On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an unexplained pneumonia spreading rapidly in Wuhan, China. By the end of the month they specified the cause as the novel COVID-19 virus and announced a world health emergency. On March 11, 2020, they declared a pandemic. The world has been under siege from the virus ever since.
Every aspect of our life has changed: work, shopping, education, recreation and family life have all been affected. This pandemic has also affected the spiritual life of people of faith. Those who profess no religious belief have likewise found their human values challenged. Many feel isolated, despondent and adrift. Our society is marked with sharp divisions and conflicting attitudes, with uncivil discourse and destructive behavior. "The words of the mouth flow out of what fills the heart." (Lk 6:45)
This spiritual pandemic needs to be addressed and our hygienic safeguards offer a helpful analogy. We have adopted the wise precautions of frequent hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing.
Careful washing of our hands is a fundamental protection from the virus. Our hands are also symbolic of the moral dealings of our life. With our hands we give and we take. Our giving should be generous and our taking grateful. But too often our giving is reluctant, even resentful; and our taking unthankful, at times dishonest. Our hands can be soiled with more serious things than dirt and germs.
Masks prevent spreading a virus to others and personal protection from airborne germs. But more than such dangerous particles come from our mouths, and our lips can spread more than viral infection. Rumors, gossip, and harsh words can do damage greater than bodily harm. The letter of St. James reminds us that from the same mouth come blessings and curses; and the tongue is a fire which few can tame. (3:6ff)
We can also be hiding behind masks, presenting ourselves as other than we really are. Few of us reveal the real me. There are certainly times when privacy is demanded and personal information should not be shared. TMI! But honesty and truth in dealing with others are paramount for integrity. The harshest words from Christ were directed at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Social distancing prevents dangerous contact with the germs of others or spreading our own. In matters beyond the medical there are people from whom we should distance ourselves, but we can also shun those to whom we owe courtesy and even affection. We can live in our own little world, a bubble of selfishness.
Hand washing, masks, and social distancing are necessary precautions to halt this viral pandemic. The spiritual pandemic also infecting our world requires a serious reflection on the moral responsibility of how we use our hands, the masks we wear and the distance we create from others in our interpersonal life. A medical pandemic brings grave harm, a spiritual pandemic can do worse.
Fr. Earl Meyer
St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria, Kansas