A slightly scratchy throat, a cough, a strong desire to nap. It's a virus, the doctor says, so we won't do anything about it. Just drink lots of water and get some rest. It'll run its course in a few days. Call me if you're not better in a week.
Intriguing messages: "Wicked Screen Saver," "Your Details," "You're approved." It's a virus. It'll run its course in a week or so, too. Don't do anything about it except run your antivirus software. Don't open emails from people you don't know, or even from people you do know if the subject line seems oddly unlike them: would your Aunt Jane really send you a wicked screen saver? Did you actually apply to your daughter's Girl Scout leader for a loan?
"Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith." These frightening words from the first letter of Peter have always seemed to me to be an odd thing to include in Compline, the Church's goodnight to the faithful. Don't we want something a little more reassuring, like "Sweet Dreams?" But that set of late night prayers is full of warnings, about the "snares of the enemy," the "perils and dangers of this night." In it, we ask God to "guide us waking," but also to "guard us sleeping." Guard us from what? Is there some danger of which we are unaware?
What if my virus is really West Nile? What if I opened something viral on the computer by mistake, and my hard drive gets erased? What if I make a wrong turn somewhere and get lost? What if I didn't choose the right college? Took the wrong job? Married the wrong person?
Some of the bad things that might happen do happen. Most of them do not. Among the things that probably will not happen to me today: a tsunami hitting the Jersey Shore, coming upon a cobra in my garden, an attack by a knife-wielding fishmonger.
But other things could: a car crash. An argument. A delay.
Here on the earth, we have no guarantee of safety. Our ability to protect ourselves is limited. In the quiet of sleep, when all our defenses are down, the fiercest among us looks vulnerable. And so the Church suggests prayer about the things we have reason to fear and about those fears that are without reason. The things in which we have agency and the things in which we have none. The evil which befalls us and the evil we cause.
Where is that cruel genius who sits in front of his computer and designs something to ruin mine? Why does he do it? For fun? Because he hates capitalism? Because he's nuts? All three? Where, in the heart of a twenty-year old who straps a belt of bombs around his waist and begins a walk to town, is the anti-virus software? Where, in the hearts of those who profit from war and other peoples' poverty? And where in my own heart?
Update your own antivirus protection first. Examine your conscience frequently, taking particular care with the most familiar regions of it -- the tainted message of prejudice and hate is born there, where love of the familiar lives.