What a tremendous trial we have been given here on this Second Sunday of the Great Fast! The entire world, whether you believe it is warranted or not, has been gripped in fear and anxiety. Some, especially those who are more vulnerable, are living in fear of the disease. Those who are not as vulnerable are experiencing tremendous anxiety over the falling stock market, job losses, and the numerous trials that are coming with all of the closures around the country. Others (like myself) are concerned that there might not be toilet paper available to purchase next week! Whatever concerns we might have over our current situation, or anxiety over what is to come, I think all of us can agree that the world feels like a much different place than it did two weeks ago.
When it comes to the trial of COVID-19 that has been placed before us, what are we as Orthodox Christians supposed to do? What are we supposed to think? I heard a beautiful response to this question from a priest this past week, who reminded his flock that, “Our faith was given to us by God, to strengthen us during the difficult moments in our life.”
All of the spiritual disciplines that we do during Great Lent are meant to strengthen us in our love and faith of God for moments just like the one we face today. We fast to reduce the love that we have for ourselves. We increase our prayer rules and Church services to increase the Love and Faith that we have in God. We give alms to strengthen the love that we have for each other. In doing all of these things, we learn to center our lives around God, what He came here to do, and what He continually does for us day in and day out.
This Faith is like a beacon of light amidst the thick fog of life. It remains stationary and steadfast. Faith is what allowed so many men and women to persevere through the persecutions that took place under communism during the time of the Soviet Union. It is this faith that has allowed mankind to persevere throughout all of the plagues and pandemics that have at one time taken over the world, gripping everyone in fear. It is this faith that will once again allow each and every one of us over these next few weeks, to see clearly and to strengthen others who are not able to see above the thick fog that has descended upon the world.
During this time of uncertainty and confusion, where many of our lives have been turned upside down, I wanted to offer some thoughts and guidelines for you to consider, while we navigate whatever is to come.
1) STOP THE 24/7 COVERAGE AND INSTANT INFORMATION OVERLOAD THAT IS PLAGUING SOCIETY EVEN MORE THAN THE VIRUS ITSELF
At some point, we all have to realize that yes, it is important to be informed and educated, but making the pandemic become an obsession is not only a very easy thing to do, it is also extremely dangerous for our souls.
Limit yourself to one or two updates a day, and then turn off the television and twitter. Turn from the news networks to Ancient Faith Radio. Listen to an uplifting Christian podcast or read from the lives of the Saints. If it becomes necessary to be quarantined in your home, open up the Holy Scriptures and have some tea. Feed your mind with Holy Things.
It is important for us to remember, that panic comes from a lack of faith in God and His love for us. Readiness, preparedness, and caution are all necessary, but panic and fear have no place in the Christian Heart. If over the next few weeks we find ourselves in a bit of a panic, run to the icon corner, do a prostration before an icon of our Lord, and ask Him for the strength and faith that is necessary to conquer fear and despondency.
2) REMAIN CALM FOR THE SAKE OF THOSE WHO HAVE NO FAITH
This week, the words of St. Seraphim came to mind: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and 1000 around you will be saved.” What a word for us to hear in these times!
Remain calm, my dearest flock. When we are in Church or in private prayer, leave the thought of the coronavirus outside of the four walls of the Church. When we are in prayer, we enter mystically into the Kingdom of Heaven, where the virus ceases to exist. If someone near us coughs or sneezes in the Church from a little incense, do not look at them with eyes of disdain. Leave all of the worries of sickness, all of the fears and care that you might have, out in the world where it belongs.
This past Friday, as the secular world slowly started to shut down, I found myself praying at the altar for the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. It had been a rather stress filled day up until the moment that I heard the choir sing that beautiful hymn: “Now the power of heaven do invisibly serve with us. Lo, the King of Glory enters! Lo the mystical sacrifice is up-born fulfilled!”
When I heard those words, I was filled with tears. All of the news of the past few days had disappeared and I was reminded in that one moment that when we are in prayer, we serve with the angels in the Kingdom where there is no thought of disease, no judgment of others, and most importantly, there is a serene sense of calm and peace in the midst of chaos.
I shutter to think where we would all be without prayer.
3) THE EUCHARIST IS THE ONE THING WE MUST GUARD WITH ALL OF OUR STRENGTH!
We end that hymn at Pre-Sanctified Liturgy by saying, “Let us draw near with faith and love…and become communicants of life eternal.” The Church is speaking about the Eucharist dear ones. Life Eternal! Not a cup of disease!
The reality of what the Eucharist is, and what it does for us, is the teaching that we have to guard will all of our might. We might be able to take precautions with the wine and bread after Holy Communion, but the Body and Blood of God is not, and will never be, a source of transmission of a disease. If you have doubts about that, leave them at the door with the rest of your earthly cares. Perish the thought from your mind, as you draw near to the chalice “with faith and love.”
4) EXPECT PERSECUTION
Our faith will be tested in a very real way during this pandemic. There will be persecution and it will come from two places. The first will come from the outside—from those who do not understand the power of the Divine Liturgy and the necessity of the Eucharist. The second, and perhaps the more dangerous persecution, will come from the inside.
Anytime there is a period where any of us has to be absent from the Divine Services, where we are separated from the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, there is an internal struggle between the demons and our souls. I urge you all to not allow this situation, which has been brought on by the devil himself, to be a source of despondency and despair.
Double the time you spend in your icon corners at home. If you don’t have one, as soon as you read this sentence, go and create a little chapel in your home. If you have to join us remotely via a live stream, devote your entire attention to it, as if you were in the Liturgy itself. Don’t sit on your couch and watch in your pajamas! Get dressed, light your candles, burn your incense, cross yourselves, sit for the homily, stand for the rest of the service. Do what you can to enter into that precious period of prayer with the rest of your parish family.
These next few weeks can go in a number of directions, ranging from “not a big deal” to even greater “panic and dread.” We all take comfort in knowing that as unsteady as the ship of life can sometimes feel, we have the steady rock of the Church and the unending and unconditional love of God that gives us all the strength that is necessary to combat the evils of the world!
Be assured of my love for each and every one of you as we navigate this Lenten Trial together!