Community members scattered widely.
Weeks without normal daily and weekly routine, without spiritual instruction, without icons to venerate, without Sunday eucharist, without community agape meals.
This was the deliberate practice of the monastery of Abba Zosima in the sixth century Palestinian desert, every Lent. On the Sunday of Forgiveness, the brethren would prostrate themselves to each other and ask forgiveness and receive a blessing from their abbot. Then each would take whatever food he felt he needed for himself and walk out into the desert, singing “The Lord is my light and my Saviour; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 26:1)
For the next forty days, deliberately, each one would turn away if they spotted any other of their brothers on the horizon.
When we speak of the desert, we think of the sun blazing in hard clear skies over endless sand dunes. The desert Zosima and his fellows entered was more hard earth and scrub, but they did not go there for a particular kind of landscape. They went to a desert, which means a deserted place, a place empty of human beings.
Like those deserted, eerily empty streets of Wuhan or Italy we have seen on TV.
The monks chose to enter Lenten isolation, every year; but in this 2020 pandemic, Lenten isolation is being thrust upon us, upon Christians all over the world.
For us Orthodox Christian lay people, up to this year, Lent has generally been the opposite of a desert experience. Last year, as for many centuries before, we came to more services, not fewer. PreSanctified Liturgies on Wednesday and Friday, Sunday of Orthodoxy vespers with other parishes, canons and akathists, Lenten retreats, healing services… we saw more of our fellow members than we did throughout the rest of the year.
That was last year, and all the years previous that most of us can remember in our lifetime.
The Year of Our Lord 2020, will send all of us into a kind of Lenten isolation. But 2020 is not the Year of the Pandemic; it is still the Year of Our Lord.
Our bishop in the Archdiocese of Canada has just written the following to all his clergy:
“God is giving us a crash course on prayer….. Is our faith only centred on Sunday Liturgies? Or are we centered on prayer? Sunday morning Liturgies should be the climax of our prayer life, which is our intimate relationship with Our Lord. Praying at home is essential for all of us. Now we have to realize this and fall back on it. Praying at home, morning and evening prayers as a family is essential…”
Even while some clergy will have to self-isolate in the coming weeks, remember also that when Mary of Egypt received her communion from the priest-monk Zosimas, it was her viaticum— the holy sacrament received as her last act before her death. The church will not leave her children pastorless, so if there is great need for you to have the sacrament, call on your priest. Under obedience to his bishop he will either be able to attend you or help find another priest who can.
As most church gatherings larger than a very small number are being banned temporarily by civil authorities, the hierarchs and pastors of various dioceses and jurisdiction are responding with obedience and wisdom for the good of their flocks. We have not “forsaken the assembling of ourselves together” which Scripture (Hebrews 10) warns us against; rather, God has sent a time of Lenten isolation to us. We will not be so alone as the monks of St. Zosima’s brotherhood, as we can use 2020 tools like e-mail, streaming, texting, websites and more to help our fellow parishioners, as well as fellow Orthodox beyond our own parishes, to know that we are ‘alone together’.
Indeed, this global pandemic may perhaps bring us new opportunities for evangelism. Keep calm, carry on, and see what God will do as we begin our Lenten isolation, praying ‘alone together.’