I have been very confused and worried because of the controversy regarding the covid vaccine […. the bishop] has said we can choose to be vaccinated [or not], yet there are Priests and Orthodox websites and Elders from Mt. Athos who say we cannot be vaccinated or something bad may happen, some say it closely resembles the mark of the beast, some people think it IS the mark, etc…So what do we make of these Elders that say we should not be vaccinated and they mention alot of terrible things that will happen to the vaccinated? When we read The lives of The Saints, weren’t many of them Holy Elders before they were canonized? There is a website […] by a Priest who is very much against the vaccine, and he quotes many Elders saying how the vaccine is prophesied about by Holy Saints and Holy Elders saying not to get it. Plus there are stories of Saints appearing to people in visions and dreams saying not to get vaccinated etc …What are we to believe?We need to follow The Church, right? This is all so confusing. How do we know if these are Elders we should listen to or not? Why is there a disagreement between […] the Bishops who say it’s ok to be vaccinated, and the Elders that say it’s NOT ok?How can I be reassured that I’m ok? This is really weighing on my heart, I am so confused. I don’t even feel I can pray, I’m so distracted by this! Please help me in anyway you can.
As you can see, this person is quite distraught over this mater. Here is how I responded to him.
Throughout the history of the church, there have been conflicts—especially during times of social change or stress. For example, I am currently reading the letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage (mid 200’s). St. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, but at that time, many confessors (those who had suffered torture for Christ and survived) were acting like priests because some people believed that just as someone could be baptized by their own blood (a teaching the Church holds), so also they could be ordained as priests because of their suffering (a teaching the church does not hold). Consequently at that time, many venerable confessors were wrongly absolving sins and even celebrating the Holy Eucharist. This shows that even in the early church a holy person could still be wrong about something. A saint can make a mistake.
Now this goes the other way too. Although canonically the teaching office of the Church is the Bishop’s, not the confessor’s nor the Elder’s; nevertheless, there have been times in the history of the Church when bishops have been wrong about very serious matters. Most of the bishops at the time of St. Maximus the Confessor, for example, had wrongly agreed to a compromise teaching about the human and divine wills of Christ. Only a very few bishops (the Pope of Rome, for example) and a few monks held the correct doctrine at that time (mid 600’s). It was only about twenty years after St. Maximus’ death that the bishops of the Church finally agreed on St. Maximus’ teaching about the two wills of Christ. Clearly there are times when important people in the Church do not agree on important maters even though, eventually, the Church does get it right.
So what are we to do if we are living through a time of apparent disagreement? Here is what I recommend:
First, when in doubt, go with your bishop. The bishops are the ones granted the grace of God to teach the Church. Can a bishop be wrong? Sure. But the likelihood of someone who is not the bishop being wrong, in my opinion, is much greater. And a deeper matter for me is this question: how would I know? That is, if, like St. Maximus the Confessor, I had spent my life immersed in prayer and reading the Bible and other spiritual books AND I had direct enlightenment and revelation from God, then perhaps I would have the insight to know whether or not my bishop is mistaken on some significant matter. But I am no Maximus the Confessor. Far from it. For an under-educated sinner like me, it is much safer to go with my bishop, especially on matters that I do not have expert knowledge of. At least I know that my bishop is the one who has received the grace to teach the Church—not the elders, even those on Mt. Athos, no matter how holy they are.
Second, go with the peace. As I read the letters of St. Cyprian, I am continually amazed by how irenic St. Cyprian’s tone in the letters is. He is dealing with what appears to be a major rebellion in the Church, but instead of blaming and condemning the errant confessors, he blames his own clergy for not teaching them clearly. St. Cyprian keeps a calm and peaceful tone in his letters. Similarly, when St. Maximus the Confessor was dealing with the errant bishops, he did not condemn those who were wrong. Rather, St. Maximus gently taught and explained the true doctrine. And even when St. Maximus was threatened with mutilation (his right hand was cut off and his tongue was cut out), he did not rail against the Emperor or the Patriarch, but rather gently insisted that they were mistaken. In my experience, strife and railing and accusing are usually signs that the Holy Spirit is far away. Go with the peace.
Third, beware of conspiracy theories, especially if they cause you to feel fear (or fear’s sisters: anxiety, nervousness, uncertainty and doubt). There is an interesting verse in Isaiah, hidden in the middle of the verses we sing during Great Compline in Lent (God is with us! Understand all ye nations…).
Isaiah 8:11 – 13 (NKJV)
For the Lord spoke thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of Hosts, Him shall you hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.”
Now, just to be completely clear, the word ‘conspiracy’ is translated as ‘hard’ in the Septuagint, which actually doesn’t make sense in the context (you can read it in the Orthodox Study Bible which adds the words “it is” to try to make sense of “hard”, but the words “it is” are not actually in the text). But whether the correct word is conspiracy (Hebrew) or hard (Greek), the point is the same: Don’t fear what people fear. Fear God only and, the text goes on to say, “He will be your sanctification.” Conspiracy theories have always existed, and they have always produced fear, paranoia and hysteria. Beware of conspiracy theories because they stimulate passions and give you the feeling of knowing when you don’t really know, as St. Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 8:2.
Forth, wait and see what happens. I heard one monk from Mt. Athos prophesy that within three to five years, all those who receive a COVID vaccination will die. Well, in another two to four years, we will know whether or not he is a false prophet. Of course, by then the damage caused by the fear generated by such a statement will already be done, and no one will remember the details. I have lived long enough to have personally lived through several “This Is The End Of The World” scenarios. Furthermore, I have read in the Fathers (the Letters of St. Basil the Great, for example) of holy people, people who are saints, stating that they were sure it was the end of the world because of seriousness of the crisis the Church was facing during their lifetime.
If today is the Last Day, then I should do what I do (or at least strive to do) everyday. Get up, say my prayers, and entrust myself and the whole world into God’s hands. If it turns out that today is not the Last Day, then tomorrow I will get up and say my prayers and entrust myself and the whole world into God’s hands. One day, it will be the Last Day, either the world’s Last Day, or my own personal Last Day. As far as it concerns us, either Day is the same Day.
Finally, to answer your question, how can we be assured that we are OK? I think we have to return to the words of Isaiah. Our assurance must be in God Himself. Our assurance cannot be in being right, for we are human. Yes, being right is important, and we should strive for orthodoxy (ortho is Greek for ‘right’). We are the Orthodox Church, after all. However, we are also human. We are limited, do not know everything and are easily deceived. Our trust has to be in God, not in man.
And yet, and this is the miracle of the Church, despite all of its humanity and its many human mistakes along the way, the Holy Spirit still guides the Church. To be faithful children of God in the Church, humility and obedience are much more necessary than logical or emotional assurance that you or this person or that person is right about this or that point. The Church is self-correcting. If I or my bishop or a holy Elder on Mt. Athos make a mistake, the Holy Spirit will correct it, maybe not in my lifetime, but the Holy Spirit will correct it. In the mean time, I must remain humble, fearing God and trusting, as Isaiah exhorts us, that He will be my sanctification.