It is said that the alchemists of old worked feverishly for their one desire—to transubstantiate normal metal into gold. They wanted to turn something base, common copper or aluminum into the most perfect of metals—AU. Alchemy the prototype of chemistry is science infused with faith. An alchemist takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Setting aside the connections alchemy has had with the dark arts, it is the intermingling of philosophy, perseverance, and knowledge that makes alchemy the art of science. The alchemist’s quest is to find just that—the mystery that turns something like urine into phosphorus (apparently that’s how the flammable element was discovered, thanks to Hennig Brand), to take the shit and make it into light. The stuff of the universe, they claimed, is all the same; it’s all about transforming it so that in an effort of combination, creation, transfiguration what was once ordinary becomes extraordinary.
This is a fitting metaphor for faith. Is it not a person’s deep faith that transforms a dull and ordinary life into a hero story? Is not faith the stuff that can supercede the natural laws of science to defy set chemical processes? The Bible is full of stories that defy natural law: a body dead and decomposing for three days comes to life again, a weighted body floats on the surface of the water, a bushel of five loaves and three fish multiplies to feed thousands, a star appears long enough to act as a GPS for astrologers/astronomers to arrive after a two year’s journey to a stable. Yes, there will be those of rational mind who shoo these myths and make them stories for strained hearts. It would seem that the more knowledge of science in the world the less room for faith, as if the ring of knowledge has corralled the Almighty into a corner of the universe, where curious passersby can drop in and feed a carrot or some corn pellets.
Indeed, in the 21st century, it would seem it is the fool that believes in God and not like King David says, “It is the fool that says in his heart there is no God.” In this present, the virus has pitted faith against reason in a most critical way. Nature, the scientist says, is the process of the Almighty. Only man in his vanity believes he can live forever, a pastor’s son told me on a lunch break. When every other creature, from amoeba to blue whale is prone to corruption and death, why does man feel he is so special? There is no after life. The stuff of life transforms from conscious to unconscious, from breath to un-breath.
Especially in the present this virus has pitted faith against reason in a most sinister way. The faithful cry that this is a consequence of humanity’s apostasy, a plague brought on to punish a wayward nation by the likes of Egypt. The faithful walk by faith. They trust in God’s Providence and believe that His divine energies protect their places of worship so that no plagues can enter. They continue with their traditions of kissing icons and taking Holy Communion from a communal cup. It is their faith, they say, that imbues them with life and salvation. They do not fear death because if it is part of God’s plan for humanity, so be it. God surpasses nature. It is an instrument of His will and under His control, not the other way around.
Yet, some pause. I have seen so much schism in congregations pitting those with radical faith against those who chose to follow reason, or at least the state authorities. Monasteries have been shut up. “We have to acknowledge that humans are made of flesh and body,” a priest in Pennsylavia explained to me. “We have to protect the body as it is the temple of God and it would be a sin to subject it to disease.” Some other churches see congregants taking communion from individual spoons and separate Dixie cups. Those of radical faith tear their clothes and pull their beards saying “anathema. Where is your faith?”
So which do we follow? Reasonable caution and respect for the safety of the body or radical faith that God’s energies and Providence will protect us as His will is above natural law?
This virus has become the keenest test of faith perhaps since the beginning of Christianity. This virus forces us to look deeply into our faith to see its mettle. Do we believe wholeheartedly even in the face of clear evidence that this is a very contagious virus that can kill? Or do we turn lukewarm and abandon our beliefs and sacred practices, the central of which is Holy Communion, and bow to science and common sense?
A recent NY Times article brought the issue to a wider audience. It pointed out that criticism has come within the ranks of the Church of Greece as to how it has handled the pandemic, especially for those clerics who have not followed the rules. Those same clerics who defied social distancing orders wound up contracting the virus and dying. Some clerics have called their fellows “criminals” and irresponsible for not urging congregants to stay away. It is the type of division that wracked the Orthodox faith during Byzantine times, the iconoclast controversy.
So, how do we broach the clear and present danger of dying from a pandemic with our deeply seated faith that God is above all things natural? It is time for all good Orthodox to examine their souls and for each to come to their own conclusion. This watershed moment will separate the chafe from the wheat—those who believe superficially from those who have a deeper radical faith. It is a polarizing issue.
As for myself, I do not deny that this is a natural phenomenon with dire consequences; it is not uncommon for plagues to hit humanity throughout history. I wear a mask and keep my 6 feet of distance with other faithful in the temple. Yet I do believe in God’s Providence and power over nature; if God allows a virus to take thousands, it is His Will. If He wishes to protect others who seek out His mercy, He will. There have been medical miracles and other supernatural events that do defy natural law.
A case in point is Oberammergau. During the height of the Black Plague, this German village came together and prayed and made a vow with God that if He should deliver them from the plague they would carry on a Passion Play in which all members of the village take part every ten years. From the legend based on oral history, it seems that not a single villager fell victim to the plague.(The scientific truth is a different–the plague followed a natural curve and did not end abruptly.) Every decade from that time in 1634 Oberammergau puts on a play narrating the events in the life of Christ. Ironically, this year 2020 was supposed to be the year of the play. The town decided to postpone it until 2022 when hopefully the virus will have died down. (Does this not break their promise to God in a way? Does their break with this tradition on this very momentous year not belie an apostasy of faith and a couching with scientific reason? Or does it present a reasoned approach to the realities of a pandemic?)
As for myself,I will take part in the Holy Mysteries and take Holy Communion, because that is at the core of my faith. I cannot call myself a Christian and not take the Holy Body and Blood of Christ at the time I most need it because I fear I might die. That would be sacrilege. But I am not going to be irresponsible and foolhardy by going around without a mask and not isolating in my everyday life.
One thing for sure is that the virus has divided the Church from within. The issue of this virus will separate the wheat from the chaff–those who believe in natural consequences and those those who believe with radical faith. It has the likes of the old issue that tore apart the church during Byzantine times–iconoclasm. It is not an easy matter. The virus will force each person to come to measure the depths of their conviction in their faith. It will force many to examine their deep heart and come to their own conclusions in good conscience.
I guess I am a medieval alchemist at heart. I know about the processes behind the elements. I know that if you add oxygen to hydrogen you get water. I spend sleepless nights shifting through the dark matter. I feel the fire of the phosphorus against my beard. But I have faith that given the right conditions, nature can be twisted to turn iron into gold. That extraordinary things can happen. Not preposterous things, but incredible things, Things that defy the laws of nature as we far as we know it. Things that you would not believe because they defy common sense and logic.
I believe there is a deeper magic in the universe, much older and more powerful than time and reason itself. (But I am still going to keep my mask on. Such is the alchemy of faith.)