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What do pandemics change? An antidote to platitudes

What do pandemics change? An antidote to platitudes

In the third guest blog of our series, Rev. Dr. Gabrielle Thomas reflects on ‘everything happens for a reason’ in conversation with Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth–century philosopher. 20/08/2020

For many (and perhaps even most) pandemics bring about additional suffering of varying kinds.

During the current pandemic, you may well have experienced distress in the form of increased economic instability, mental health challenges, the death of loved ones, and – to cap it off – you might have caught the virus, despite taking all known precautions. The oft-used platitude ‘everything happens for a reason’ is a common response to others’ suffering, but it does not help those experiencing challenges brought on by COVID-19 – it rarely provides comfort even in the mildest trials. It is difficult to hold a space for pain and grief when suffering is characterized as contributing toward some greater good. The rationalization of another’s suffering may comfort the ‘comforter’, but pressing others to utilize their suffering deprives the sufferer of the space to respond in a way which is appropriate to their situation.

I’ve found it helpful to reflect on this in conversation with Gregory of Nazianzus, whom we find practicing philosophy amidst the politics and power games of the fourth-century. One of the so-called Cappadocian fathers, along with brothers Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea, Gregory led the way in applying the rhetorical tools of his time for the purpose of encouraging his readers to practice philosophy. He is also known in the Christian tradition as ‘The Theologian’. One might assume he is so-called because he writes about God, but it’s more likely that Gregory earned this title because of his ability to communicate with the philosophers of his time who did not belong to the church. Whilst Gregory is known best for his contributions to early Christian debates about the person of Christ, Trinity and the Holy Spirit, he also writes about illness, poverty and suffering. Some of his reflections exist within orations, customary of the time; added to this, Gregory was the first Christian author to compose poetry (over 17,000 lines) and to craft his own autobiographical letter collection, both of which are a valuable resource when reflecting on suffering. Gregory, himself, was someone who experienced multiple illnesses and disappointments, to the extent that he claims, ‘my fame lies in my sufferings’.

The fourth-century equivalent of ‘everything happens for a reason’ is ‘God wills it so’. What I find interesting about Gregory’s writing on disease, poverty, famine and other kinds of suffering is that his responses range widely, erring away from categorizing all suffering as ‘God’s will’. Sometimes, he offers a possible ‘reason’ for suffering, but this is not consistent – he generally attends to each person and situation before him, rather than offering an overarching ‘solution’. Interpreting Scripture in his fourth-century context, Gregory believes that human beings bear the image of God in various ways. For him, this grounds all human life as precious, even women and lepers– which was not a view commonly held in the fourth century. His belief in the value of each human person led Gregory to support his friend Basil, who founded the very first hospital, aptly entitled the ‘Basiliad’. This was a place where even the poorest people could receive medical help. Gregory’s instinct is that suffering should be alleviated, particularly when it relates to illness and poverty. He does not present all suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth or self-improvement. For example, in a letter to a friend he characterizes his own illness as very unpleasant, and without value, ‘What punishment the illness inflicts on me! I should run to embrace you and reminisce about our old friendship and intimacy. My body, however, is not up to it. That’s why I’m coming to you by letter and greeting you with a salutation’ (Bradley L. Storin, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Letter Collection: The Complete Translation (University of California Press, 2019, 134) and in a further letter he declares, ‘A cloud blocks out the sun, as illness, this jealous chunk of flesh does for me’ (Storin, 106).

For many, a sense of futility accompanies illness and suffering. To recognize this is difficult in the twenty-first century West where self-improvement is often the priority. When self-improvement is the governing aim lessons must be learned at all costs; there is no space for futility. In contrast, Gregory pauses to recognize the futility which accompanies suffering. For him, this makes room for lament and for acknowledging that some situations are just ‘awful’. However, futility is not the end of the story. Rather, futility turns to poetry and prayer:

I am in the pit of devastation, my Christ, what then, shall I do? While you are a just judge, you are also gentle.
How does this profit you? Am I cut off, alone?...

Why are these things happening, Christ?... I have been worn out, by time, by illness, by the wickedness of friends…
But surely you do not wish this?
(Carm. 2.1.89, PG 37, 1442–5, my translation).

When thinking about appropriate responses to suffering, I am attracted to Gregory’s candid words, which hold the space to speak to each situation and person, rather than offering ‘blanket’ platitudes. Whilst he would not be opposed to lessons being learned, at the same time he does not impose these upon the sufferer. His practice of philosophy comes into its own when he encounters the kinds of suffering for which there is no apparent purpose. This respects the complexity of human existence when applied to suffering wrought through the pandemic. Not ‘everything happens for a reason’.

You can find the other blogs in the series here.


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Image: fran_kies/shutterstock.com

Gabrielle Thomas

Gabrielle Thomas

Gabrielle Thomas lectures in Early Christian and Anglican studies at Yale Divinity School, and is an Anglican priest. Prior to moving to the U.S., she worked at Durham University and served as a minor canon in Durham Cathedral. Her publications include The Image of God in the Theology of Gregory of Nazianzus (2019) and the forthcoming For the Good of the Church: Theology, Women and Ecumenical Practice (2021). She is currently working on a book which explores Early Christian approaches to suffering.

Posted 20 August 2020

Coronavirus, Suffering, What do pandemics change?

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