Plagues – biblical and modern
As I write this the plague of Covid-19 is currently spreading across the world, and it was pointed out to me that it is not an isolated plague, but rather simply the latest in a series that have struck us this year. First there were the fire storms that struck all over the world, and then the fires were followed in some places by floods, and now this. When will it end you may ask, and I think the answer is – when we learn the lesson and make the necessary change. This whole situation is deeply reminiscent of the stories of the Hebrews in Egypt – and the series of plagues that struck.
I wonder what it was that the Egyptians were doing that was so damaging to their environment and ecosystem that it could bring such catastrophes. The only hint of a reason we are given is that they would not set the Hebrews free. This is not much to go on, but you find that the pattern is repeated throughout society – so if there is a lack of freedom in one place, there will be a lack of freedom everywhere. If the society is oppressing one people, and forcing them to act against their inner natures then they are likely forcing the animals to work too hard, stressing themselves, trying to produce more from the land than it can really stand. Clearly this forceful behaviour resulted in forcing the ecosystem into an unnatural state – which unbalance resulted in the plagues. I am not much of a historian, and I do not know the history of the downfall of the great Ancient Egyptian civilisation, but perhaps someone else better qualified can say whether I am correct and environmental degradation and unsustainable farming practices had a part to play.
None of this is to say that it was not miraculous. It is widely agreed that miracles are not things that happen outside the laws of nature, but rather natural phenomenon that by their timing guide us in the right path. The Hebrew word for miracle “nes” means a sign, and they are signs that show us the way. When we follow the signs we can keep on track. We can find a blessed path through life, but if we ignore the signs we will only end up in more conflict with the nature of things. In the story of Egypt people did not listen to the signs, and so step by step the plagues got worse, and the unfortunate suffering that they went through – we imagine must have been avoidable if they had only listened.
So today what are the signs telling us, and are we going to learn the lesson quickly? or are we going to wait and weather the storm of greater plagues that may be on the way?
Obviously there is an environmental element to much of what is going on. We do need to relate to the Earth in a more caring, gentle way, and even the virus Covid-19 likely would never have touched human beings without the invasive interference of humans in natural ecosystems, and the fires and floods are even more clearly related to the unsustainable practices.
There is also an economic element – if we were not so globally inter-dependent, if we could maintain some kind of local self-reliance then this virus would not hit so hard – people could simply retreat to their small farms and villages and allow the crisis to pass. In fact as I am staying currently in rural Portugal – an area that still produces much of its own needs – we see exactly that – no hysteria, people peacefully going back to their gardens, and having a reasonably pleasant time.
The economic element relates also to the community element. This virus seems to both isolate people from community, and at the same time to strengthen community spirit. Again if we had strong small communities this would hit us much less severely, it could be so easy to isolate ourselves as a small community rather than as lonely individuals, so there is the impetus to return to a more village based way of life.
But what is perhaps less obvious, but equally or even more important is the spiritual element. Of course the isolation that we are experiencing draws us away from our religious communities, but gives us more reason and time to explore our own personal spirituality. I am certain that people will be doing a lot more meditation and prayer and yoga in this time than they would in their ordinary lives. This can be a good thing, but I would like to look at another aspect. Many religious teachers say that when things go wrong in the world it means there is a lack of piety – a lack of spiritual depth – not only that spirituality can help us respond well to the crisis, but also that the lack of true spirituality directly causes the crisis. I tend to agree with this outlook, and I think it works in several ways. Firstly there is the direct impact of the quality of spiritual energies that are created. The flourishing of the spiritual healing field in recent years has seen much demonstration of how high quality energies have healing effect, and in contrast how low quality energies can actually lead to disease and malfunction and this is true not just in the bodies of individuals, but also in communities, societies, and ecosystems. Prayer circles, rain dances, kiirtan sessions etc seem to have some effectiveness in warding off disasters, and I would suggest that if they were done in more refined ways they might have even more effectiveness.
The less direct, but perhaps more obvious way in which spirituality influences these plagues and natural disasters is by the relative fullness or lack in our hearts – the sense of spiritual satisfaction and openness that can be achieved leads to the instinct to support and connect and work in harmony with those around you. When this feeling is not satisfaction, but rather a lack or emptiness then it leads to greed, competition and the other mental ills that have led to our materialist, capitalist society being so damaging to the environment. The religious teachers often suggest therefor that we should be doing more religious practices – doing more meditation, following more commandments, trying harder to be good people – but here is where I disagree. I do not think it is so much the quantity of spiritual practice that is important, but rather the quality. Of course to some extent quantity does matter. For example in someone who does very little of a spiritual nature, and lives a very materialistic lifestyle – then any little extra of meditation or prayer or whatever they choose to do will make a difference in their lives, but for those who are already engaged in spiritual practice the big changes in their lives depend not on how much they practice, but on how they practice. I think that in order to resolve the crisis we are under at the moment the call is for us to both practically and spiritually to come into harmony with the environment, each other, the cosmos, and the divine.
This means we need to go beyond following commandments, righteousness, and even love of God – all of which although good things still have in them a sense of separation. We need to move towards ways of practice that create the sense of unity, harmony and peace that enables us to live in harmony with all. This kind of connection to ourselves, the divine, and the world around us has several benefits – the first is the peaceful satisfaction that allows us to enjoy and be in harmony with nature and the world around us, and secondly paradoxically it engages us through that connection into service – into doing what we can for this world around us. In this way with the combined impetus to peace and harmony and to service and action leads to gentle wise action that improves rather than damages the environment and community around us. Of course there is the third element – the way someone who embodies this kind of connection radiates a loving peaceful feeling around them. This is what Saint Francis did to gather the wild animals around him as his friends, and it is this peaceful radiance that allows the living masters to gain the respect of both sides of serious armed conflicts and seemingly effortlessly mediate solutions. If we as spiritualists and spiritual communities can together embody and radiate such peaceful, harmonious connectedness then we will be unstoppable in creating a beautiful, harmonious way of living that will be immune to such plagues as we are seeing today, and by its harmony will in fact attract the blessings rather than the curses of the natural and divine worlds.