Dear Holy Nativity Faithful,
Last summer (2021) there were some pretty strict rules in place in the province of British Columbia, Canada, regarding masking and the number of people that could be in a church at the same time. These rules loosened in the fall, but now the province is about to return to stricter rules, but now with a new twist.
The new twist is this: if everyone in the church is vaccinated, then 100% capacity is allowed. If only one person is unvaccinated, then only 50% capacity is allowed.
This is not the place to debate or even discuss the reasons—stated or unstated—for this new rule. Nor do I want to discuss possible political responses to this latest mandate. My concern is how to help my community respond to this rule in such a way that the vaccinated and the unvaccinated don’t accuse, judge or harass one another.
Here is what I wrote to my community:
You have probably heard on the news that there are new provincial health department rules for churches. The exact rules have not yet been published nor put into effect (which means that this weekend continues on the old rules). Probably what the new rules will entail is a requirement for worshipers to wear masks indoors and a limit on the number of people in the building. We have done this before, so we know the drill. Once we have the details, we will let everyone know the plan and will make an online sign-up sheet available.
I want to make clear to everyone that we will not be asking anyone about vaccination status. As in almost all matters, so with government health mandates, it is possible (probable) that very godly, intelligent and well-meaning people will disagree. Let’s not let self righteousness—and her children, fear, anger, and judgement—keep us from loving one another and believing the best of one another, even if we don’t see eye to eye on this or any other political or medical matter.
Strong feelings quickly become passions. Let us not lose this opportunity to love our neighbour, especially the neighbour who doesn’t see things the right way (i.e. the way I see them). Below is a reflection on the Love of God based on a passage from St. Silouan of Mt. Athos.
“The Lord loves us more dearly than we can love ourselves.”
It is very hard for us to believe that God loves us as much as He does. It’s hard to believe because our hearts and minds are so caught up in this empty and ever-changing world. We think we have life in this world somewhat figured out, and just then, WHAM!, everything changes. And we wonder, if God loves us, why is life so painful and confusing?
When times are good for us, we can come up with all sorts of arguments to explain away the pain of others and the existential angst we occasionally experience in our wealth and privilege. But when times are bad, all logic and arguments fail. Then what we think we believe is stripped down to what we actually believe. And sometimes we are frightened by just how paltry our faith seems to be, frightened by how quickly we lose the certainty that we had a short time ago.
St. Siouan understood what it is to lose certainty, to be overwhelmed by pain and confusion. He was a saint who had seen the Light of God and had visions of Christ and the Holy Theotokos; and then, with no warning or explanation, God took it all away from him—for fifteen years. And yet, toward the end of his life, St. Siouan could say, “The Lord Loves us more dearly than we can love ourselves.” The Saint goes on to explain:
“But the soul [person] in her distress supposes that the Lord has forgotten her, even has no wish to look upon her, and she suffers and pines. But [this] is not so, brethren. The Lord loves us without end, and gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, and comforts us. It is not the Lord’s desire that the soul should be despondent and in doubt concerning her salvation. Believe and be sure that we continue in suffering only until we humble ourselves; but so soon as we humble ourselves there is an end to affliction, for the Divine Spirit discloses to the soul, because of her humility, that she is saved.”
Why is humility so hard for us? It’s hard because this humbling of ourselves, of our souls, is not what we are used to. We are used to being in control, or at least somewhat in control. We are not used to trusting God for what we don’t see, don’t understand. We are used to rights and privileges and opportunities. We are not used to the constraint that all humble people experience. We are used to our own will, not to “Thy will be done.”
During these days of floods, changing covid regulations, and fluctuating financial markets, let’s run to humility. Let’s entrust ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God. There really is no other way to be saved.
I love you Fr. Michael! May God continue to bless you and have mercy upon you in life and ministry.
Father, If you had to recommend one book that best captures the insights of st silouan, what would it be? Thank you, Ed.
Unfortunately, I really only read St Sophrony’s life of St. Silouan. I don’t know any summaries.
A great book
I thank you for this post who really helps me …. very good meditation for this moment ….
I give thanks to God to receive these words !
Yes, as you write : let’s run to humility ! This is the crucial point ….
Thank you Father. Good words
I find myself frustrated with one line in particular. “keep us from loving one another and believing the best of one another, even if we don’t see eye to eye on this or any other political or medical matter.”
But these are not ‘political matters’. These are moral matters that have *been politicized*.
I’m not sure that the political and the moral are that distinct. Perhaps political refers to how moral matters are administered. My personal morality affects the people around me, making it political. People certainly disagree about what the best ways are to limit or manage personal freedom/responsibility so that the freedom/responsibility of others isn’t too interfered with. My hope is that in the midst of this moral and political disagreement, we will continue to be Christians, manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
I think my nervousness stems from the fact that I see the New Testament envisioning a lot more unity on serious ethical matters than the present ‘live and let live and disagree in charity’ approach lets on. I find myself wishing that the Church would simply legislate one approach or the other on the matter of this pandemic, vaccination, and so forth, so that those of us on the other side of the issue could know where we stand, and choose to either obey or walk away. I believe that the vaccine should be obligatory upon anyone claiming to love their neighbor as themselves. If that is not what the Church teaches, she should say so and simply exclude those who differ. There is a serious lack of clarity on matters of vital moral importance about which there can be no legitimate disagreement: either the one position is correct and the other is wrong, or vice-versa.
I totally understand. It does seem that it would be easier if the church just told us what the right thing to do was. But that strategy didn’t work well for Israel when they told Moses “whatever God tells us to do, we will do it”.
Even in the New Testament, St. Paul takes a good part of both the books of Romans and 1Corinthians telling his readers that eating meat sacrificed to idols was a matter of conscience, not law. There are many,many moral issues that the church has clear teaching about. However, it is also within the Orthodox tradition to have some controversial matters left to conscience. I know this makes it harder, but that might be on purpose.
The thing about St. Paul is that he goes out of his way to tell his readers not to cause scandal, not to be stumbling blocks to each other. Eating all meat is perfectly okay, but St. Paul will become a vegetarian if it would harm his brother’s faith to see him eating meat — that kind of thing. And what we have too much of in the church right now is people insisting on their right to cause scandal, to be stumbling blocks, to eat meat at church when they know everyone else is trying to fast, etc., etc.
The question is, who is insisting on the right to scandalize? Who is putting the stumbling block before whom? Is it the one who refuses to abide by a mask mandate, or the one who insists on adopting / enforcing it? Either way, there is scandal.
My thought is that, where it concerns individual parishioners, the wearing of masks, socially distancing, getting the shot, etc., are all matters of individual discipleship and discernment, and the matter should be left to the individual, their spiritual father and their priest to sort out. But mandates involving changes to liturgy put at risk the Gospel, which announces Christ’s defeat of death, the demons, and all hostile powers.
Trigger warning: Gets a bit preachy
We chant, “the laws of nature have been overcome in you, Spotless Virgin” because of the Incarnation. That’s the Gospel. The Church is an ontological extension in time and space of that Incarnation, that victory over death. This is especially manifest in the Liturgy, with its culmination in the receiving of the Holy Eucharist. When we partake of the Cup of Immortality, we are united to Christ’s deified human nature, and by the same token, to each other. Thus, in the liturgy (and in all the services, really), the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, is constituting us as Christ’s Body.
If this is how we understand what is going on in the Liturgy, it is not surprising that many of the faithful are discomfited by mask-wearing, the use of multiple spoons, socially distancing, and so forth, as these all call into question what the Church says is happening during the Liturgy. Can we really believe that, in the context of a Holy Liturgy, we can get sick by receiving the Holy Eucharist or by being too close to other members of the deified Body of Christ? Have the laws of nature not been overcome, regardless of what our prayers say? What can such a belief be if not blasphemy?
Again, I emphasize that I am not saying of any individual person who wears a mask or who “has concerns” is blaspheming. As I said, that’s a matter of personal discipleship. Rather, the Church blasphemes when she, as a matter of policy, changes her liturgical practices in a manner that denies what she proclaims. And this is true whether it’s the world demanding these changes or not.
I whole heartedly agree with you. However you are begging the question, “who decides what constitutes changes that challenge what happens in the Liturgy?” Does the use of masks or multiple spoons really challenge what happens in the Liturgy? Who decides? It seems to me that this is a matter for bishops, not laity. Or maybe the grace in my life exceeds the grace in my Bishop’s, or maybe the holy elders I prefer have more grace than the holy elders my bishop looks to, or maybe it’s just the ones with the largest internet presence who are the most grace-filled. (Obviously I’m being a bit sarcastic here.) I think we need to be very careful not to let the turmoil of the moment fill us either with fear or with judgmental pride. It may indeed turn out in 20 – 50 years that the church will look back on this time with clear insight and decide that masks and multiple spoons was heretical. Or the Church May look back and say that these were appropriate economic measures. Or maybe I am completely without grace and cannot see what is obvious to others.
Again, leaving everything to “individual discipleship and discernment” doesn’t work in group settings. That is the dilemma that St Paul is dealing with in passages like Romans 14. That, I assume, is one of the reasons the Church eventually settled on collective fasting rules, instead of leaving everything to personal choice.
As for hymns about “the laws of nature” being changed, it’s not clear how a poem about the virgin birth automatically leads to the belief that there is some sort of anti-viral force field surrounding any space where a liturgy is being performed. If other members of the deified Body of Christ can sin against me — even in the sanctuary — then they can certainly spread communicable diseases to me, too.
My own bishop instructed us to follow the mask rules, whatever they happen to be, way, way back in May 2020 — six months before masks became mandatory in indoor public spaces for the first time in BC. If anyone chooses to disobey the bishop publicly, it is they who are doing the scandalizing, I’d say.
Precisely what Peter said. “The laws of nature are overcome” means that Christ, the only-begotten, was born of a Virgin, without a mother from His Father and without a father from His Mother. It does not mean that the laws of nature are everywhere and always overcome. Gravity still works, for example.
David, you are scandalizing your brothers and sisters who have serious concerns over their health (such as a physician saying “If you get this disease you will probably die”) over a poorly-informed theologumenon. This is nonsense. Please stop.