Last week I posed a question to some fellow parishioners as well as Ancient Faith folks: “What are you finding most difficult spiritually during this pandemic season as it drags on and on?” I meant struggles in faith and practice, not the annoyance of standing in a socially distanced queue outside of Home Depot on a hot day.
Interestingly, nobody talked about wrestling with prayer or doubt. Instead, people are struggling with the corporate practice of our faith—specifically at the intersection of public safety and churches’ varying responses to this challenging season of pandemic.
Last weekend a couple told me about frustration with their parish’s health screening protocol . They find the procedures alienating and disruptive before liturgy, and conflicting news sources and changing state and county requirements have left them unsure what to believe. They have questions about walking in faith versus fear, and they would rather not attend church at all until we can reach some sort of “normal” again.
Only two days later I spoke on the phone with an older couple who would love to go to church services again, but they have not visited our parish since March. They don’t attend because they don’t feel safe. As part of a vulnerable age group, even with protocols in place, they are deeply concerned about contracting Covid-19.
Angie Nasrallah, an Ancient Faith Writing & Podcasting Conference alumna, was talking with her daughter recently about these issues. Coronavirus cases are trending upward in her area, and at a recent church service the doors were kept shut, with no ventilation. She writes,
It may not seem like it, but this is a spiritual struggle—should we go and take the risk? Should we go and risk others? Should we stay home and risk falling out of the habit with church? Are we tweaked and overreacting? Are we not trusting God? Not wanting to put ourselves and others at risk, we are struggling with just going to church!
Millions of people are wrestling with the same questions, if they have the opportunity to attend church in person. In parts of Canada and the US, bishops have kept the church doors closed, and sacraments are not available. I know of one American priest in a locked-down city who meets secretly with parishioners for confession. A young Orthodox friend of mine began planning her wedding when 50 people were allowed indoors, with social distancing. Since then, her city has returned to lockdown mode, with small groups allowed to gather outdoors. But with dresses and plane tickets bought, food and photography deposits paid, the original wedding plans are moving forward. At this point, their small church wedding may force clusters of two or three people at a time to enter quietly through a side door—more like attending a speakeasy in 1920 than a sacrament of marriage in 2020.
The Struggles and Blessings of Isolation
As our social restrictions continue in varying degrees, some people are finding hidden treasure in the desert of isolation. For Ancient Faith author, blogger, and podcaster Nicole Roccas, the pandemic has eliminated her stress-filled, hour-long subway commute to and from her work in downtown Toronto. “I have found it freeing and rejuvenating to go back to working from home, and don’t want to go back, and have expressed this to my boss,” she writes. “I do get lonely but am learning that I have options for community, and it has forced me to pay more attention to my neighbours.”
The isolation from church has been problematic for an American friend with health issues. Her Orthodox church, located in a small town with a low infection rate, “is basically following no restrictions at all, which means I don’t feel comfortable going to services. I also don’t feel my concerns are being heard. My parish was the center of my life, and now I feel cut off, as if I have lost my center.”
Someone who knows a thing or two about forced isolation is Steve Robinson, of the Our Life in Christ and Steve the Builder podcasts. He has been quarantining since last November because of his cancer battle of chemo and radiation, surgeries, and more chemo, as well as taking care of his elderly parents at home. When Steve finishes his chemo treatments in February 2021, he will have spent a total of 14 months in quarantine.
Although he, like my small-town friend, cannot attend church right now, his experience has been more positive. Steve writes, “I do regard this as a time in ‘the desert,’ that I can focus inwardly and reassess and look bare bones at my relationship with God and what it means for me to be a Christian apart from ‘church’ relationships and services, which is where 90% of my ‘mirror’ is.” He notes that often we let our relationships with other Orthodox people define our spiritual lives. Now that circumstances have forced us apart, who are we as Christians, and how are we doing? Steve asks,
Am I able to look at myself objectively in the mirror of Christ Himself and not the mirror of other people’s opinions of me surrounding Church-related relationships and activity?… I know my self-definition gets wrapped up in other people’s definition, and I start believing what they’re saying and think that’s my “identity” sometimes. It has been good for me to have my “parish mirror” taken away for a while and be left with looking into the face of Christ in my immediate relationships, where I can’t fake “nice” for long. They know who I am under pressure, and no one is impressed by my black cassock, chanting, and flashy theological conversation at coffee hour.
Losing the Physicality of Orthodox Worship
As Steve and Nicole and many others have found, God’s gifts of grace abound during this time of isolation. Many Orthodox writers and speakers have commented on the built-in ascesis of the pandemic and that the past Lenten season felt far more “Lenty” than usual.
Yet, at a time when we should respond to one another with charity, knowing that everyone is navigating this strange season for the first time, some unfortunate ugliness has been on display.
Questions of faith and fear, of risk-taking and loving our neighbor, are quite enough to deal with on a personal level. But the situation is perhaps more complex in the Orthodox Church than with other Christian groups. In many Evangelical churches, the practice of worship has devolved into little more than a concert and a lecture, so watching and listening online is not a vastly different experience from an in-person service—although the lack of personal interaction is painful for everyone.
But the ancient worship of the Orthodox Church is an active, physical practice. All of the senses are involved—the fragrance of incense, the visual feast of iconography, the sounds of chanting and the bells on the censer, the touch of anointing oil on the forehead and the kissing of icons, and, at the center of our worship, the taste of the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
Watching a service online doesn’t compare. Even though we’re grateful for the technology that keeps us connected, a Divine Liturgy on a computer monitor is an exercise in sensory deprivation. We do our best in the vacuum as we stand in front of our screens, cross ourselves, and sing along with “Lord have mercy.” Some of us burn incense in our home censers to add a bit of holy fragrance to our messy living rooms. But our efforts still feel impoverished. So when the opportunity opens up for a limited number of people to attend church, many of us eagerly sign up to claim a spot in the nave.
Unfortunately, various government restrictions have caused real problems. In some areas, city directives as well as bishops’ orders have required the use of multiple spoons for receiving communion, and some overwhelmed priests feel unable to comply. No matter which safety precautions are adopted, some parishioners will be unhappy with the situation.
From his long-term confinement at home, Steve has observed these trends and writes, “‘Church’ and how sacraments are done has become a polarizing cesspool of anger, condemnation, judgment, and division (even in my own parish), and I’d rather be in ‘the desert’ alone with God than try to worship with that kind of undercurrent of tension and hostility over spoons, distancing, masking, etc., etc.”
Have We Learned Anything?
How then should we respond in these strange times? We are living in an extended fast, either surrendering to it or kicking and screaming the days away. We continue following the Church’s fasting schedule as we are able, and, in varying degrees, we are in a time of almost monastic withdrawal from human company. But are we as a Church learning to fast in other ways?
Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. — St. John Chrysostom, Homily III, On the Statues
Some believers’ mouths are working overtime. They are vocal about the inadequacy of safety measures in churches. Some people are vocal against the wearing of masks, social distancing, and the sense of community that has been lost. (Both groups make good points.) Others have even called for believers to defy the bishops who have closed churches during a lockdown. I get the outrage of this last group, to an extent. However, I wonder how anyone could call for rebellion against God-ordained authority, insist on personal preferences, then have the nerve to walk forward, unrepentant, to receive Christ in the Gifts. The idea takes one’s breath away.
With such dissension in the ranks, Nicole asks a good question:
Even if we believed we were living in the…End Times, would the rules of faith be ANY different than at any other time?? I do not see a lot of repentance, humility, or love for Christ and neighbour in this ultra fearful and suspicious posture towards public health, political officials, or bishops (broken as they too may be) right now. I just don’t.
Of course, it is all too easy to slip into judgment mode against others. But fear, uncertainty, financial instability, and ongoing stress affect us all. In Great Lent I need the reminder to keep my eyes on my own plate, and during coronavirus season I need the reminder to keep my eyes on my own heart.
Do I extend charity to those who disagree with me? When standing in yet another long, socially distanced queue, do I continue to treat others as humans created in the image of God who are deeply loved by Him, or do I default to anger and annoyance? Am I praying for my priests and bishops, that they would have wisdom and discernment during this difficult time? Or am I grumbling and complaining, “biting and devouring” my brothers and sisters?
Or, as Nicole asked, “If we truly believe the Church is the body of Christ, that Christ is sailing this ship, that God is everywhere present and filling all things, why would we have any fear, rage, or alarmism—even [if we were] in a time of true persecution?”
I live and work at home most of the time. In my semi-isolation, I do not need to fit into parish norms. I can fast or not, keep my prayer rule or not, and I can watch an online liturgy in my pajamas. You will never know. (Although I confess to a bit of knitting sometimes during the sermons.)
When I look in the mirror, what do I see? Do I see someone on the bumpy road to deification, remembering from my morning prayers to ask God, “Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all…. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You”?
There are signs of hope. As the weeks turn into months, maybe we are learning, slowly. Author Arlyn Kantz, who writes as A.J. Prufrock, notes,
I can’t figure out why my right-leaning friends are the first to question the usefulness of masks and my left-leaning friends are the first to express anger over the repercussions of not wearing them. How is it that folks I would consider faithful and connected jump from health crisis to political crisis? Why am I so tempted to join in the fray when so much is truly unknown? The longer we go, the quieter and humbler it seems the Orthodox political spectrum on my feed has grown… a good thing, I think. It feels like a great reshuffling, and this work takes time. God knows we have needed one.
The deep inner work in our hearts does take time, as well as a grinding, daily ascesis. From his own semi-monastic lair, Steve writes,
This is where Christians are made: at home, 24/7 “on duty,” no respite, no faking it, and having to repent before you go to bed with someone and looking at yourself in the mirror every morning and evening and not being able to run away.… Your mileage may vary. I may change my thinking after a few more months. It’s a “journey,” as we say.
May God continue to work in us in this messy journey. Let’s also pray that we allow Him to do so.