On Love and Beauty in a Time of Pandemic
While our recent celebration of the birth of the Christ Child continues and mingles now with hints of the Great Lent to come, it is no secret that profound and complex challenges confront us every day in this Pandemic time. As pastors and teachers and facilitators on the front line of Christian service, we often find ourselves discerning the issues confounding our society with painfully compelling insight. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos and suffering, the Church has kept us spiritually safe, with the assurance of God’s lovingkindness and presence among us.
As we navigate facets of our Pandemic experience, then, our efforts to understand and to help one another heal surely inspire us to offer grateful and repentant prayer for the mercy of God. Is it not the assurance of the presence of God in this time of Pandemic which has fashioned for us a kind of “Ark of Safety” where we are abiding together until the virus trouble passes, each family within the protection of quarantine and, in the tender mercy of our God present among us, are we not endeavoring, like those couples sequestered in the Ancient of Days, to live together in careful peace and harmony during this critical time?
Since the profound goodness of God loving mankind—the philanthropia of God—is the very beauty of the soul each and every one of us inhabits, it is natural that we each seek to become a radiant reflection of the Light of Christ to those to whom we minister. As Gregory of Nyssa cleverly teaches, see how we are compellingly drawn upward by the “fishhook” God has embedded in us all by means of the Incarnation? Thus, our sinful nature is strategically ensnared to strive toward charity and atonement (Or cat, NPNF 5.494). “Let everyone have courage!” he proclaims in another teaching, exhorting the hearer and illustrating how a taste of God’s Beauty can draw the soul from even ingrained habits (De virg. GNO VII.I.288.10).
Among surprising gifts of love and beauty in this Pandemic time have been the uplifting and unexpected experiences of enhanced personal connection in our relationships with parishioners during these lockdown days. The online modalities we have been driven to deploy, as we adapt to accommodate safety restrictions, have unwittingly contrived to draw us closer to one another, since we have more opportunity for ordinary conversation. So, even as we gather “to gaze on the Beauty of the Lord and seek him in his Temple” (Ps.27:4) at church, these strange new times with services online have actually helped many of us turn to face and better know and love our neighbor—surely a gift of grace.
While we do miss participating in the Sacraments in person, where all the senses are synesthetically employed—tasting the Eucharist and censing holy things and ringing the bells and kissing the icons—still, hearing the personal stories of fellow parishioners has quite galvanized my prayer. May it be so for you as well. I’m reminded of an author, Frederica Mathewes-Green, with the audacity to speak of the Liturgy as “voluptuous with Beauty”—finding in walking the Orthodox path “the overwhelming and deliciously terrifying riptide of God’s Love; the rapturous joy of weeping over my sins—that exquisite ‘joyful sorrow (charmylopi)’ of which John Climacus speaks—and the sweet, stinging desire to bring others to see the beautiful face of Jesus” (At the Corner of East and Now, 1999, 155).
It is Orthodoxy, after all, which equips us with our shared language of Love and Beauty, even as these two commingle in the eyes of God. St. Macrina is said to have taught her brother Gregory that: “The divine life (he Theia zoe) will always be activated by love” (An et res 6.31). and indeed, the fruit of our own humble prayer “is divine love, which is simply grace,” says Lossky, “grace appropriated in the depth of our being” (Mystical Theology, 212). Furthermore, love can be seen refracted through Beauty as its final end, its fulfillment, for: “the teleology of love in its erotic mode runs across cultures, soaring aloft in Plato’s magnificent Symposium, and finding its climactic moment in the late Byzantine discourses of St. Symeon the New Theologian” (Trostyanskiy, 2016, xiii).
In fact, is it not the very essence of our spirituality that we seek to see and be ever transformed by the Beauty of God? As love is both the central experience as well as the very goal of our faith, we gratefully breathe the air of Orthodoxy where love is never a pejorative. “It is God who sows this love,” as John Chrysostom tells us (Encomium to Maximus 3, PG 51.230). And in the Akathist of Thanksgiving, we hear: “All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards Thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!” (Kontakion 7)
Surely, this pandemic time has been remarkable in its beautiful display of God’s Creation. Let us not neglect to praise the natural beauty which has been so heightened for us in these months in quarantine. Haven’t the sapphire skies been splendid?—day after day of such startling, seldom- seen blue. In the same way that “the soul always bears the impress of what she mirrors,” as David Bentley Hart has observed, even “one glimpse of the divine loveliness leaves an ecstasy ever unexpressed in the depths of the mind, like a longing for the ocean deeps or for the sun, inspired by the lingering taste—mere drops and glimmers—of their beauty” (Hart, 2003, 120).
Have we not enjoyed fascinating “drops and glimmers” of Beauty reflected during this Pandemic time? What would the world be like if we continued, consciously, to lower our carbon emissions, not just in the face of Pandemic travel restrictions, but as an action of faith and gratitude?
Could this break in our accustomed smog become part of a new healthy paradigm shift? It would take work, and renewed vigor; but, it could mean greater long-term air quality—and we could keep the beautiful skies of God’s Creation for our grandchildren to see.
In this season of slowly lengthening days, as the unsearchable gift of the Incarnation unfolds before us:
Blessed be each one of you who sees in humility God’s gift of Beauty.
Blessed be each of you who reciprocates God’s love today in an act of reconciliation.
Blessed be each of you who takes the harsh lessons of this Pandemic time and by the grace of God, transforms them into the speech of kindliness to those around you in the days to come.
May you be nourished in this Pandemic time by the Beauty of God’s Creation unfolding before you in the golden light of your faith.
May you be comforted in this Pandemic time by the great Philanthropy of God, which is the balm of loving kindness, and by God-loving contact with your family and friends and colleagues, and all those you hold dear to your heart.
And May you be strengthened in this Pandemic time by the presence of God abiding in your heart, the Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ, charging you to be part of the highest good.
References and Further Reading
John Chrysostom, “Encomium to Maximus,” PG 51.
Gregory of Nyssa, De Anima et Resurrectione, GNO III/3. Gregory of Nyssa, Oration Catechetica Magna, GNO III/4.
David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite: Gregory of Nyssa on the Vestigia Trinitatis,” in Sarah Coakley, ed. Re-Thinking Gregory of Nyssa (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003), pp. 111-131.
Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976).
Frederica Mathewes-Green, At the Corner of East and Now (New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999).
Sergey Trostyanskiy, Love, Marriage, and Family in Eastern Orthodox Perspective, Preface (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016).
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is forthcoming from Gorgias Press.
This article is edited from the Closing Address for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity (ISEC) 2020 Conference: “Evil and Spiritual Combat in a time of Pandemic.”