The Community We All Need

I am publiishing this from the archives of the blog. During a time when many are practice “social distancing” in the face of the Covid19 virus, we do well to think about the nature of what we have lost (temporarily). Individualism feels easy until loneliness begins to set in. I pray this will find you well and be of use.

 

I once read that the Russian instinct, when under pressure, was to gather with other people, while the American instinct was to flee. Thus, the Russian landscape was marked by villages, while America was marked with isolated homesteads. My Russian knowledge is just hearsay, but I know that Americans like to homestead and to be alone. The American suburb is not a village, it is streets filled with little homesteads, islands of isolation, affectionately known as “my castle.” Americans are also frightfully lonely.

I have served for some thirty-seven years in ordained ministry at six different parishes, and worked in the establishment of a handful of others. Everywhere I have ever served, the topic of “community” has been popular. The very popularity of the topic points to the poignancy of its absence. My thoughts are that community is simply too shameful for most to bear.

The Russian vs. American description (whether accurate or not) will serve to point to the problem. The Russian experience for many centuries was marked not only by the dangers of wolves and the like, but the much more fearful danger of marauding Tartars. Villages and cities were frequently terrorized by an enemy who could occasionally be placated with ransom payments, but very rarely defeated. This pattern continued for around 250 years and had profound effects on the shaping of culture. The American experience, similarly faced with a vast open land for settlements, was that of conquering rather than being conquered. They vanquished their foes (native Americans) and took their lands. The so-called “pioneer spirit” was exalted as a virtue, with stories of brave individuals rather than fearful villages.

Communities are not built by pioneers. They are rooted in mutual need and brokenness. Stanley Hauerwas has observed:

My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger.

The need, created by various forms of weakness, must be acknowledged and accepted. The “shame” associated with it must be borne by the community as a whole. Without that acceptance, there can never be sufficient safety for a community to form. And this, I think, is the largest obstacle to “community” in our American landscape. We need each other but are both afraid to acknowledge how and in what manner as well as being fearful of our own inadequacy in the face of others’ need. It is much easier to talk (and write) about community.

At two points in my life I have been hospitalized with depression-related symptoms. The details are of no public interest, but both experiences were profound. The first was a bust: the treatment was improper and I was far from ready to be there. The second was a complete reverse. I was more than ready to be there, and found myself within a community of treatment that was simply the safest place I had ever known in my life. It was incredibly diverse in every possible way, including the nature of the various diagnoses. We shared only occasional elements of religious belief. However, the need was extremely clear and vulnerability became a hallmark of most interactions. Its community was profound.

Part of the lore surrounding the American military is that our men do not die for their country. Instead, they die for the guy next to them in the foxhole. The real stories of real wars and real heroes are rarely shared outside of that circle of experience. They are both too shameful and too wonderful.

My parents were extremely nostalgic about both the Great Depression and World War II. They were born in 1924 and were shaped by those great events. When you questioned them, or listened to their stories, there were an abundance of “needy” tales. The poverty of the Great Depression as well as the shared inventiveness of its management sounded like adventures when I heard them. The war put an entire nation on an equal footing of shared sacrifice and need. There were shortages borne by all.

I was in England a few years back when a news story broke about a pub riot in Scotland regarding England’s national soccer team. An Englishman was killed, as I recall. It became a topic of conversation with the cabby who was of my father’s generation. “I can’t understand it!” he said. “We were in the war together!”

It was not the first time I have heard nostalgic comments about that wartime. Of course, it is about a kind of community, enforced by the magnitude of the need.

Our needs are no less great, even though the war is so much less obvious. Privately, even secretly, we are all running short of something, and have just come from one emotional bombardment or another. I see the British war memes almost everywhere: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” They still speak to the soul.

The Church is, first and foremost, a community. It is, indeed, the primary community, the communion of God and humanity in Christ. We often think about it as a community of “faith,” imagining that it is our shared beliefs that bind us together. And, of course, having failed at any number of points to keep calm and carry on, our faith wanes, or falters, and we feel isolated and excluded. We fear to speak of the alienation.

A careful study of St. Paul’s letters makes it clear that we are saved not by our strength (or even our common faith): we are saved by our weakness. Grace is only truly complete and in its fullness in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Strangely, we fear that our weakness (in its various manifestations) will drive others away. In truth, if others are not with you in your weakness, they are not truly with you. We gladly celebrate our strengths, and place great store by our perceived talents. Those things bring us awards and congratulatory attention. But we do not enter into communion through such things – they do not reside in that faculty of the heart where communion can be found. The communion we have with Christ is, strikingly, through His shed blood and His broken body. In a similar fashion, our capacity for communion lines up most closely with that which is most vulnerable – and hence – always very close to the places of our own wounds.

I think that the lived reality of God’s-grace-in-our-weakness is largely absent in contemporary Christianity (of every sort). It is, I think, one reason why we are all given over to such boasting. I will easily be misunderstood when I say that Orthodoxy is the worst of all Christian groups. I mean by this, that we carry the burden of 2,000 years. An honest study of those years should remove any temptation to triumphalism. Someone might ask, “Then why be Orthodox?” I can only answer that I need it and that I have chosen to enter communion with the weakness of the Church through the ages.

The Church in Jerusalem was founded in a shared, common weakness. Its first gatherings were behind locked doors. They had arguments (Thomas). They had failures (Ananias and Sapphira). The argued over doctrine (gentiles) and ministry (neglecting Greek widows). They were prone to factionalism (Corinth) and false teaching (Galatians). The dire warnings contained in the seven letters within Revelation were written to Orthodox communities. There is no historical evidence that the Church learned from its difficulties in the first century and outgrew its problems. It has never(!) been other than it was then.

I can only bear witness that cowering behind locked doors, I have encountered the risen Christ. The sooner we learn to speak the truth about ourselves to one another, and to confess our abject poverty before Christ, the sooner we will know the only community that will ever exist: founded in need, and filled with God.

49 comments:

  1. “My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger.”

    I groan inwardly at this because it makes me lonely to read it – and yet it is so true. About the current pandemic, someone said that it almost feels like people have been secretly hoping for such a thing to happen. I agree and think that it stems from the fact that during such a crisis most of us get real, and party of that reality is the fact that we all need each other.

  2. Thanks for this, Father. I actually find it difficult, being weak. I have spent most of my life being proud of the fact that, whatever arises, I can get through it. It is difficult to humbly accept weakness–in others, especially (I think, “Why can’t they get through it like me?”, with disdain). But it is a part, I am discovering, of being and becoming human. Perhaps being human is gaining humility, and becoming human is humbly accepting the weakness of my brothers and sisters? Just thinking out loud.

  3. Dear Father
    You well may be right, but my personal experience also over 6 decades is somewhat different. I noticed many times to count that when the going gets tough, the tough get going; and, it is just happens for my personal experience that the preponderance of the “tough” are the most social people that I ever known; and, they would take the “bullet”so to speak to protect or saved others. However, I would not generalize one way or the other. It is just an observation of the life I lived so far.
    Respectfully
    William

  4. Byron,

    So being weak is your weakness? (grin)

    I totally sympathize with your instinct to be strong, but I also recognize that for me this is the precise reason why God’s given me some of the weaknesses I have. I need them for my salvation. I’m ALL for helping others, but I struggle with asking for help and allowing others to see me vulnerable. However, the the occasions when I’ve been forced into that situation have been the most rewarding and have promoted the most growth in my life.

    Success in this area isn’t to become a professional at wallowing in one’s weaknesses, but to embrace them as they show up – and in so doing, learn to walk with and love our fellow human beings. A visual of this is Jesus spreading His arms on the cross. And it hurts just as much, or so I imagine. But it leads to unending life.

  5. Well, I’m stopping by because I NEED you folks. Although I don’t always read everything, this blog has been a virtual community for me for more than 7 years. And now it seems that almost all of my human contact is virtual.

    I am doing most of my work from home right now as our practice scrambled to put together a temporary “telepsychology” so that we can continue to help our patients without contributing to the spread of NOVID-19. I generally enjoy living alone but these are weird times. I always thought I would have church as an option.

    As a RC, I could go to liturgy every day as well as a host of other gatherings. My need for community seemed securely met. Now everything is cancelled through Easter. No Holy Week services? No Easter services? I have never known the Church to cancel Mass for a day much less weeks. If there was a tragedy, church is where we gathered. Even if we didn’t, we knew we could.

    I know my faith community is still with me as I am with them. But we do not know what is coming and our best defense is “social distance”. I recently read an article in the New York Times about the greatly increased risk the Persian Jewish community faces in New York. Their strength, a strong culture of community, is causing them more infection, more death. Yet they cannot fathom not celebrating Sabbath or sitting Shiva for the dead.

    I am a firm believer that these steps are necessary. I also believe that God will bring great good out of this evil. But in the meantime, virtual hugs to all to all of you. I’ll be back…

  6. Thank you, Father Stephan, for posting.

    Perhaps after one experiences The Divine Energies in kairos time during Divine Liturgy saying one may say ” it is good for us to be here” as Peter did during The transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. This term, often used as an affirmative in our culture, how it reads in Scripture is almost nonsensical to see it as an end in itself. We are being prepared, as Peter and the others were. We may still have to go forth weeping, to carry our seeds, sowing with tears, fulfilling the unity of Christ. This is done out of obedience. There is no promise of sanctification. But a memory of repentance, an oath of allegiance, an offering of unity. With the many many many souls a vow not to hinder but to offer with love.

  7. Mary,
    I’m convinced that, despite how extraordinary this time feels, it’s something a return to “real time.” Our lives in all of their modern willfulness are being impinged by something beyond our control – which is about the most normal thing in this world. I’ll have much to say as we go along, while not trying to rub salt in our fresh wounds. The enemy meant this to us for evil – but God means it to us for good!

  8. Thank you, Father Stephan,
    ” The sooner we learn to speak the truth about ourselves to one another, and to confess our abject poverty before Christ, the sooner we will know the only community that will ever exist.”

    I believe today to thank God, the Church is the center of the universe, as Vladimir Lossky would say. ” It is the “sphere in which its destinies are determined.”

  9. “Our lives in all of their modern willfulness are being impinged by something beyond our control – which is about the most normal thing in this world.” Yes! Perfectly put.

    “I’ll have much to say as we go along, while not trying to rub salt in our fresh wounds.” Looking forward to that. We need it. Thank you, Father.

  10. A comment that I wrote into my old KJV bible for 2 Corinthians 12.9 is:

    When I am weak in the strength that is mine,
    Then am I strong in strength Divine.

  11. I’m happen to be in a country, for a few months now, where many still understand in their hearts what a plague is. Glory to God for all things!

    Thank you, Father.

  12. So good! Thank you Fr Stephen.

    “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” – D. T. Niles

    When i am weak, i am strong.

    Bless
    JP

  13. This is such a good post for today. We who live quiet unseen lives don’t notice a whole lot of difference in our daily routines, but I have found it hard to focus on needful things. I am hoping that it will get better as I get used to the isolation. I ask each of you to add to your prayer list, the name of my son Eric who has had life saving surgery postponed due to this virus. He lost his job recently and is now taking care of his 3 young sons while his wife works. I am 1,500 miles away. I am feeling particularly weak and it is so good to be reminded that in this weakness, I can allow God to act in all His power and glory. Thank you for your prayers.

  14. Great post Father!

    Two thoughts: I was lucky to grow up on Air Force bases in Japan and Idaho. Talk about community!!! We did everything together. In fact, our little communities were enclosed in a giant fence to keep outsiders out.

    During this COVID-19 crisis, I am joining with my neighbors on NextDoor.com to share information and keep updated on events in our community. We are rural, out here in the Texas Hill Country, but there is a strong sense of community.

    Stay healthy and keep posting.

    dc

  15. Thank you Father for reposting this.
    Looking forward to your ‘not rubbing salt in the wound’ thoughts.
    I tried expressing my thoughts to a friend when this crisis ‘hit home’, and I was met with a counseling session. That didn’t go over real well. There was no engagement between ‘equals’.
    It’d be nice just to sit with people who are admittedly confounded, confused or saddened over this. It would give us a chance to led encouragement.
    The crisis hit home for me when the Divine Liturgies (during Lent, no less) were cancelled. When I read the latest encyclical from Met Joseph and our dear priest, Fr Gabriel, from my gut, I cried.
    It is just sad.
    ‘Social distancing’…ironically, best describes my everyday social life, though obviously not in the same way as this politically correct term.
    I am concerned for the isolated, lonely individuals in our country, in our Church, and neighborhood.
    I think this crisis, if anything, affords us to reach out, to contact, those folks. They can even be as close to us as our neighbors.

    Sure, we trust God. But nevertheless, this is still a difficult time.

  16. Father, when you mention your mental health struggles so openly it really helps me, & I’m sure I’m not the only one. Thank you so much.

  17. Fr,

    I believe I understand your point about the Church not being a community of faith, as I have always been struck at the number of faiths I have seen in just a single parish – about as many as their are individuals. For example, needed changes just this week to our liturgical routines have brought out the various faiths people have in the meaning of community liturgical gathering, the Eucharist, etc.

    I do not believe I am following you however on then what the Church is, as a community. You say that the Church is a community, a communion *of need*, and this need is fulfilled in/by God. Is this not however a universal -a very condition of our very existence whether we are Orthodox, or Christian, or something else entirely? Our contingent createdness, our sinful brokenness, and our *need* for God to save and fulfill the meaning of these givens and our ultimate destiny/end does not really require an awareness of it or a community of awareness (i.e. of faith). As the psalmist says “My heart and my flesh failed, but God is my inheritance” (72:26). Communion with God is what fulfills the failure of the heart (and mind, soul, etc.), flesh – and is “inherited” regardless of our worth, accomplishments, knowledge, etc.

    Given this, then why congregate at all? If this universal need is fulfilled (i.e. “inherited”) by God regardless of our Orthodoxy, or Christianity, our morality, a “spiritual state”, or any other aspect of our heart, soul, will, and power – then how is need a basis of community?

    I suppose I am saying that I don’t see how the need we all have is a basis for Christian community, and that it seems that a shared awareness on some level – and this is not just intellectual – is at the heart of it. In other words faith, however imperfected, *is* the basis of community and communion. Interested in your thoughts on this…

  18. This is off-topic, but it is a question for the “community” here at the blog: 🙂

    Within the past few months, someone mentioned a quote (perhaps by Dostoevsky, I’m not sure) that went something along the lines of “When people have everything they need, they become obsessed with their wants. When they have everything they want, they desire it to excess. When they have excess, then they desire perversion.”

    I’ve been combing the blog with Google search functions but can’t seem to find this reference. Does anyone remember it?

  19. A few years ago I was given a discipline of 9 months away from the Cup. It was a very fruitful time for me and some of the lessons from that time are coming to mind in new ways: primarily that proper preparation for receiving the Eucharist is almost as important as actually receiving it. Repentance, forgiveness, kindness. Those are all acts of communion. Prayer for each other, in Christ, connects us to one another in profound ways even if we are not clairvoiant saints. The hymn “Ode too Joy” kept recurring in.my mind this afternoon even as I work in an insurance agency and I was innundated with questions on coverage in relation to Covid-19. .

    Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice

  20. Very glad to see you again Mary Benton and hi Paula. Paula, you said something a few months ago that I have reflected on, about the joy and motherly love you felt at knowing a young man at you parish was going to be Baptized, and I’ve had some general throughts I’ve been hoping to share about the what the Church is. This is based on many thoughts over the years, I kind of don’t know where to write it so I will write it here

    I think of it is incremental adulthood. We all have injuries and gaps from how we were raised, things we didn’t learn but should have. I had an epic meltdown, bursting into tears a few years ago following coffee hour at my parish when I realized I was one car seat short. I had hosted the coffee hour, done about 90 things right in a row, but then traded cars with my husband and kept the kids with me. A lady I know who is so gracious, she has been so kind and encouraging to me, had kind of had her eye on me during the serving food process and had helped keep an eye on my kids. She had noticed me pack up at the end and somehow detected my increased stress level as I realized my mistake. And I had also forgotten my phone for the eleven thousandth time, she saw me walking back into the hall looking spooked, she had been in her car driving out. But then 2 minutes later she was in next to me in the hall, now nearly empty, and said clamly and warmly ‘I am just going to sit with you.’ Her kindness was just astonishing, and I was able to figure out next steps (borrowed phone, leave message, vehicle exchange reversed)

    I think of everything, the social isolation is the worst. And I simply mean with any problem, to be alone with it. My hunch is a ‘you don’t have to sit alone with that’ model is best for healing and growth. The books Boundries and Changes that Heal talk about it, and the book People Fuel has a quote I hope to share tomorrow. I noticed in the few pages of the book The Conception Chronicles that I read the theme that several friends were having the exact same problem, causing them deep sorrow, but not discussing it. The first one to venture out lound, to begin discussing her sorrow, enabled the others to as well.

    I think of it as Incremental Adulthood. I have been able to learn so much from people around me in my parish and very much here as well. We have an opportunity to see all stages of life, I was prepped for motherhood by seeing another lady patiently interact with her son week after week when I was younger.

    I think at a minimum it is four components
    fellowship, autonomy, search support and trust
    that form the social support that facilitates our growth as people, through God’s love

    fellowship, up to and including the type of kindness of sitting with someone in their moment of difficulty

    autonomy, another profound gift, an older lady once let me describe how I wanted a particular task done without telling me how I should do it differently, and it was a profound gift of helping me realize that I am an adult

    search support — having the chance to hear how others have done things or made it through struggles, not in a ‘you should’ manner but in a personal experience sharing that helps you see what you may not have previously

    and trust: sometimes others can help you see the mistakes you didn’t realize you were making. My fellow Sunday School teacher once helped me to notice I was hurting my hands while working in the garden

    I am also reading the Running on Empty books, and Karyl McBride’s book. I am studying how gaps from or childhood impact us later. I see how God has put people around me, in my parish and here, to help me see what I hadn’t yet or could not see on my own

    My husband is a cell biologist and he explained the at first person to see cells under a microscope named them cells because the nucleus seemed like a monk in a cell, and there were many of them, so a community of monks perhaps. We have a bit of that going on now, in our social distancing and slowing down. I am hopeful about it, I do think good will come of it. I am glad to see this community.

  21. Indeed it is a joy to my heart to hear mary’s voice again. I do not care for the phrase “social distancing”. For one thing it implies that we are actually close. For another it implies that isolation from one another will keep us “safe”. In fact it’s a time to enhance and strengthen community through every other means than physical proximity. Our friends here contacting others in our parishes and churches by phone, prayers, repentance and spiritual songs.

  22. I have to admit that I’m having a hard time believing that the decisions of many American Orthodox bishops to socially distance the Church from herself during a time when people need, as you write Fr. Stephen, community is a good thing. I get the importance of trying to avoid potential accusations from the world of helping the disease spread, but hasn’t the Church often been accused of much worse? And yet these accusations didn’t cause the Church to stop offering the Eucharist to the faithful.

    I understand the points made in favor of decisions to social distance ourselves from receiving Holy Communion, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is nothing other than the mass excommunication of the faithful in a time of profound need, and that feels like the abandonment of God.

    Forgive me.

  23. There is a great blessing to this time, in a way. I was a militant atheist for roughly 15 years, until about 2-3 years ago when I came back to Christ and His Church.

    To see the embodiment of all my former beliefs into these times, brings a tear to the eye. The world in a sense is doing everything i was “praying” it would do in the most nihilistic vision of my former self. The pain is even greater sometimes because, like it or not, I am familiar with the pattern having been inside it and now outside of it (God I pray I’m outside of it). The closing of the churches feels the worst as does the attitude of our Patriarch (I’m not from the US), but as you have said Fr, Stephen, this has been more the norm than the exception since the beginning, we’d been living in the exception for a long time.

    Strangle enough, my attraction to “rebellion” and “edginess” from my youth, never went away, God just found a way to make it serve Him :)). Punks and metal heads think they’re rebellious…. they’ve never seen or read of what Christians can do when being told they can’t practice their faith…. It is sad, but I guess we shouldn’t fear, after all our Church has as “catacomb mode”, if push comes to shove, and so do we 🙂

  24. Christopher,
    I suppose the simple answer to your question “why congregate at all” is because God gives Himself to us, not primarily in an individualistic manner, but within community itself. The community that we imagine we don’t need is simply because we are rich and can afford to maintain a lifestyle that imagines itself as self-sufficient, when, in fact, everything around us is produced by the community of human beings.

    The “need” we all have is that we are contingent beings, plain and simple: “it is not good for the man to be alone.” We cannot discover or live the “good” of our existence as individuals. That this is true of all human beings, everywhere and at all times, doesn’t make it less so for Christians. However, the “kind” of communion and community that is the Church certainly has, or should have, distinctives.

    Your observation on the many “faiths” present within a parish is simply a manifestation of modern individualism. We are Orthodox, but, like good modernists, we want to be Orthodox on our own terms. The “practices” of modernity have nurtured the false virtues of modernity to such an extent that we are far more governed by them than by the virtues of the gospel. How odd that stress should reveal our sin! (irony)

  25. Also, to paraphrase Hauerwas, that our society leaves medical hospitals open and yet closes “the hospital of the soul”, ie the Church, may reveal where we truly put our trust and what we think is actually real.

  26. that our society leaves medical hospitals open and yet closes “the hospital of the soul”, ie the Church, may reveal where we truly put our trust and what we think is actually real.

    A recent post on social media, concerning the Eucharistic gathering of the faithful, resulted in one individual calling it “anti-science” (to be fair, he did so not without kindness; simply in a discussion).

    The anti-Christ views of the society around us will only be heightened by the virus. When this passes, the secular world will say “Science saved us!” and continue to see the Church as subject to the world. That the Church, in humility, observes healthy action for the faithful in all situations will be overlooked, or will be considered evidence of the Church “following” science for its own preservation.

    The world will always do this. We should not let it bother us.

  27. William,
    Nonsense, forgive me. How the Church is managing the communication of disease in crowds is proper in its variety of applications. Any notion that we can’t catch diseases (flu, corona, etc.) while attending Church is in no way a proclamation of the Orthodox faith. It creates a zone of special rules in which none of the effects of the fallen world can enter the doors of the Church. Since we clearly are able to sin within the doors of the Church, and people even die in services, we can apparently catch viruses as well. Refusal to obey lawful directives of health officials is not an act of piety. Nor should we offer judgment and calumny against the hierarchs of the Church who have directed us to obey such directives. It’s not a question of faith, or proving some kind of loyalty.

    I think that our behavior and the rebellious meditations of our hearts reveal what is actually “real” there. It reveals that we are self-directed, individualists, consumed by a protestant mindset. Instead, we should repent, give thanks for all things and ask God to deliver us and all from the darkness of our hearts and protect us as we battle this viral enemy.

  28. Byron,
    The world will never judge us rightly. But God will do so. We are Orthodox Christians. We have hierarchs. We obey them. And then we rejoice as much as possible in all things. I am losing my patience with the mask of piety evidenced by many who criticize our bishops’ lawful and godly directives. I note that on the whole, the same individuals on social media who are so bravely griping are the same individuals who are always griping about something. Their piety is largely griping. As I’ve said many times, we should not mistake our own neuroses for virtue.

  29. Byron,
    There is also no split between good Church and good science, nor should we entertain such conversations. Those who imagine eucharistic assemblies to be exempt from the laws of nature (communicable diseases) are not doing “bad science” – they’re doing bad theology. But, if they do so under obedience to their hierarchs, then their hierarchs have clearly taken that theological responsibility on themselves. I leave that to God.

  30. Forgive me, Father. I did not take part in the on-line discussion but recalled it as an example of how the world views the activities of the Church and was mulling it over “out loud”. I apologize for any confusion I’ve caused. I did not mean it as a critique of our hierarchs directives.

  31. I don’t mean to be rebellious. I am obeying the directives of the hierarchics after all. Nor have I asserted the impossibility of catching ill while in Church. Forgive me, but I suspect you are making assumptions about me based on what others have said.

    I’m only stating my experience of these directives, which directives seem (in my admitted ignorance) historically unprecedented. Was Divine Liturgy halted (or the faithful discouraged from attending it), for instance, during the Spanish flu in order to stop its spread? I honestly don’t know.

    I do know, based on Fr. Tom Hopko’s work, that it is emphatically NOT wrong to question priests and even bishops from time to time. I can think of a few bishops and priests, for example, who were notorious heretics–which is not, needless to say (though I feel the need to say it based on your previous assumptions), what is happening now. It’s certainly not wrong to be honest about my experience even as I continue to obey the directives of the bishops.

    Forgive me, but calling my genuine struggles in a difficult time Protestant nonsense is far from beneficial for anyone.

  32. Dear Father Stephen and your dear little community of faith, it has come to me that I am not of your community but that is very fine, you have been together for many years, and you welcomed me at first but saw I was a stranger. That too is very fine – the beautiful hymn we have sings ‘Give me that stranger,’ so I am welcome in a larger and deeper context.

    Little children, do not be afraid. Didn’t our Lord say at the last supper “In my Father’s house there are many mansions – were it not so I would have told you. I go there to prepare a place for you.”

    And to my mind in this difficult time comes the words of the ‘gospel’ hymn — “Twelve gates to the city, Alleluia!” It’s the pattern of the twelve disciples, isn’t it? One lay on his breast then, that’s Orthodoxy. The others, well, they did as they were told and spread out all over the earth, where they may be found, in different versions of the faith, lesser or greater than the one lying on His breast. That’s how I see it. God loves them all.
    Mine has been and still is like Mary of Egypt out in the desert where I do not see or hear the complete liturgy any longer. But I sing it; I do sing it, and as I do my own dear little community of old is with me, whether in heaven or still here on earth. And I am so like Mary of Egypt, not worthy to enter unless I enter it desert-bound, but there I do. Her one need was to have one visitor come, one like her and like us all – an aware sinner. And he did bring her the Holy
    Communion. I too have had such a one; I only await the good lion here.
    I won’t come again with words, though I will often visit, but you are all in my heart – open yours to the many mansions which also await His coming!

  33. I’m also thinking of a recent comment you made on another post, in which you stated, “Generally, there will be no interruption of communion. Years and years of various studies regarding things like the Common Cup in the West, or Communion on a spoon, as in the East, have consistently shown that these are not vectors of infection…So – wash hands, don’t touch your face. Maybe not shake hands. But, I have no fear of the Cup or the Spoon. As a priest – you also consume everything after everyone else. I’ve never worried about colds, flu, etc., during the whole of my 40 years of ministry. I think things will be fine.”

    I know this was written before the directives, but I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Have all the things I read before the directives–the cup is the source of all healing, do not fear attending Church at times like this, etc.–from priests and bishops been totally turned on their head? Again my honest experience of this all is utter confusion, and I highly doubt I’m alone in this. You and others in the Church hierarchy would do well to not shame these concerns into silence.

  34. Byron,
    The spread of pandemics had a much more local flavour in the past;
    over 30000 flights a day -these days- evidence a different world to the past one, with greater susceptibility to pandemia.
    I can’t help noticing however that this pandemic is the first time in history that we do not have any litanies against it (I just know of one in Ukraine that was obviously criticised, and of course within monasteries with closed gates). Perhaps the reasons for that are quite complex. But, we do, largely face the crisis trusting only in ourselves and our devices –secularly- and not in God.
    I just thought of this because, [‘Science’ and the overriding-of-science (i.e.: as in ‘miracle’) aside], there are countless stories of these miraculous litanies in such times in history.
    Of course that requires a different world to our current, non-secular one.
    One way or another this plague turns many things of secularity on its head.
    God has the ability to bring good out of evil beyond anything man can conceive.

  35. One last post, my little community had for its Cherubim hymn this version we had ourselves composed from the original Greek. I don’t think any other church took it up, but I still feel it is the very best and most accurate version:

    Here we become, in mystery,
    Icons, icons of the cherubim,
    Icons of the cherubim;
    Echoing their singing
    Holy, holy, holy thrice
    In the hymn to the life-giving Trinity
    Echoing their singing
    Holy, holy, holy, thrice.

    Now let us lay aside
    Every care of this life,
    Every care of this life,
    Every care of this life.

    So we may welcome the King of all,
    King of all!
    Invisibly upborne
    By the angelic host
    On shields and spears
    Like conqueror;
    Alleluia! Alelluia!
    Alleluia, Alleluia.

  36. Dino,

    That is very interesting! And yes, I was focused on how the world sees the Church in this time (and will see it afterward) instead on God’s providence! What you meant for evil, God meant for good. Glory to God and many thanks for this!

  37. “…I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Have all the things I read before the directives–the cup is the source of all healing, do not fear attending Church at times like this, etc.–from priests and bishops been totally turned on their head?…”

    William, do you have access to the two essay’s appended to some (but unfortunately not all) copy’s of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World”? If you do it is worth the effort to try to grasp what he is saying. Recent events, as well as the controversy over celiac disease and the Eucharist of about year or so ago had me re-reading these essays. Fr. Alexander was very pessimistic about the overall state of Orthodoxy’s pietistic “comprehension” of the Eucharist and all of our sacraments. He believed that during the middle ages a “pseudomorphism” had occurred for the great mass of Orthodox believers and they had in truth taken on the nominalistic “symbolism” we normally associate with the west, the metaphysical split between the sacred and the profane – the two story universe – which is fixed or explained by transubstantiation. This has come out in these recent times as assertions of the Eucharist as being a Trans-Substantiated Heavenly Disinfectant and a very anxious concern that the hierarchy are somehow denying that the bread and wine is not in fact the Body and Blood of our Lord. I agree with Fr. Stephen that this is utter nonsense and reveals that Fr. Alexander was right in that for most (Orthodox or not) we have replaced realist symbolism of the Fathers/Greek East with Scholastic (and of course most of come from a Protestant version of it) either/or metaphysical nominalism.

    Just as with Christ’s human and divine natures in the Incarnation, there is no conflict or tension between the *nature* of the bread and wine and the Body and Blood. No metaphysical *transform* of the bread and wine occurs or is needed – their “breadness” and “wineness” remain while *at the very same time* they be-come the very Body and Blood of our Lord. Same with the Holy Icons, the temple, and all our Sacraments.

  38. The Eucumenical Patriarch Dionysios the V closed all churches in 1890, including not performing the liturgy. He did this as an act of mourning for the prevailing situation in a dispute with the Sultan (this from Mystogogy site).
    I don’t know how long this lasted. I see our bishop here on the West Coast acting wisely, prudently, soberly in love, in all his directives thus far. There are those who would take exception to these directives. Yet I remember also the words of St. Ignatius about how we are to obey our bishop in all things. His letter to the Smyrnaeans is quite strong at this very point. “Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.”
    He uses even more forthright language about what disobedience to the bishop means, but that can be looked up online.
    Your comments, Fr. Stephen, along these lines have strengthened and encouraged me. I do not want to return to my Protestant ways. Then, if I disliked something I could just go down to the next church on the block.
    When I became Orthodox some 25 years ago I wanted to place myself under the most ancient Christian authority I could encounter. God led me to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. As you say, Father, our Church is far from perfect (speaking of all us sinners and saints within Her). Our bishops are far from perfect. But where else could I go? He and His Church alone have the words of eternal life.

  39. A couple of notes:
    Antiochian parishes are open for small numbers at a time to go, light candles and pray. The Divine Lirurgy will continue to be celebrated. Our Typika Service is also available on line and in person. On line learning activities are being made available. I have to ask myself if Church life is actually important enough for me to be at home with my wife and pray the Typika, communicate with my brothers and sisters and not be afraid or if what I really prefer is a more passive approach where the priest does all the work.

    Further, am I really going to enter into the repentance of Lent or do I think of it as just another optional activity. Do I think that receiving the Body and Blood is somehow my “right” and there is magical power there?

    When I do go how much do I really pay attention to my brother’s and sisters there with me or even my Lord?

    The time I was under discipline to be away from the Cup was an extrordinarily fruitful time. It was for nine months due to the mercy of my Bishop, it could have been much longer. The key for me was genuine obedience. When I accepted the discipline, I accepted it wholeheartedly even though I did not agree with the rationale for giving it and had no clear time table for restoration.

    I said yes and I did not once kick against the pricks.

    There is so much work that can be done during such a time. I only scratched the surface. Still, the beginning of the work is repentance which included refusing to remember wrongs against me and those I love or the short comings and mistakes of my Bishop and priest.

    The nine month period is significant to me because, after 22 years in the Church, it was like gestating again and being reborn into the Church.

  40. Christopher
    I haven’t read that, but I took the strict measures of the Church as pertaining to proximity and NOT the actual partaking of the eucharist. Few experiments have 20 centuries of verification (as in priests regularly consuming the entirety of the chalice after having adminisstred to entire wards of far more contagious diseases, who lived long healthy lives and died of cancer, for example) cannot be disregarded on that.. . That’s how I understood Father.

  41. William,
    Sorry to have come on so strong – which is why I began with “forgive me.” But, still, I was quite strong.

    That we question priests, bishops, etc., is, of course, quite Orthodox. However, we mistake a proper questioning – over matters of doctrine, faithfulness to the teaching of the Fathers, to a kind of criticism that is, in fact, a spirit of individualistic protestantism – something that infects the hearts of all of us in this culture – and I do not exempt myself.

    Parish priests suffer as victims of this all the time. There are, for example, any number of practical decisions that priests necessarily make as the spiritual leaders of a community. They are not matters of doctrine or teaching – just the sorts of things that it takes to get a job done and to run a Church. Having done that for 40 years (22 of them as Orthodox), I can say that I never made a decision without an inward tightening of muscles waiting for some blow to fall (it did not always come, but often did). “Everybody is an expert” pretty much applies to everything.

    Heck, in my first year of Orthodox priesthood, I would get Sunday afternoon phone calls to “correct” some mistake I had made in the Liturgy – and that from someone who had never served in an altar, and had been Orthodox less time than myself. He simpy felt the need to be sure I did nothing incorrectly.

    There have been extraordinary times in the past. The flu epidemic of 1918 has been mentioned. However, that crisis was different. At the moment, the crisis, if anything, is a crisis of criticial care facilities. We are behaving in an extraordinary manner to protect our ability to respond at the extraordinary level that is now possible in our health technology. The sort of intubation and such that is available now was not part of the medical bag of tricks in 1918. We are responding in a manner that fits our time and knowledge – and to think that any earlier time did not or would not have acted according to the fullness of their own knowledge and ability does them a great disservice. Historical apples and oranges.

    I still would counsel anyone to have no fear of the Cup. But, in doing so, I’m not trying to suggest that there are no possible germs that could be transmitted there. It’s simply that germs have never been a problem surrounding the use of the spoon or Common Cup – and that has much to do with the medical fact that spoons and Cups are not very good vectors of germs. Never have been.

    Hands, eyes, tears, coughs, etc. are dangerous vectors of infection. Saliva, oddly, is not.

    Forgive me – particularly for any shaming. I thought about that as a problem, and wrote as I did anyway. In that, I probably sinned. If possible, be calm in all of this – the hierarchs and priests are doing their jobs in an unusual situation. Love will cover all things. I’m sorry to have had too little.

  42. Dino,

    Yet, there is a Eucharistic Docetism behind these strong assertions of and anxious need to protect (to choose a term) the Divine nature of the Eucharist (from “diseased” or disease bearing created nature of the bread and wine, ourselves, the temple, etc.). During Fr. Thomas Soroka (OCA) call in program here at Ancient Faith this past Saturday, he mentioned the ancient rubrics instructing a priest when visiting the shut in sick to give the Body and Blood with tongs, and then to use vinegar to clean the tongs, and then to be sure to “burn” the vinegar. There is a certain “conservative” element within the Church who speak loudly on social media who seem unaware of the Church’s actual theological and even practical stance towards the Eucharist and our liturgical piety/routines during times of plague.

  43. Father,

    Thank you for your comments and your patience. Forgive me for adding to the burden I know you must bear. I think we all must be taking on new burdens during this time, and I don’t want to increase the weight. Though I do find myself confused and in fear–not so much for my bodily health as my spiritual health, which I worry (in spite of myself) suffers without partaking of the mysteries.

    Having been in ministry before (for close to 10 years in non-Orthodox settings) I immediately understood what you mean and sympathize with it. I imagine those criticisms must be amplified to a great degree as the author and moderator of a popular blog. I’m sorry that my expression of confusion came across as this type of criticism; I certainly didn’t intend it as such.

    Christopher,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll keep an eye out for those essays. It’s certainly possible that I’m unconsciously thinking along transubstantiation lines, but I don’t think I am. I’ve never considered the two-natures of the elements. That’s really helpful. It reminds me in some ways of the Lutheran understanding that Christ is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, but a hypostatic union seems to be a much stronger and better way to understand it. Mostly I try to leave it a mystery and receive with thanksgiving and awe.

    Dean,

    Thank you for providing that example regarding the Ecumenical Patriarch. That helps quell my fears, which were stoked I suspect by the thought that these church closures (for lack of a better term) come as something completely new and unprecedented.

  44. Father, I thank God for you often. Many people have been and continue to be a part of my conversion to Orthodoxy, but I can safely say that were it not for you and your writings, I would not be part of the Church. Glory to God for all things indeed!

  45. To Laura:
    I was not able to find a source for this statement:
    “When people have everything they need, they become obsessed with their wants. When they have everything they want, they desire it to excess. When they have excess, then they desire perversion.” One might add that after perversion comes death (as in “the wages of sin is death”).
    While I couldn’t find the source, Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” directly thematizes this truth about human nature that, I believe, Christianity identifies and overcomes.
    Ken

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