The glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light...The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye.
--Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Excellent Christian fiction, like that of Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, or Flannery O’Connor, offers a lens through which we can more clearly see and understand the real world. The work of literary fiction may even offer a clearer view of spiritual truth than a book intended to address nothing but spiritual or theological thought. While the word infection may currently evoke the pandemic, it also begins to suggest the seriousness with which we should regard sin and our hope in salvation. If we see forgiveness as a kind of infection of light, like Aslan powerfully peeling away the dragon scales from Eustace in CS Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, then we quickly grasp that a spiritual infection is far graver than a passing physical illness. Of course, sometimes the physical and spiritual may be closely intertwined.
It was a bright sunny afternoon in Western Oregon when I happened to be hiking through a forest area between Monmouth and Lincoln City situated on the Coast. My plans were for a short hike in the woods for the dual purposes of doing water photography and getting some needed exercise. I was quite unprepared to suddenly cross paths with a young and scantily clad woman who seemed to be performing some manner of witchcraft or pagan rite within a deserted stretch of a forest stream winding through a gully—complete with a large black cauldron beside her. What precisely do you say in a situation like this? I was more quiet than usual. It was quite the creepy and surreal experience. While she could hardly be characterized as an attractive siren, the situation itself seemed infused with an intriguing sense of mystery and danger; I tarried longer than was prudent. As I left the area, retracing my steps back to the main path, I could hear her somewhat angrily yelling some unintelligible words in the distance. My problems began several hours later.
A couple weeks before that strange afternoon, I had undergone a simple hand surgery to correct trigger finger in my right thumb. The wound had been healing well, but that evening it abruptly grew inflamed and painful. Unknown to me at the time, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection had moved into my hand and was inching up my arm. The following few weeks were exceedingly difficult, and the pain became increasingly worse. For what seemed like forever, however, the doctors I repeatedly visited failed to identify an infection from my rather obvious symptoms. It was almost as if they were not seeing the same swollen hand that was securely connected to my swelling arm. It was only after multiple rounds of antibiotics (both orally and intravenously) and a second surgery to “clean it out” that things began to slowly improve and heal.
Reflecting later on the situation in a conversation with our priest, I began to wonder if I had accidentally brought something back with me from that secluded forest stream. What were those strange words I had overheard as I hiked out through the brush? In these days of social distancing and preoccupation with all things antibiotic, there is an antiseptic quality to our lives that may lull us into complacency when it comes to the darker spiritual realities surrounding us. While we may obediently mask up when strangers appear, who knows what manner of spiritual darkness we may be blithely entering. From my perspective, this seems a perfect storm building on the horizon. We were already socially less present with each other as a result of the illusion of connection found within the pervasive influence of social media. Today, we’ve moved yet further away from each other—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Even the political climate contributes to this sense of isolation and a sort of tribalism growing from the associated polarization of political positions.
When it comes to COVID, is this a case where the prescription is worse than the disease? Perhaps, but more important than that is the imperative need to keep things in their true perspective. After all, if we were as concerned with spiritual infections as we are concerned with a potential physical infection, what kind of different choices would we make? If we try to think as seriously about our faith and our salvation as we do about our health, we will begin to truly understand that what is needed…is a spiritual mask.
In the grand scheme of things, we are all moving inexorably closer to that moment when we face our own immortality with the vividness of a thunderclap. We are already infected with the black spot of sin as the sons and daughters of Adam, so it’s critically important that we not forget the eternal nature of our spiritual lives; it’s more important than ever that we welcome cleansing light into our being in order that we may salvage our salvation from the imperfect lives we have led. True life and purifying light await us—just a little “further up and further in.” Whether the ultimate infection of light is greeted by our eternal hearts with joy or sorrow will signal on which side of the battle we have fought.