This past Friday, Governor Cuomo’s new COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in the state of New York. The state believes that the increase of cases is particular to certain areas of life: bars, restaurants, gyms, house parties. Because of the colder weather leading people to gather indoors, where the virus can spread more easily, the state decided to put the new restrictions in place to avoid a second wave. Throughout this pandemic, governments and individuals have been precise and firm in preventing exposures to the virus, willing to sacrifice many aspects of life for the sake of bodily well-being.
One of my favorite spiritual writers is St. Alphonsus Ligouri: bishop, theologian, philosopher, Patron Saint of Vocations, and a Doctor of the Church. A single line in his book, Preparation for Death: Considerations on Eternal Truths, gives a succinct, yet complete, summary of what we see during this global pandemic:
“When there is question of the body, men speak rationally; but when the soul is concerned, they speak like fools.”
This pandemic has shown that as a culture, we are spiritual fools.
To clarify, I am not saying that implementing health precautions to prevent a COVID-19 resurgence while reopening our society is necessarily wrong. However, the fact that corporeal well-being has received such an intense priority in our culture over that of the soul reflects a greater crisis. We are body and soul; physical health is an important and integral part of human life. However, our culture seems to be indifferent to the words of Christ:
“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10:28)
Corporeal well-being is important, but not of the highest importance. Illness ultimately is temporary. The secular world has pushed off eternal questions, only focusing on the reality of this life. This is a serious problem: living with corporeal well-being as our priority is a prescription for misery. Because secular culture is only concerned with the flesh, their only ultimate concern is, and can only be, the unavoidable reality of death (Romans 8:6). From this, the necessary reaction is chaos and fear. One doesn’t need to observe the current state of affairs for long to see the truth of that claim.
Many are beginning to realize that when we severely limit this life in the name of saving it, something about our human experience is undermined. Saving this life is not our ultimate purpose, it is impossible to do so. We are wired for something deeper in our human experience: eternity. The beauty of this life is our ability to freely work towards our ultimate purpose: the salvation of our soul, being unified with God – who is the source of all being. St. Alphonsus Ligouri says:
“The peace of a soul that is united with God surpasses all the pleasures that the senses and the world can give.”
We don’t need to, nor should we, disregard corporeal well-being. However, we need to realize that bodily health is ultimately meaningless when concern for our eternal souls is abandoned.
An active awareness in this life of eternal matters puts our corporeal struggles and joys in their proper perspective. The greatest possible danger is the destruction of our soul. While the virus can destroy the body, it cannot destroy the soul. A life of sin, which is contrary to our soul’s deepest desires, can. Sin “blinds the understanding, and deprives the soul of reason” (St. Alphonsus Liguori). While the secular culture may not grasp this reality, we people of faith do. We understand that “although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh” (2 Corithians 10:30).
We should use the experience of this pandemic for reflection: do we avoid the dangers of sin with the same intense effort that our culture avoids COVID-19? Do we avoid near occasions of sin as intensely as our culture avoids being exposed to the virus? Are we as persistent in going to confession to cleanse our soul as our culture is about using hand sanitizer? Are we ready to eliminate things from our life that make us sin as willingly as our culture eliminates things deemed to be COVID-19 risks? Are we more careful to not fall into mortal sin than our culture is with getting the virus?
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than the salvation of our souls. Getting into heaven is not a walk in the park, Christ makes it very clear that it is difficult to do so (Matthew 7:13-14). Ultimately, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “Sin, in its fullness, is the rejection of Christ.” The secular culture has gone above and beyond, sacrificing almost every aspect of life, for the sake of preventing exposure to COVID-19. We must recognize not only our ability, but that it can also be necessary for us to go to similar measures to avoid sin (Mark 9:43-45). We should tremble more at the possibility of falling into mortal sin over being infected with this virus. None of us are perfect, all of our souls need attention and care. Let’s have the same precision and intensity with our souls as we have with COVID-19: don’t be a spiritual fool.