I begin with a quote that has been circulating on social media:
O proud man, if only your guardian angel would somehow remove the veil from your eyes and show you the endless open sea of all that you do not know. You would kneel before every man before whom you have exhibited pride and kneel before every man whom you have belittled. You would cry out lamenting: “Forgive me, forgive me! I do not know anything!”St. Nikolaj Velimirović, Prologue of Ohrid
These lines really spoke to me. Partially it’s the pandemic: we all feel like we know so little about this disease, exactly how lethal it is, whether or not it’s safe to go to the grocery store, why some become severely ill while others barely register a sniffle, when this will all end, &c. I’m overwhelmed by how little I know, how little I understand of the world around me. But this crisis is an opportunity for me to cleanse myself of my pride, my belief in my own understanding.
Before sharing this quote, I did a little research on St. Nikolaj Velimirović, who lived a remarkable life. He was born in Serbia and educated in Russia. He became a monk at age 28, after nearly dying of dysentery. He traveled throughout Europe and North America as a missionary and teacher. During the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, Nikolaj saved a Jewish family from persecution, hiding them in his monastery and eventually helping them flee the Reich. (This despite the fact that he sympathized with Serbian fascists and was, personally, quite antisemitic—alas, none of our saints are perfect.) Nikolaj was eventually transported to the Dachau concentration camp and imprisoned with highly-valued political prisoners, dubbed “detainees of honor” (Ehrenhäftlinge) by the Nazis, a dubious distinction. He survived the Nazi years and eventually immigrated to the United States, where he died. His remains were returned to Serbia after the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991.
While reading about Nikolaj, I came across this blog post from earlier this year by the St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk. The post quotes from a letter Nikolaj wrote in 1929, after the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression:
You are asking me, man of God, about the reason and meaning of the present crisis. Who am I that you ask me about this great mystery? “Speak if you have something greater than silence,” said St. Gregory the Theologian. And although I find that presently silence is higher than any word, I will, out of love for you, write what I think about this question.
“Crisis” is a Greek word, and in translation it means “judgment”. In the Holy Scripture the word “judgment” is used many times. We read in the Psalms, “Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment” (Ps. 1:5). Later again, “I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing“. (Ps. 101:1). The wise king Solomon writes that the judgment will come to everyone from the Lord (Proverbs 29:26). The Savior himself said, “For the Father judges no man, but has committed all judgment unto the Son.” (John 5:22). The Apostle Peter writes, “For the time is come that judgment must begin in the house of God” (1 Pet. 4:17).
Replace the word “judgment” with the word “crisis” and read, “I will sing of mercy and crisis”, “Crisis will come to everyone from the Lord”, “The Father committed all crisis unto the Son”, “For the time is come that crisis must begin in the house of God”.
Nikolaj observed that “previously the Europeans, when some trouble befell them, used the word judgment instead of the word crisis. These days the word judgment is replaced with the word crisis, a clear word with one less clear.” Nikolaj preferred to view the 1929 crash as a judgment from God, rather than a crisis. He interpreted the economic crisis as a product of our failure to live according to the laws of God. He wished we would speak of judgments, not crises. But I actually like the modern reversal, the replacement of judgment with crisis. I like reading those verses with the word crisis: “I will sing of mercy and crisis.” “Crisis will come to everyone from the Lord.” This illuminates something powerful in the text. We can see crises as both inevitable and less arbitrary.
Is God judging the world in the present crises? Is this plague a punishment cast on humankind for its betrayal of God? I don’t believe there are simple answers to that question. I believe all things happen according to God’s judgment, and we choose to perceive them as either good or bad, as generous or harsh, as deserved or undeserved. There is no universal interpretation of any single event; we cannot reduce any one event to a single, unified message from God. The present crisis will mean different things to different people. This is not shallow relativism, but rather a testament to the complexity of God’s relationship with us. I am certain, however, that this crisis/judgment will be edifying to those who allow it to edify them. We should welcome this crisis, or any crisis, as an opportunity to grow, to fight, to put the militant in “Church Militant.”
God’s judgment also reveals truth. This plague will expose both tremendous good and tremendous evil—it has already exposed the many people in our society, including many of our leaders, who are willing to sacrifice the lives of others in order to protect their own wealth. This is important knowledge. God sent the prophet Nathan and a lethal illness to David’s house, to expose David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Likewise, this pandemic has exposed rampant greed and selfishness. In my own life, this crisis has revealed my pride. I pretend to know so much, when in fact I know nothing. I hope this crisis will strip away these sins.
Am I saying that people deserve to die in order to teach us a lesson? No, absolutely not. We cannot fully understand why God allows such natural disasters to happen, why God allows blind, dumb, innocent nature to kill so many (though on the subject of theodicy, or the problem of evil, I recommend David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea). We cannot know the mind of God. But we can trust that His judgment, we can trust that this crisis, can have meaning. It’s up to us, however, to find that meaning.