Why does “stay safe” bother me so much? It bothers me because “stay safe and healthy” pushes the epicurean religion down my throat. The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that this life is all we have, so get as much pleasure as you can without endangering bodily health. Freedom from pain and stress are life’s highest goods, so eat and drink safely. Epicurus’ teachings, inevitably, declined into epicureanism, which sought to maximize base pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex. Romans would eat and drink gluttonously, then stick a finger down their throats to vomit it all up so they could eat even more. Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? Christianity brought a wider horizon to this limited Roman perspective, based on the hope of an infinitely better life after death. Epicureanism faded in the Christian era, but it did not disappear. With the decline of Christianity in the West, epicureanism has made a resurgence. Stay safe, we are told, and keep your body healthy, because this life—and this body—is all you have!
Catholicism is supposed to teach something more, but by closing our churches we’ve caved in to epicureanism. A closed church—while Costco remains open—declares that my body is more important than my soul. Well, in my parish, we’ve provided for both body and soul. We’ve never stopped providing sacraments for the soul, and we’ve had no “outbreaks” (defined by California law as three positive tests). Of the several hundred who pass through our doors every week I know of only one person in our community who tested positive for Covid. He is elderly, and indeed he suffered for some weeks with the virus, but he has fully recovered and is grateful to have an open church. I haven’t gotten my usual colds this past year, nor have any of the priests, nor any of the staff, thanks be to God.
We are unusually healthy this year, body and soul. We kept our church open so that people’s immune systems would be strengthened by having a clean and safe place to pray with other people. It was vastly more sanitary than other public venues that remained open, such as packed big-box stores, closely-seated restaurants, and crowded street protests. God has given us a 1000-seat church, and we have kept it open and safe, despite intimidation from the local government. Having a clean place to pray, in the presence of other people, along with our beautiful parks and beaches, immeasurably contributed to our emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Scoffers will mock me, but another reason we remained healthy was the liberal use of holy water and incense. Our priests bless water with the older formula, that God use this water morbusque pellendos, careat omni immunditia, liberetur a noxa: non resideat pestilens… “may [this water] expel disease, remove every contagion, free us from harm, and keep out pestilence.” If you ask, you will receive, and the commonly-used water blessing does not ask for these protections. “Modern” holy water simply doesn’t have the same potency against “pestilence.” We blessed 120 gallons of water on the vigil of Epiphany, and the people fill their bottles from our holy water tank for use in their homes. We sprinkle the congregation with this blessed water every Sunday just before Mass. Likewise, we use incense at Sunday Masses. The blessed incense, offered to God with the proper prayers, not only smells lovely but purifies the air. An NIH-published study concluded that “the antimicrobial properties of essential oil derived from frankincense, a compound with well-known traditional use, showed that it possesses a clear potential as a natural antimicrobial agent. Moreover, the results suggest possible application of B. carteri EO vapour and incense fume as occasional air purifiers.” Read it for yourself at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29530608.
Pandemics are inevitable, as we have learned this year, but much depends on how one manages a pandemic. My parish is healthier than before Covid, both physically, emotionally, fiscally, and spiritually, because we won’t settle for bodily safety only. We want to be entirely safe, our whole persons securely in God’s hands, living joyfully in this life in preparation for the next life. We are not epicureans. We are Christians.