Thursday, March 26, 2020

Are we Telling You to Go Away and Never Return?

In the course of this pandemic I have had the obedience to do research on past pandemics and the Russian Church’s reaction to them in my capacity as Secretary of the Diocesan Council. You might be surprised to know that we are NOT in any sort of virgin territory here. Finding ourselves unable to attend the Divine Services because the ruling hierarch of the diocese has closed the churches has happened in the past. The most notable was during the outbreak of the plague in Moscow around 1771. It is notable mostly because the Archbishop of Moscow, Ambrose, was literally torn to bits by the raging people who were apoplectic following his decision. The perpetrators of the murder were later hanged for their inappropriate response. I don’t think any of us would react in this way, but both the murder and the reaction of the government are instructive here. Leaders have to lead – not follow. Sometimes (in fact almost always) it is a question of two bad options, rather than “right” and “wrong”. In our situation the two bad options are:

1. Keep the churches open and allow people to be infected by the present plague and deal with the subsequent deaths

2. Close the churches to public worship

If we are honest we are a little “spoiled” by our easy access to the church, to the sacraments, to the clergy, etc. I am not suggesting that what we have had these last few decades is bad. In fact it is almost the ideal! Almost. But that is not the point of this post. The point is this: in the history of the Church there have been times – sometimes short and sometimes very long – when it was not easy to access the Church and the sacraments. Sometimes that was because of persecution. Sometimes that was because of plague. In either case the Church is not instructing the faithful to “go away”. The Church, as a loving mother, wants the best for her children. First and foremost – salvation. Nothing is more important. The real crux of the thing then, is this: is it more valuable for our salvation to attend church and die because of that or is it better to stay away, stay alive, and continue to struggle for our salvation? As Orthodox Christians we care about what has come before. How the Church has lived in past circumstances like we are experiencing now. As I noted above – it is not unheard of to close the temples to public worship during time of pandemic. It is also not unheard of to call the faithful to gather all the more into the temples to pray for God’s mercy. If either of these is possible then why did Archbishop Peter choose to close to public worship rather than encourage the faithful to gather all the more? The miracle – and it is a miracle that the Lord has given us – of modern medicine. The Lord has allowed us to use the talents He has given us to learn. To ignore this would be essentially taking God’s gift to man and tossing it in the garbage. You probably wouldn’t like it if people took the gifts you gave them and threw them away. Why would the Lord be pleased if we take the gifts He gives us and toss them aside, and in place of His gifts put our own pride? It is important to know that clergymen are not experts on every topic, no matter what the clergymen think. :) Archbishop Peter knows that he is not an epidemiologist. He knows that he does not have a Ph.D. in Public Health. And so he consulted Orthodox physicians and scientists in order to make the best decision for the most people. This is how we got to this point: the bishop had to choose from two decisions he did not want to make – and he decided that the best of the bad decisions was to close the temples to public worship.

This is instructive to us. Why? Because most of us don’t really understand the part the bishop plays in the Church. We see him once or twice per year, but we essentially associate the bishop with long Liturgies and a purple cape. :) But the bishop is the overseer. He answers for every soul in the diocese. I answer for the souls of those who are in our St. Vladimir parish. The bishop answers for all. And it is his job to protect the faith. To teach the truth of our Orthodox Faith. And to correct when there are things not right in the diocese (whether that be on a parish by parish level, or the diocese as a whole). The bishop cannot change the faith – his job is to uphold the faith and the dogmas of the Church. But the present pandemic question is not a dogmatic question. It is not a question of faith. In these non-dogmatic questions the bishop leads and we follow. Of course, we hope he will consult experts to make the best decisions, as he did in this case, but the call is his. The faithful and clergy are called to follow the bishop in such questions, and understand that our part is to be obedient. If the bishop is wrong about a non-dogmatic question, and we follow what he says, WE do not answer for that – HE does. Thus, we can be at peace. Our salvation depends not on the correctness of the bishop’s decision here, but on seeking peace and being obedient (these two things sort of depend on each other – if we are obedient it brings us peace if we ask God’s help to find that peace).

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me or Fr. Moses with questions. Our jobs now are to stay home and stay away from others. We have two options for social distancing as the picture above shows. Let’s choose the one that is not 6 feet under! If we are examples to our society in this instance more will come to Christ. In such a thing as a pandemic people are looking for answers – looking for meaning – looking to understand why we are even here. The Church provides them those answers. And we, serving God and man with Christian love, can and will attract those who are seeking to Him. Work on your good habits! Increase your prayer life! Read more spiritual books! With your effort and God’s help you will come through this pandemic safe, and spiritually stronger than when it began. And your good example will bring more to Christ!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory

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