Our blogger cosiders ways that people have found to deal with spiritual and physical turmoil during times of war or pandemic. The icon above appeared at the Mirozh monastery in the year 1198. When a plague hit the city of Pskov during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, there were reports that the icon streamed myrrh from both eyes that healed many.
I’m part of an upcoming conference that has to do with Evil and Spiritual Combat in a Time of Pandemic, so I’ve been thinking about those things lately. I shuddered when I heard the words “evil” and “combat.” “Evil” struck me as archaic and overdrawn and “combat” as too militant.
But over the past weeks, keeping up with news, and reflecting on the COVID pandemic and racial turmoil that engulfs us, I’ve come around. Healings in times of persecution— healing diseases of the body and the dis-ease of the body politic— are fundamental to the mission of Christianity. Jesus himself was a healer, and learning about the Christian healers who engaged destructive forces down through the centuries is productive and enlightening.
Sts Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers, doctors, born in Arabia. They practiced their profession in the seaport of Aegeae, then in the Roman province of Syria. They followed the instruction Jesus gave to his twelve apostles: "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those suffering from leprosy, drive out devils. You received without charge, give without charge." (Matthew 10:8). Accepting no payment for their services led to them being named “Unmercenary.” In this painting you see angels beside them as they tend to a patient by transplanting the leg of a recently deceased man onto the patient. They were denounced under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their confession of the faith.
St.Thecla was a young woman when she heard St Paul preaching in her hometown. She was convinced. When her parents arranged for her to marry, she refused and followed Paul and the other missionaries. Roman authorities seized her two separate times, but she withstood their attempts to execute her: the fire’s flames did not touch her and the lions lay down peacefully at her side. She retreated to a rocky desert cave in the mountains near the town of Ma'aloula, Syria. Through her prayer, she converted many and gathered other women monastics around her. She counseled people and healed the sick, never asking for money. You see her here in Tiepolo's monumental altarpiece in the apse of the cathedral at Este, near Padua. The painting commemorates the devastating plague of 1630 with the citizens of Este praying for St. Thecla’s interecession. (The first-century saint can be seen among the victims, while the town is in the background.)
In the Gospel from last Sunday, at least in Eastern Orthodox parishes, Jesus drives the demons from the Gerasene strong man living naked in the caves. The story has echoes from this passage in Isaiah (65:4): “A people who ... sit among the graves, and spend the night in the tombs;
Who eat swine's flesh, and the broth of abominable things is in their vessel.” When the demons enter the pigs, who race off the cliff into the water, the man is cured. But when the townspeople see him sitting with Jesus “clothed and in his right mind” (Luke 8:35), they are afraid and drive him and Jesus out of town.
Sound familiar? Today we often hear of fervent community opposition to halfway houses for the mentally ill, recovering substance abusers, or ex-convicts. Just recently, people on the liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan protested when homeless people were given shelter in a neighborhood hotel during the COVID pandemic. It’s as though good, respectable citizens have to keep people who are sick or broken at arm’s length so we can be safe. As though, by projecting our inner turmoil on them, we are healthy.
Maybe we do not believe in demons today, but we know there are aerosolized strands of DNA (the novel coronavirus) that sicken and kills hundreds of thousands. We also hear vile language from our leaders exhorting us to hate and be violent. There are dark forces on the web filling it with “Bellicose chatter.” There has been a spike in gun sales. And we need to recognize and confront this. The struggle is real.
Judith Scott holds a master's degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary.