Letters to Peregrinus #56 - On the Prophet

SARS-CoV-2, the virus able to trigger a disease called COVID-19.[1]
“For the others, we can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad’Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.” [Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 106). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

He [Paul Atreides] recalled the response from the Litany against Fear as his mother had taught him out of the Bene Gesserit rite.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. [Herbert, Frank. Dune (p. 12). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Numbers 21 – So Moses prayed for the people, 8 and the Lord said to Moses: Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.* 9 Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent* and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.
f [2]
Dear Peregrinus (the feast of St. Scholastica[3], twin sister of St. Benedict):
It seemed a perfect day to be writing to you, because, well, any day is closer to “a perfect day” when you are in it. And today is the feast day of a brother and sister – who were twins! – who both became Saints (i.e., what the Church means by a genuinely successful human being – being a human being in the way God “does” human being – Jesus). Sometimes I have thought of us, you and me, as “twins”, made so by divine grace rather than by blood.

The Season of Lent

I have been thinking about February, which is the last of the three months of meteorological[4] Winter in the northern hemisphere. I recall from my training in Classics[5] that at mid-month, the ancient Romans celebrated a feast of purification – the Februa ritual in Februarius, the month of expiation.[6] They understood that Spring, which happens in March (the month of the Vernal Equinox[7]), is actually, and metaphorically, about new life on the Earth and a fresh start. To serve that “natural” purpose, they thought it essential that the city ritually cleanse itself, in February, of any evil spirits, any “old and bad business”, which, if that remained active, would scuttle any chance for a fresh start in March.

And, Peregrinus, one week from today, Wednesday, we commence our expiatory[8] season of Lent[9] as we do each year in February,[10] on Ash Wednesday.[11] This year, that day lands on February 17th. Can you believe that Lent is almost here? But so it is.

I am asking myself this week, (1) What is it in my life that I need now to put to rest, to resolve, to ask God to help break its hold on me – whatever has been ill-affecting my life since last Ash Wednesday – 350 days ago? And, (2) What of genuine and enduring Beauty (literature; music; painting; time with best friends, etc.) can I feast on[12] in my awareness every day during Lent 2021?

The Image

You have noticed that image of the Sars-coV-2 virus (above). You might chide[13] me about including another reminder of this Slayer of 466,465 Americans (as of 10 February 2021)! I understand. And I certainly disesteem the euphonically[14]-challenged name for the disease – COVID. An ugly sound.

I have raised that image to the head of this letter because of a resonance to the bronze sculpture of a Slayer that long ago was raised high in a desert, such that all who looked upon it were saved. The Slayer and the Healer coalesced,[15] became identified!

For many years I have wondered about a mysterious[16] text – in the biblical book of Numbers 21 (partially quoted at the top of this Letter). It is a story about the incessant[17] complaining of God’s recently-chosen and slowly-forming people, and what then came to pass in response to their sullenness.[18]

The text leaves no doubt that there was a divine response, a rough reply given to the people, but God’s motive is illusive, at least at a cursory[19] reading of the story. For example, God did not go on a murderous rampage, using serpents as His weapon. Remember how after the Great Flood, God “repented” and promised never again to go after human beings with intent to kill.

Genesis 8 21 When the Lord smelled the sweet odor, the Lord said to himself: Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done.b [20]

Yet, it is a nightmarish image, those “seraph” snakes[21] bursting from the hard, desert surface and swarming in among the people, biting and terrifying and killing them. We see an unstoppable and roiling invasion of snakes; we hear the people crying out; we notice the sound, afterwards, of men chopping into the hard surface of the desert, making graves.

The text calls them “seraph”[22] serpents, which reminds us something important about names. In a culture, such as ours, where people place too much of the burden of perception on our sense of sight (we are far less alert to what the other senses perceive), we assume that “seraph” refers to what those snakes looked like … which leaves us puzzled, unable to decide about these snakes. But if “seraph” (whose root means “fiery burning”) refers to what the venom felt like in their blood after being bitten – a terrible burning fire, an inflammatory storm, set loose in the body - then I think that we are closer to what the text is trying to convey about these reptiles.

A badly infected COVID patient can suffer a cytokine storm, which is a massive, uncontrollable inflammation – “A condition known as cytokine release syndrome or a cytokine storm. This is when an infection triggers your immune system to flood your bloodstream with inflammatory proteins called cytokines. They can kill tissue and damage the organs.” [23]  

The Point

Now here is my point, Peregrinus. Something that I am wondering about.

God used a natural (not a supernatural) process (see Numbers 21) to teach His people to be accountable for their refusal to attend to the right of those snakes to have their territory and to dwell in it undisturbed. Snakes do not hunt people, but they will react fiercely if human beings ignore their territory and occupy it. Those seraph serpents attacked because they felt threatened by heedless human beings; they bit with venomous fangs not out of spite (humans are spiteful; not animals) but instinctively.

People who have little problem violating God-established boundaries in the natural world are far more likely to ignore God whose world this is, and who expects us to govern it properly, mindfully, and thoughtfully. But as Numbers 21 indicates (also in many other places throughout the Scriptures), the people actively defied God (and Moses), damaging an exceptionally precious relationship that God Himself had established with them – “a people all His own.”
Numbers 21 4 From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom, but the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; 5 so the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”* [24]

And so I ask you, Peregrinus, does it not seem likely that this people’s defiance of God would express itself also in an abuse of the created world, God’s first Gift?

What was God’s response? If God had reacted personally against the defiance of His people, then how awesome and fierce and overwhelming would have been His justified reaction. Recall the opening lines of that famous Latin sequence from 13th century Italy:

Day of wrath and doom impending. / David's word with Sibyl's blending, / Heaven and earth in ashes ending.[25]
God did not do this. He withheld His reaction as so often God did and does: “slow to anger; abounding in mercy.”
Instead, God showed His people mercy by letting the natural world – those snakes in particular – do what they instinctively do when threatened by those who disrespect them. God let beings existing in the same order of being – the created world – teach His people an essential lesson about boundaries.
This story is far more than about irritated snakes! God knew that human beings who exist in “right relationship” with the created world – with snakes or bugs or trees or watercourses[26] - will be far more likely understand, and to respect, the “right relationship” that God has with us. In many places, the Scriptures recognize how human disorder ruptures the elegant balance of things, the harmonious functioning of the rest of the created world.

In this regard, we could say that the seraph serpents were prophetic, whose actions expressed an important truth that the people had forgotten. Who could have guessed that serpents could be chosen by God and sent as Prophets?

I have for years been puzzled by the apparently “magical” nature of the bronze serpent – “whosoever looked on it was healed” - that God commanded Moses to cast and then to raise on high. I think that I have begun to understand. It was not about magic.[27] It was about education, about what God taught His people about living in right relationship with all created things. That this one particular thing in the created world – seraph serpents – bit back when ignored made that lesson all the more memorable.
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?[28]

The Bronze Serpent reminded that people about what happened when they lived heedless of God and of the “natural laws” by which the created world operates, when they ignored (or remained ignorant of) the elegant balance established by God’s unparalleled artistry, when their self-absorption caused them to violate the right of all created things to exist and to operate as they were created to do.
That famous Bronze Serpent was a symbol that healed: the Slayer and Healer coalesced and were the same. A paradox.[29]

The Virus

Do we need a similar “Prophet” sent to us now, to teach us what we have ignored, to attack our heedless way with an implacable truth-telling? Those people were sent by God a Prophet in the form of serpents. Perhaps God might choose something else from the natural world to challenge and teach us. A virus perhaps?

Well, I better go for now, old friend. But I wonder if our mutual contemplation of that image of the Sars-coV-2 virus might open up to us something of God’s educative activity operating through it, “for us and for our salvation”. Perhaps if we are looking at it, and getting others to see it as we do, then we might together find in this “Prophet” not only our Slayer but also our Healer.

As was the case with the biblical Prophets, so it is with this virus: it was not those Prophets sent by God who were their enemy. Rather, it was the people’s inflammatory reaction to them, the storm of resentments at what the Prophets taught them, that was the enemy.

Stay well, old friend. I am well, but also happy as I look out the windows to my right to see the snow falling and remaining on the ground!

I am you friend in Christ on the pilgrim’s road,


[1] See WebMD website at https://www.webmd.com/lung/coronavirus - “The virus can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, heart problems, liver problems, septic shock, and death. Many COVID-19 complications may be caused by a condition known as cytokine release syndrome or a cytokine storm. This is when an infection triggers your immune system to flood your bloodstream with inflammatory proteins called cytokines. They can kill tissue and damage your organs.”

* Everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover: in the Gospel of John this scene is regarded as a type for the crucifixion of Jesus (Jn 3:14–15).

* King Hezekiah, in his efforts to reform Israelite worship, “smashed the bronze serpent Moses had made” (2 Kgs 18:4).

Wis 16:6–7, 10; Jn 3:14–15.

[2] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Nu 21:7–9.

[3] Logos Factbook - Scholastica, St. (c. 480–c. 543). Founder of the convent at Plombariola and twin sister of the famous monk Benedict of Nursia, who himself founded Monte Cassino but five miles away, Scholastica and her brother met every year for one day of “spiritual conversation.” On the last of these annual conversations, Scholastica urged her brother to prolong the discussion all night. When Benedict refused, a violent thunderstorm ensued and he was forced to remain. A few days, later his sister died.”

[4] I learned that “meteorological” seasons are those defined by average temperatures. “Astronomical” seasons are those related to the relative positions of Sun and Moon and Earth over the course of a year. For example, Christmas is an immovable feast – always on December 25th – because the Tradition tells us that Mary, the Mother of God, conceived the Child in her womb on March 25th, exactly nine-months earlier than December 25th. In this case, this kind of Time is natural, associated with how long it takes for a human being to grow from conception to birth. For example, Easter is a movable feast, because its date each year is astronomically set according to the formula: Easter occurs on the first Sunday, after the first full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox.

[5] The University of Bristol describes this academic discipline in this way: “Classics refers to the study of the languages, literatures, material culture, and history of the societies of the ancient world [esp. Greco-Roman societies], together with their influence on later periods and cultures right up to the present day. It is one of the most varied and interdisciplinary of all subjects and can include literature, history, philosophy, art and archaeology.”

[6] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “expiation” – “The action of ceremonially purifying from guilt or pollution.” But also, “The means by which atonement (for a crime or offence) is made; something done, or a rite observed, for the purpose of expiating.”

[7] This year the Vernal Equinox (astronomical rather than meteorological Time) happens in the Pacific Northwest on Saturday, March 20th, at 2:37 AM.

[8] The annual observance of Lent has an expiatory meaning. We take responsibility for our failures of “right relationship” (a traditional way of understanding why the God-Man acted was to “restore right relationship” between humanity and the Father) and then doing spiritual work to protect ourselves from such failures in the future – learning from our mistakes. But Lent is not solely about expiation (deconstruction, if you will), making ourselves able to act in a more habitually “grace-full” way, from day to day. It is also about renewal (reconstruction, if you will), and so Lent is also about increasing our “intake” of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – allowing ourselves to be filled with grace and light and strength.

[9] At Christianity.com website: “Lent begins each year on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday. This year Lent will start on February 17th, 2021.” Lent always concludes with the setting of the sun on Holy Thursday evening, allowing to begin the “Holy Triduum”, or the “holy three days”. The Holy Triduum is a season distinct from Lent, but prepared for by Lent.

[10] Consistently, but rarely, Ash Wednesday lands in March.

[11] From the Aleteia website concerning Ash Wednesday – “Ash Wednesday marks the first day of this penitential season in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. It is a “movable” feast that is assigned a date in the calendar only after the date of Easter Sunday is calculated. How is it calculated? According to the norms established by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and later adopted for Western Christianity at the Synod of Whitby, Easter Sunday falls each year on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.”

[12] “feasting” – I am reminded of the work of Fr. Bernard “Bernie” Tyrrell, SJ, who in his first book, Christotherapy: Healing through Enlightenment (1975), written on behalf of the intersection of the disciplines of Theology and Psychology, used the expression: “mind-fasting and spirit-feasting.”

[13] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 10th century verb “to chide” – “To give loud or impassioned utterance to anger, displeasure, disapprobation, reproof.”

[14] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “euphonic” – “Well sounding, agreeable to the ear; = euphonious adj.”

[15] The Oxford English Dictionary at “to coalesce” – “To bring together, merge; to combine (parts or elements) to form one whole.”

[16] “mysterious” – I use this adjective because I am certain that this story is not a problem to be figured out. It is, rather, a mystery to be explored. In the latter case, a person does not make demands on Mystery – “Tell me, now, what you mean!” Rather, a person does well to wonder about a mysterious text more than to interrogate it. A person does well to stay attentive to a mysterious biblical text while waiting on the mystery of it to come to him or her when it is the proper time for understanding to be given.

[17] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “incessant” – “That which does not cease; unceasing, ceaseless, continual, either in duration or repetition.”

[18] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “sullen” – “Of persons, their attributes, aspect, actions: Characterized by, or indicative of, gloomy ill-humour or moody silence. In early use there is often the implication of obstinacy or stubbornness.”

[19] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “cursory” – “Running or passing rapidly over a thing or subject, so as to take no note of details; hasty, hurried, passing.”
Sir 44:18; Is 54:9; Rom 7:18.

[20] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 8:21.

[21] At Reference.com – “A group of snakes can be referred to as a den, bed, pit, or nest. The exception to this is a group of rattlesnakes, which is called a rhumba. Snakes are rarely found in groups. At times during the winter, snakes may congregate during Winter. This type of behavior is also common in bats and marmots. Groups of snakes will huddle together in a den or under rocks to ride out the winter months, conserving their energy until food becomes more abundant in the spring. Unlike hibernating kinds, these kind of animals remain awake but lay still to conserve energy. All snakes are carnivores and swallow their prey whole. Generally, snakes eat alone and will not hunt for food together. Nearly every place in the world has snakes with the exception of Antarctica, Ireland and New Zealand.”

[22] “seraph” – This is a Hebrew-based word that has much of interest in it. Recall that it is the singular form of the noun seraphim – the name given to the highest rank of Angels (the eighth rank of angels are called the cherubim). The seraphim-angels the tradition associates with LOVE because they stand closest to the trinitarian heart of God. Suddenly, the biblical text causes us to associate, at least poetically, those “seraph” snakes sent by God with God’s most trusted angels of all, an order of creation (as all angels are; that is, created as we human beings are created) that is most like, most expressive of, God – “God is love.”

[23] The Oxford English Dictionary at “cytokine” – “Any of a varied group of small proteins which are secreted by cells of many types and which mediate cellular interaction in immune and inflammatory responses, cell proliferation and differentiation, and various other processes.”
* This wretched food: apparently the manna is meant.

[24] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Nu 21:4–5.

[25] The magnificent, and unsettling early Medieval lyric called by its open words in Latin – Dies irae. See, for example, Wikipedia at “Dies irae” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dies_irae.

[26] Think of the truly Wise from the long Tradition who teach their followers never willfully to cause harm to even the smallest plant or insect. To harm deliberately even one living thing has put one on the path to a dangerous self-absorption and, therefore, towards a toxic loss of “right relationship” with all created things and with their Maker, with God. Most people I know have not the slightest difficulty smashing flies, frying mosquitoes and gnats in electric elements, and crushing spiders. I get it, but the Wise have a point. Our refusal to understand these smallest of created things, assuming it is our right to obliterate them, must be unsettling to anyone with any sensitivity to a larger Pattern.

[27] Though later on in their history, this famous artifact – the Bronze Serpent that Moses, at God’s command, cast – did get magic-alized to such a degree that it had to be destroyed.

[28] The third verse of Bob Dylan’s memorable “Blowing in the Wind”, first sung in 1962, the first song on his second album.

[29] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “paradox” – “An apparently absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition, or a strongly counter-intuitive one, which investigation, analysis, or explanation may nevertheless prove to be well-founded or true.”

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