Thursday , July 16 2020
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Living a Dystopian Nightmare: The Response of the Churches

There are many people who are living in greater difficulty in the present than I am; while the local markets require wearing a mask, limit the amount of purchases of meat, bottled water, paper goods—among other items I used to take for granted—these are mostly an inconvenience. I am not destitute—yet. And so far, no drones blare at me or neighbors betray me for walking and working in my garden, or even on the local street; there are no militarized police patrols…at least, not yet. Some people are warm, others in what I’d describe as “Motel America” where neighborhoods are built on home purchases with zero money down financing are cold and uninterested. At least no one has yet barked about keeping social distancing, which of

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There are many people who are living in greater difficulty in the present than I am; while the local markets require wearing a mask, limit the amount of purchases of meat, bottled water, paper goods—among other items I used to take for granted—these are mostly an inconvenience. I am not destitute—yet. And so far, no drones blare at me or neighbors betray me for walking and working in my garden, or even on the local street; there are no militarized police patrols…at least, not yet. Some people are warm, others in what I’d describe as “Motel America” where neighborhoods are built on home purchases with zero money down financing are cold and uninterested. At least no one has yet barked about keeping social distancing, which of course in public I do. A local small market fulfills purchases online and uses local produce and suppliers; interestingly, sometime the most draconian employees work at smaller markets, that is, they enjoy throwing their weight around.

And I’ve found that if I share Bill Sardi’s alternative perspectives on how to boost the immune system, I receive few thanks and some open hostility. Many of the “sheep” are eager for their vaccines. The state is their god; and that may explain what is most problematic to me, more than the financial devastation. It is the spiritual one, the world dying with a “whimper.”

For what galls me most is the toll that “house arrest” takes on the soul. And I don’t mean just not being able to go to a barber or hair salon or gym or have dinner at a favorite local restaurant with friends, the so many closings of locally owned businesses I am accustomed to patronizing. What worries me more is the response of all the churches, their evidently ecstatic reaction to the new tyranny. One does not have to be religious to be disturbed at the closing of churches of every denomination throughout the world; I don’t know any that were open for either Easter or Pascha for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles from where I live. “Streaming services” were omnipresent—not that I think that counts.

However, this situation is being challenged. Becky Akers wrote on “If you’re like me, the speed and uniformity with which churches nationwide imploded midway through March stunned you” although she writes,  “Many of us didn’t take his betrayal lying down. We’ve contacted Parson Goat and, when our appeals fell on deaf ears, our fellow parishioners, too, in an effort to re-open our churches. And to our further astonishment, folks we considered devout followers of the Lord Jesus resist our attempts to recall them to their Scriptural duties.” She offered an explanation but I don’t think it is the sole and primary one; but as she was, I too was surprised at how churches surrendered without a fight.

On the Catholic Newspaper site, The Remnant, in article interviewing Abp. Viganò on Government prohibition of Masses and Pope’s call for obedience he answers: “Even if we were not talking about the Catholic Religion, which is particularly protected by its special status, the suspension of the right to freedom of worship implied in the prime minister’s decrees is clearly illegitimate. I trust there will be those who wish to declare this officially, putting an end to this disgraceful delusion of omnipotence on the part of the civil authority, not only before God and His Church, but also towards the faithful and citizens of Italy.” He further points out religious services could have been conducted in a way that would not jeopardize lives.

Archpriest Geoffry Korz writing on the Orthodox Christian site “Five Spiritual Lessons from the Corona Virus” also raised crucial questions and lacking his knowledge and wisdom I quote from his essay at length:

Does My Faith Live at My Home?

“For those who have family responsibilities, if we have not invested the time and effort to shape our home in this way, what is our plan now to change that? This first critical, personal lesson—does my faith live at my home?—is grossly impeded by the reality that for many people, the period of the coronavirus crisis was spent in a combination of physical inactivity, or in recreation and escapism. Far from being a time that was ideal for gaining spiritual strength (despite the fact that it occurred in the midst of Great Lent), too often, the period of the virus saw people neglect their spiritual condition, falling victim to the Internet, comfort food, video games, and movies. For all the talk of turning each home into a “little church”, too often this time at home became a lost opportunity—although not a lost lesson, for those who would learn from it…

“Do we have any king but Caesar?

“The start of the pandemic saw the Orthodox world divide into two groups: those determined to keep churches open and services functioning as long as possible—even if in meant standing up to the state—and those who anticipated the spirit of the moment, and quickly closed churches and banned services.

“And if it would take Church leaders this long to recapture the spirit to stand up to civil authorities, would it even happen at all? Are Orthodox Christians in the West simply too much at ease with any ‘new normal’ that anyone within the Church who took such a stand would not only be unusual, but would in fact be criticized and attacked by those within the Orthodox Church in the West?

“It is not the burden of the faithful to show that public Liturgies and the Holy Mysteries are essential: it is the burden of the hierarchs to defend the faithful. This is especially true in cases where the state gradually and increasingly encroaches on that freedom.

“Our second spiritual lesson from the coronavirus must be this: Is God our King, or is Caesar—our civil government? And when our civil government opposes the free exercise of the historic Christian faith, will we rally our Christian courage and confront it, or will we simply join the call to be ‘good citizens’?

Do we fear Death more than God?

“Fear has been the single biggest motivator during the coronavirus crisis: not faith, not politics, and not even science. Yet fear—especially the fear of Death—is the exact opposite of the Lord’s teaching:

And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing further they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear Him who after He kills, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!(Matthew 10:28)

“The panic among leaders and decision-makers—including those in the Church—has been embarrassing, but why has it happened? We should expect this from secular-minded people who do not believe in God, or who believe that this life is all that people are given. Yet Christians know this is not true—our whole life and all our decisions are based on hope in eternal life. This is the reason we draw our bishops from among the monastics, and have them advised by a council of other bishops who are also monks—not a staff of insurance reps, lawyers, admin assistants, medical experts and lifetime bureaucrats.

“At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

In the end, Archpriest Geoffry Korz’s conclusion is devastating:

Authorities—both Church and secular—achieved during the few weeks of the coronavirus what pagan Rome, the Muslim Turks, the Soviets, and the Fascist Ustache could only have dreamed of doing: closing down every single Orthodox church in a matter of days. Orthodox nations refused this; Orthodox in the West generally complied, or even cooperated…

Is the Orthodox Church Useless?

“A church that is deemed useless in a time of crisis like this is also useless in normal times.

“What is the purpose of a church during normal times? There are better places to have a social club, an intellectual chat group, a school, or a centre to alleviate poverty. The distinctive function of the church is the place where the Holy Mysteries are offered, in order to heal souls (prayers go along with this: if churches were for prayers alone, one could pray at home and sell off the church buildings).

“This very foolish (or wicked) compliance will likely have an unanticipated consequence, a message sent to people inside and outside the Church that unlike every single example given by the saints at a time of plague or crisis, there are those in the Orthodox Church today who believe the power of God in the Church is useless against this great evil.

“This is of course a lie. Yet it is the implicit message.

“What message is sent when Orthodox churches are closed in the midst of a social disaster of any kind? Whether to the faithful or the secular, the message when this is done is clear: the single unique function of the Church—the Holy Mysteries—is not essential or even useful in the midst of a crisis.

“Orthodox hierarchs, clergy, and faithful in some other countries understand this. This fifth lesson is perhaps the most fundamental lesson Orthodox Christians in the West—especially in North America—have yet to learn. Until we do, we cannot say we think like or like as Orthodox Christians.

Whether the coronavirus lockdown will be enough to teach it to the faithful here—or whether God will permit several more rounds of such lessons for us to learn it—remains to be seen.”

I saw one ray of unexpected light in “HOW A MONASTERY IN MICHIGAN REMAINED OPEN FOR PASCHA WITH NO RESTRICTIONS” by Archimandrite Pachomy (Belkoff) and how he managed it in the State of Michigan, no less.

“The very first Sunday I preached a sermon with historical facts on all the epidemics that happened through the history of the Byzantine Empire: the plague of Justinian and so forth, when there is even a record of how many bodies were stacked in the church. This tells us that the churches were not closed and that even in the worst hour, with millions of people dying from plague, the Church was accessible for services and for prayers. The Sacraments are medicine for our souls.

“As monastics we live for the Kingdom of Heaven and not for this earthly life or even for the health of this physical body. During the course of Lent, we were open for every service and the monastic daily rule, and we had hundreds of people coming. We were the only church in five states that was actually open without a person limit.

“Knowing that Pascha was soon approaching, I contacted the local police department in my city and arranged a conference. They have been great supporters of the monastery for many years and know us personally. I was assured by the police department and the city’s attorney that, in fact, I had not broken any laws. I would also like to add that on Holy Saturday afternoon, as we were frantically trying to set up for outdoor Liturgy, the police department showed up. At first, I thought there was a change of order, but the police said, ‘Stay calm, Father, we’re here to show our 100% support and discuss details of how we are to direct traffic and be of help.’

“The state has never shut down any religious institutions. The religious authorities closed the churches in most states, not the government. This is very sad. The front page of the newspaper said that the Catholic Archbishop told the priests to empty their holy water buckets so that people would not be contaminated. I was mortified when I read this—on the front page of the paper. Then the Orthodox did basically the same thing by allowing the priest to serve with only a choir director and nearly no one in the church—maybe five people.

“After I had confirmation from the mayor and the police department and the city attorney, I contacted His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion with the facts, and he sent a personal ukaz stating that the monastery is stavropegial under him and that we were blessed to stay open! He was overjoyed that I could continue to serve all the services for as many people as I could, to bring them the Sacraments…

“When the pandemic began, the Sunday Gospel was the paralytic who is lowered through the roof of the hut to be healed by Jesus because there were so many people. He was not cast away because other people were afraid of getting sick—neither the leper nor any other story in Holy Scripture of people coming to Christ for healing. The Lord says, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. He doesn’t say, ‘Get away from me and stay far from the church because you will contaminate everyone.’”

Living a Dystopian Nightmare: The Response of the Churches

The church at St. Sabbas decorated for Holy Pascha

Last year, one of our dear benefactors passed away and left a donation to build a memorial at the monastery in his honor. His name was Steven Stolaruk. I very much wanted to build a cloister for outdoor services to be used at some point. All the subdeacons and adult altar servers and the deacon and myself began to build this large edifice. I kept pushing to get the roof erected before the end of last year because it kept coming up in a dream. Then this pandemic hit and everything came full circle, and we used it, not quite finished, to celebrate the Paschal Liturgy outside for hundreds of people.

“We had Palestinian Christians that came and brought their chanters and sang in Arabic; we had Romanians who came and sang in Romanian; we had Russians and Ukrainians and Macedonians and Serbians and Greeks all celebrating Pascha together like in Jerusalem.

Living a Dystopian Nightmare: The Response of the Churches

The cloister where the outdoor Liturgy was celebrated

“It was one of the most memorable and emotional Paschas any of us have ever experienced, including, for myself, in over thirty years of priesthood. During the nine weeks of Lent, not one person got sick, everyone prepared and was fervent to receive the holy Sacraments. We were blessed to see such faith, and willingness to support the Church to the very end.”

Saint Sabbas Monastery remains open. (The Royal Eagle restaurant tax exempt business that provides funds for the monastery, however, obeying the law, remains closed.) posted today Michael Snyder’s well researched article “18 Signs That We Are Facing A Record Breaking Economic Implosion In 2020” but I myself find what has happened to the churches, which offer online services and have yet to re-open, the most disturbing aspect of the COVID “pandemic.

Yet we who believe, for all our sins and failures, must have hope. Svetlana Polivanova wrote (translated) in “The Time Has Come for Works” these important words:

“I believe now it has become clear to many that our ‘self-isolation’ is in fact a test of our faith. But we don’t always pass the test worthily. The external is gone, and it has turned out that hidden behind it is our lack of faith, despondency, complaining, and earthly attachments—the things we live by day after day, only allowing God to enter our hearts for a short time. The Russian Revolution was such a test too, though it was harsher and more dangerous for our lives. It happened that those who had studied the catechism nevertheless became adherents of the new government that set itself the following task: ‘Priests are to be arrested as counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, to be shot mercilessly and everywhere. And as many as possible’ (Lenin’s instruction no. 13666/2, on the fight against priests).

“In this sense the story of the closure of the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God ‘of the Sign’ in Laryak village of the Nizhnevartovsk district [Tyumen region.—Trans.] in the backwoods of the Russian taiga is revealing. In the early 1920s, the parish had over 800 members, making it the largest Orthodox community in the area. Ten years later the number of parishioners shrank substantially. It’s like a long-distance race: Those who are morally and physically weaker drop out. Only the ‘strongest’ and ‘most faithful’ remain. They will receive the ‘crowns of life’ (cf. Rev. 2:10) from the Lord.”

But are the “strongest” and “most faithful” now not the clergy of so many Christian denominations, but the people? And what does it say that the doors of churches throughout the world have been locked from the inside?

Still, we should remember as Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago Two about his experiences in the Gulag, “Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political classes, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart—and even through all human hearts…And even within hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best hearts…an unsupported corner of evil.” He was quoted by Hieormon Seraphin Rose in his book, God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, who comments:

“How much deeper is this observation than anything we in the West could say based on our own experience. It is deeper because it is based on suffering, which is the reality of the human condition and beginning of a true spiritual life. Christ himself came to a life of suffering and the Cross; and the experience in Russia enables those who undergo it to see this profoundly.”

Perhaps for some, a small few of the “strongest” and “the most faithful” undergoing this suffering, which I believe shall intensify, as Svetlana Polivana wrote, will themselves transform and “become a church…”

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