*Written during the COVID-19 pandemic.*
Christ is risen!
A passage of Scripture that has often come to mind the past week or so is St. Paul’s exhortation on contentment. Thanking the Philippians for remembering his needs–perhaps through sending supplies or monetary contributions–St. Paul points out that even in times when his earthly needs haven’t been met, he knows how to be satisfied:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. (Phil. 4:11-13)
St. Paul is saying that he has acquired the ability to stay calm and fulfilled in whatever situation he happens to find himself in.
St. John Chrysostom, in his Homily 15 on Philippians, points out that this is no easy task. Learning contentment, he writes, “is an object of discipline, and exercise, and care, for it is not easy to attain, but very difficult, and a new thing.”
The passage from St. Paul concludes with a famous proclamation (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”), which is often treated as a mantra to “psych ourselves up” before some concerted action. About to take a difficult test? Run a long-distance race? Say goodbye to a dying parent? Cook a meal when you don’t feel like it and all the restaurants are closed because of COVID-19? Don’t worry: you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!
But in the context, this proclamation is less a rallying cry and more a reminder that the hardest act of all is to learn contentment–harder than running a marathon or even losing a parent–and we can only acquire this virtue through the strength of Christ within us.
As I reflect on these verses about contentment, I hear echoes of the well-known “time for everything” passage in Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. . .
He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecc. 3: 1-5, 11)
It’s almost as though St. Paul is saying that he has not only learned to be content in whatever situation he is in, but whatever time he is in as well–whether in a season of want or plenty, of persecution or prosperity, sickness or health. That, through disciplining himself for contentment, these times–all of them–become beautiful.
To see oneself as content with a particular time or season is in some ways more difficult than simply being content with the situation itself. It confronts us with the real possibility that the situation is not momentary but may endure longer than our perceived ability to tolerate it.
Making things all the more vexing is that it’s often difficult to discern what time or season we are actually in.
Take our current “time,” for example: the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us have been living under some form of shelter-at-home policy for some 5-7 weeks at this point. I think, at the beginning of this season, it was a little clearer to sense what kind of time we were in. We were in a time of pandemic, of sickness, of crisis; a time of wilderness that meaningfully coincided with the wilderness of Great Lent; it was not a time to embrace, but a time to “refrain from embracing,” to borrow the phrase from Ecclesiastes. There was a clarity, a kind of intense focus.
As the weeks have gone on, as Lent has blossomed into Pascha, as the economy has bottomed out, as some locales have fared better than others with regard to the surge of illness, as some US states have begun to “re-open” (some of them against the recommendations of health officials), that clarity has become blurred around the edges. What time is it? Hard to say.
We are clearly not (yet) in a time of triumph or a return-to-normalcy (or even a return-to-new-normalcy), yet neither are we in as dire a time as we were a month or two ago, before any social distancing measures were in place. We are suspended in some middle time between all the other, more distinct times.
The ability to accept ambiguity without forcing it into an either-or category is said to be a sign of sanity.
Yet our minds eschew the grayness of unknown, preferring instead to carve it up into distinct blocks of black-and-white certainty, whether by despairing, avoiding, blaming, judging, assuming, or simply massaging our own self-delusion into an artifice of confidence that suits our beliefs of what reality should be like.
It is tempting to take this mysterious, middle time, and pixelate it into focal points of either judgment, blindness, apathy, or despair. It is tempting to blame models or people or ethnicities or doctors or policy makers; to throw our hands up in the air and say “screw it, this is getting too complicated”; to pretend things are fine and insist things just go back to normal; to preemptively despair over an economy or a constitution or a way of life that has supposedly been flushed down the toilet; to regard the time before as “good” and the time now as “bad”; to eschew any lessons we may be able to learn right now, as individuals or as a society; or to otherwise assume the worst in others, in leaders, in their motivations, in the liberals, in the conservatives, in our circumstances, in God, in ourselves, in the Church–anything to force some certainty onto whatever the heck is even going on right now.
But there is a cost to certainty, especially the kind of certainty that is wrought from our own hands as mortal human beings.
Perhaps this nebulous, hard-to-define time is precisely where we can begin treading that difficult path toward contentment.
I do not know how long my area will be out of commission, I do not know what the absolute best way to move forward from this pandemic is, I do not know what the fatality rate of COVID-19 is down to the tenth or hundredth decimal place, I do not know what the ultimate effect of this will be on people’s lives and livelihoods, I do not know how it will feel to re-enter public spaces with others, I do not know what the next 3, 4, 6, 12, 18 months will bring.
There is so much I do not know. Can I be content with the not knowing? I don’t even know the answer to that!
Can I be content for no other reason–for no other promise, past, present, or future–other than the gift of Christ’s suffering and resurrection? Can I step into the not-knowing as a willing, satisfied participant?
Probably not, at least not alone. But I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.