I’ve been thinking more than usual about plagues. (Frankly, I’ve never really had cause to think about them before!) I’m pondering them today not only because of our current situation with this novel coronavirus epidemic, but also because Passover is fast approaching.
The Passover story, with its ten plagues, the plagues sent by God to win the freedom of the Israelites who’d been enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, was almost certainly not historical – at least not the plague part. But throughout the course of human civilization, human communities have been devastated by plagues and pandemics of various kinds. These epidemics have sometimes changed the course of human history. We are descended from those who survived the plagues of yesterday, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in the Americas, and throughout the world.
This morning, as I was perusing through some worship resources on the monthly theme of “liberation,” I came upon these words by the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who said:
“It is our attitude towards events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous – even death is terrible only if we fear it.”
His words are a good reminder that while we may not be able to free ourselves from our circumstances, there are still some things that do remain in our control. We can still meditate and pray and practice mindfulness and awareness. We can still practice being in the present moment and giving thanks for the good things that continue to bless our lives. We can still choose gratitude and compassion, curiosity and courage, kindness and generosity, creativity and hope, over fear.
Epictetus did not, as far as I can tell, live during an epidemic. But one of his students and fellow Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, most certainly did. Marcus is one of my favorite philosophers, one of my sources of strength and wisdom in times of uncertainty and challenge. He began his rule as Roman Emperor in 161, just before Rome was struck by the Antonine Plague in 165, a plague which took the lives of approximately 5 million people in and around Rome. Knowing that now (it hadn’t occurred to me before!) gives me pause as I re-read the words from his Meditations, words such as these:
“Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”
“For everything that exists is in a way the seed of what will be.”
It turns out, that Hafiz, the Sufi mystic poet and another of my favorite writers, also lived through a plague. Hafiz lived in Persia during the 14th century, from 1315 until 1390. It had never occurred to me before this morning that this was during the time of the Black Death, which struck Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1331-1353, taking the lives of up to 200 million people. The plague passed through Persia as early has the 1340’s, perhaps during the very time Hafiz was writing these words, which, coincidently, I also came upon this morning while reading worship resources on the monthly theme of “liberation:”
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”
My friends, I hope that you are faring well. I miss seeing you in person, but I continue to love seeing you virtually in worship and in our community check-in’s. I hope and pray that you are not living in fear, but in the better rooms of your own houses…rooms such as love, laughter, joy, gratitude, hope and courage!
May you be well.
May you stay safe.
May you know peace.