origin, all pandemics have the same bitter source.
Diseases are a tribute to an imperfect and broken world. The ugly hard truth is that man has broken this world.
Man was ordained by God to cultivate and keep Paradise (cf. Gen. 2:15). Through man, creation was being spiritualized, the created was being united with the uncreated, earth was mingling with heaven, and the whole universe was being illuminated by the light of the Giver of life. But, paradoxically, he who was called to be the king behaved like a slave, a clown and a traitor. Instead of cultivating the Garden of Eden he cultivated pride in himself. Instead of preserving union with God and the harmony of creation, through it he treacherously came into contact with the fallen spirit. He let the serpent’s poison enter the pure world, and the whole creation was infected with sin.
Poor, poor man. You have lost and broken the gift of paradisal life just as someone carelessly drops and breaks a precious vessel given for safekeeping. Likewise, the paradisiacal world that was entrusted to the “crown of creation” was broken; the newly-created man at once turned his back on the Creator. Life and harmony reigned in the world as long as man—the crown of creation—participated in life. Falling away from life brought about diseases and death.
Sin caused the break, the imbalance and distortion in the world that had lived in the paradisiacal harmony. Preying on others, the frantic struggle for survival, devouring each other and feuding—this is what the world has been like since the loss of Paradise. After rejecting God, man subjected himself to laughably miserable, infinitesimal particles of the fallen world; he who was called to theosis was enslaved by microbes. Out of fear of death you have to study microscopic parasites, bacilli, virus strains and colon bacillus, and even have your own urine and feces analyzed because you refused to contemplate God, celestial purity, and become like angels.
Such is the law of life outside Paradise.
For our virus of deadly sins we have the virus of deadly diseases.
For the infection of the passions that eat at our souls we have infections that eat at the flesh.
For the contagion of self-complacency we have the contagion of maladies that deprive us of rest and comfort.
Pandemics are analogous to world wars with the only difference that here nature rebels against man. You have acted the predator—and the fallen world is paying you back. Nature has gotten out of control just as you ceased to obey the Creator. In some sense, the world avenges itself against man through pandemics for his damaging creation by sins and his perfidious relationship with the destroying devil.
The enormous catastrophe of the fall is reflected in every pandemic as in a mirror. The impotence of people in the face of every lethal pestilence is the image of the yawning abyss of sin—the alienation of man from God; and, therefore, suffering and death.
O man! Your heart has a thirst for life and happiness, but you are hurt by the thorns of miseries and suffering. Your spirit soars up to heaven, but the thorn of illness, thrust into your flesh, puts you in the place you deserve.
Thus human pride is suppressed, for this is how every idol is overthrown. The life of him who is called to be immortal has become miserable, like this microbe. Pandemics have shown how weak and feeble man is. But they have also revealed that there is no sense in living for the earth alone.
Don’t think that outside Paradise you will live a happy life without illness and death. Life outside Paradise is not life but the struggle for survival. After overcoming one disease we are sure to face a new and unknown one. After all, you can’t avoid God’s verdict: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19). You can’t prosper on an earth which Thorns… and thistles shall… bring forth to thee (Gen. 3:18) for your sins.
Diseases as part of Divine providence
What are diseases before the hand of God? Maladies are mere dust that is scattered with a wave of Christ’s robe. Christ saw Peter’s mother-in-law who was lying with fever, took her by the hand…, and immediate fever left her (Mk. 1:31). He commanded to the decaying corpse in the dark grave: Lazarus, come forth (Jn. 11:43)—and Lazarus came out of his tomb full of vigor and inspired for a new life. This is what diseases and death are before the hand of God! The touch of life is vivifying, and the touch of the Immortal One is healing.
But man values bread when there is no bread, and water when he is parched with thirst, and air when he is gasping for breath. Thus a sinful man begins to appreciate all of God’s things through deprivation—that is, through suffering.
Any deprivation is suffering. The loss of health is torment. For good health is inseparably linked to life. No one dies because his or her life has ended—people die because of their ruined health—its exhausted or destroyed resources. That is why everyone tries so hard to take care of his health—hence the indomitable craving for life in human beings. And even if someone neglects his health, ruining it by his unreasonable behavior, this is only because he naively believed that his health resources were inexhaustible.
The Lord only has to wave His hand for all pestilences to vanish and all human diseases to stop. But we are left with natural methods of struggle against diseases so that we can value all God’s things.
We are like Christ’s disciples in the boat with a heavy storm striking around them, while the Savior has supposedly left them, sleeping and not hearing them. Wouldn’t it be better for the Savior to keep vigil, protecting the sleep from any breath of wind, and for the disciples to sleep peacefully? No, carelessness kills people. What ruins us is not troubles and miseries but the sleep of our own souls, our obsession with comfort and prosperity, and lack of concern.
Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; then he forsook God Which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation (Deut. 32:15). Adam, who was pure from sin and had an untroubled life, died spiritually. How will we be saved, sinful and negligent?
Imagine that someone is only given money and given no job. What will become of his soul? A consumerist and carefree attitude towards life damages it. When you have everything but make no efforts, you are close to perdition. The wisdom of Divine providence, which is unfathomable for us, has revealed itself in the fact that despite the abundance of gifts of healing, our lot is to overcome hardships through a terrible struggle rather than receive miraculous good things from God with a complete lack of concern.
Christianity is not comfort
I will also express an idea, knowing full well that it won’t be accepted by everybody. Christianity is not comfort. Christianity can’t be comfortable. Christianity is confession and martyrdom, for it is about following Christ; and the path of Christ is that of the Cross.
When Christianity becomes comfortable, the Lord sends trials that crush comfort. The Savior addresses us: Sleep on now, and take your rest (Mk. 14:41). And we don’t know what to answer. We are used to freedom, to having everything and being allowed to do anything, when churches are open, our rights are protected, it is calm around and we even can sleep for a while. But the Lord allows a tempest for us to awaken.
Every storm brings us out of the usual and comfortable conditions of life. The church of God—the “chamber of Paradise”—is closed to us so that we can look at the Church, the Sacraments and our happy meeting with Christ in Eucharist from a different perspective. We cherish things that are returned to us with great difficulty as the apple of our eye. This applies to churches, good health and all that is made on earth.
We struggle against diseases as against giants. In the sweat of our brow we grow our bread, and we acquire good health through sweating blood. Giants are stronger than us. The lowly David defeated the proud giant Goliath. Throughout the centuries our victory over global pandemics was attained through incredible efforts and numerous losses so that we could learn to value our life given by God.
Having put up with merciless pandemics that recur every century, humanity gets an opportunity to win a victory over them. The Lord will certainly reveal the remedy for this new virus, too. And every time the methods of beating pandemics are the image of God’s blessing that opens the door of salvation to every painstaking, humble toiler.
This is how humility is cultivated. Thus we begin to value God’s gift of life, pining at the gift of immortality that we have lost owing to sin. Thus we come to understand that true life is not in battles, trenches or medical tents—that is mundane life. But there are abodes our souls long for, to which our Savior has paved the way by triumphing over death through His Resurrection.
But let us have a look at how Russia had already responded to pandemics and what it did to combat them. What lessons can we learn from it?
To be continued.