While reading great writers, it is not uncommon to run across statements that seem shocking at first but come to make more sense after marinating on them for a while. One such statement for me came from Thomas Merton.

During his time, the great threat to humanity was the atom bomb, the source of much fear and anxiety. Schools ran atom bomb drills, and the populace closely watched the news to pick up on any indication of approaching warheads. The famous episode, “The Shelter” from The Twilight Zone illustrates the potential hysteria surrounding the situation.

The shocking statement from Thomas Merton, though, claimed that a single mortal sin was more dangerous than a nuclear weapon. What in the world is Merton talking about? A hydrogen bomb containing only about a party balloon’s volume of hydrogen can level an entire city and eliminate millions of people. How can a single mortal sin be more dangerous than that?

I have come to learn that there are two ways of attempting to achieve happiness, and each method corresponds to a particular view of happiness. One philosophy, held mostly unconsciously by the masses, clings to the idea that happiness depends on our circumstances and surroundings. As long as I am comfortable and entertained, I am happy. Etymologically, the word happiness comes from the Old English word hap which means “luck,” and that sense of the word is embodied in this kind of happiness.

The other kind of happiness, perhaps more aptly called joy or blessedness, has more to do with our interior state. True joy comes more from having a rightly ordered soul than a rightly ordered environment. I tried to illustrate this principle in my book, The Healing. This kind of happiness is not only the better, deeper kind, but it is also required of us by Christ and grown in us by Christ’s work and our cooperation. It’s perfection is love. Holiness is true happiness and our only true hope. It is more mysterious than we may think. It is the state of being that more than conquers because it not only overcomes difficulties and trials, but embraces and redeems them. Christ, by his great love, engulfed the worst act ever committed, deicide, and transformed it into the salvation of the whole world.

An atomic bomb, as absolutely destructive and terrible as it may be, can only wreak exterior harm and destroy the first kind of happiness. A mortal sin kills the life of God in us and destroys the second kind of happiness. Bombs can destroy the body, but jealousy and hatred can destroy the soul. Disease eats away at the organs, but pride deteriorates the very essence of man. It is worse to have a dilapidated soul than a dilapidated house. It is worse to be consumed with vice than to be consumed by illness. One is temporal, the other is eternal. Jesus told us not to fear what can harm the body but cannot harm the soul; rather, fear what can consume the body and the soul in Hell.

Today, the great threat that holds our media’s attention is the coronavirus. Schools have been closed and moved to virtual formats. We watch the news to hear the latest updates on the spread of the virus and the government’s most recent regulations.

What would it be like if we were as careful, individually and collectively, about wrongdoing as we were about contracting the coronavirus? What if we took every possible measure to avoid sin? What if, as soon as we were aware of having done a serious wrong, we ran to the confessional as fast as people run to the doctor when they know they have a life-threatening disease? What if we were more concerned for interior happiness than for exterior happiness?

I understand that the coronavirus kills primarily by its attack on the lungs. I understand, also, that what ultimately kills someone who is crucified is the failure of the diaphragm, the stopping of breath, and fluid in the lungs. The God of all healing suffers with us. For our true happiness, we should suffer with Him.

We are all asked to quarantine and limit our interactions, a lonely proposition for most of us. There has never been a lonelier place than the Cross, where the perfect man, Man himself, abandoned by his disciples, was wrongly tortured to death. The God of all comfort is alone with us. For our true happiness, we should be alone with him.

None of these things can damn us: neither loneliness, nor the coronavirus, nor bombs, nor death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God, our greatest joy. Only we can do that, by a willful choice; and that would be infinitely more dangerous than the coronavirus.