I will begin by going back to a letter from the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin to the monk Higbald, penned around 793. At the time Alcuin was heading up Charlemagne's educational reforms from Aachen, and his old friend Higbald was abbot of the renowned monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Lindisfarne had just suffered a devastating attack from the Vikings. Many monks had been killed or enslaved, and the monastery church was pillaged and desecrated. News of the raid shocked the Christian world. When Alcuin heard about it, he wrote his old friend a letter to console him in his sorrow.
The letter is interesting because Alcuin's method of consolation is to remind Higbald that calamities are a reminder of God's love. I will cite the letter at length, because I find it to be a very interesting window into the minds of these 8th century monks and how they processed the reality of evil:
You who survive, stand like men, fight bravely and defend the camp of God. Remember how Judas Maccabaeus cleansed the Temple and freed the people from a foreign yoke. If anything needs correction in your way of gentleness, correct it quickly...Do not glory in the vanity of dress; that is cause for shame, not boasting, in priests and servants of God. Do not blur the words of your prayers by drunkenness. Do not go out after the indulgences of the flesh and the greed of the world, but stand firm in the service of God and the discipline of the monastic life, that the holy fathers whose sons you are may not cease to protect you. May you remain safe through their prayers, as you walk in their footsteps. Do not be degenerate sons, having such fathers. They will not cease protecting you, if they see you following their example.Do not be dismayed by this disaster. God chastises every son whom he accepts, so perhaps he has chastised you more because he loves you more. Jerusalem, a city loved by God was destroyed, with the Temple of God, in Babylonian flames. Rome, surrounded by its company of holy apostles and countless martyrs, was devastated by the heathen, but quickly recovered through the goodness of God. Almost the whole of Europe had been denuded with fire and sword by Goths and Huns, but now by God's mercy is as bright with churches as the sky with stars and in them the offices of the Christian religion grow and flourish. Encourage each other, saying, "Let us return to the Lord our God, for he is very forgiving and never deserts those who hope in him."And you, holy father, leader of God's people, shepherd of a holy flock, physician of souls, light set on a candlestick, be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you. May your community be of exemplary character, to bring others to life, not to damnation. Let your dinners be sober, not drunken. Let your clothes befit your station. Do not copy the men of the world in vanity, for vain dress and useless adornment are a reproach to you before men and a sin before God. It is better to dress your immortal soul in good ways than to deck with fine clothes the body that soon rots in dust. Clothe and feed Christ in the poor, that so doing you may reign with Christ. Redemption is a man's true riches. If we loved gold we should send it to heaven to be kept there for us. We have what we love: let us love the eternal which will not perish.
When our lord King Charles returns from defeating his enemies, by God's mercy, I plan to go to him, and if I can then do anything for you about the boys who have been carried off by the pagans as prisoners or about any other of your needs, I shall make every effort to see that it is done. Fare well, beloved in Christ, and be ever strengthened in well-doing
There is, too, a very great difference in the purpose served both by those events which we call adverse and those called prosperous. For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world's happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.
Yet often, even in the present distribution of temporal things, does God plainly evince His own interference. For if every sin were now visited with manifest punishment, nothing would seem to be reserved for the final judgment; on the other hand, if no sin received now a plainly divine punishment, it would be concluded that there is no divine providence at all. And so of the good things of this life: if God did not by a very visible liberality confer these on some of those persons who ask for them, we should say that these good things were not at His disposal; and if He gave them to all who sought them, we should suppose that such were the only rewards of His service; and such a service would make us not godly, but greedy rather, and covetous.
Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor (St. Augustine,City of God, Book I, Chap. 8)