Truly we are all in distress over the current coronavirus pandemic, and the range of emotions is vast—from morbid over-reaction to outright denial. With all the conflicting information on the internet, all the sorrow that may or may not have touched us personally, how are we to make sense of what is happening? How can we stay on the right path? Our Church has not been deprived of prophets even in our own generation, and through them we recieve a lightning flash of clarity to set our thoughts straight.
Archimandrite John (Krestiankin)
We have been faced with having to close churches or limit the number of worshippers during our most sacred time of year—Great Lent and Pascha. In a number of countries where the Grim Reaper of Covid-19 is making his dark march through metropolitan areas, people are forced to stay home and church doors are locked. In certain Orthodox-majority countries, where it would be less painful to deprive some people of food than church services and Holy Communion, strict measures are nonetheless being taken. In Sretensky Monastery, the abbot live-streams his gratitude to people at nearly every major service for not coming to church in obedience to Patriarch Kirill, who has officially asked people to pray at home—a subtle reproach to those who did come. Disinfectant bottles are on stands outside the church with signs requesting people to use them. Masking tape stars mark places two meters apart on the floor, and people are requested to stand on them. No one is allowed to kiss icons. No priests are giving physical blessings. Some brothers are wearing protective masks. The elderly are in their cells. Annointing with oil at polyeleos services is now less frequent, and when it is administered, disposable cotton swabs are used and later burned. At Holy Communion, a communion cloth is soaked with alcohol to wipe the spoon after each communicant. The dry communion cloths are not being used to wipe people’s lips—that is done individually with napkins, which are then disposed of and burned. No one is kissing the chalice. This is all being rigorously enforced. All of the brothers have been tested; thankfully all tests are negative, so far. (These practices may not be as rigorous in other monasteries or churches in Russia. However, it has recently been announced that the churches all over Russia will be closed to the public over Holy Week, with only the clergy and choir allowed to be present at services.)
Is the disinfectant protecting the monks from Covid-19? Or is it their increased prayer: special prayers read at every service for the deliverance from epidemics and that the Lord strengthen our doctors, and cross processions around the monastery every day, with molebens to St. Charlampius and the sprinkling of holy water? Perhaps it doesn’t matter—God also works through medicine—as long as they are diligent in all of these things.
All sorts of theories and scientific declarations are being circulated about the nature of the virus and the pandemic—how best to deal with it, and how it started. Some say, let the non-risk populace get sick and become immune, so that this lockdown torture will end sooner and the economy will be less devastated. But those people generally are not working in hospitals. As one Dallas, Texas doctor commented: Sure, we can get it through it more quickly by letting it rip through the population. But do we want ambulances everywhere and medical personnel dropping from exhaustion or God forbid, Covid-19? Without enough beds or respirators? Do we really want piled up corpses? Forgive us for repeating this, but we also have friends in Italy. There is very little discussion there about what to do and who is to blame, and more about how to bury the dead and where to get food. Many of them see this as a test of Christian love, and an opportunity for the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak. Over 100 doctors who selflessly treated the victims have succumbed to the virus there and died...
And here is more in this vein from a Moscow doctor who gave an interview to Pravmir:
Dr. Irina Ilyenko. Photo: Pravmir.ru. “I personally get to the break room only after work is over, and have experience of about twelve hours without food, drink, or a visit to the toilet. When you don’t drink, it’s easier to endure. But I’m wearing pampers under my pajamas, just in case...
“Every shift is a challenge—a challenge to your experience and professionalism; because no one has ever had any practice for what we are experiencing today; it is a challenge to your ego, a challenge to your psyche, your endurance, your life forces, and also, probably, your humanity. Every time, I mentally thank those who in these conditions have managed to show the latter. And please don’t tell me how hard it is for people to sit at home and look out the window, and how tired they are of watching television in self-isolation. It’s hard for me to understand such words after shifts like these.”
This is why we can understand that governments are trying to “flatten the curve”. With hospitals running like in wartime and beyond capacity, with a lack of basic protective supplies, it would be nothing short of criminal in their eyes for people to flout all caution and congregate anywhere. Perhaps they don’t understand our religion, and how we view the sacrament of Holy Communion. Sometimes we have to look at situations through someone else’s eyes.
This is all without forgetting that we have God, His Most Pure Mother, and all the saints. A few age-old Russian proverbs are quite applicable here: “Hope in God but be careful.” “Prepare for death but sow the rye.” And the most mysterious: “If God doesn’t allow it, the pig won’t eat you.” This balanced approach apparently runs deep.
Many have been indignant throughout Great Lent about churches being closed, and that is understandable. When some hierarchs whom we don’t trust closed churches, we panicked. When hierarchs we do trust closed churches, we were faced with a choice: either to continue to trust them and adjust our thinking, or cease to trust them and only trust ourselves. However, only trusting ourselves, as the holy fathers say, is not a good choice if we want to escape the many, many snares laid by the devil to trap us and prevent us from being saved both physically and spiritually. And by the way, few know more about closed churches than the Russians who lived through the Soviet regime.
But now we will give you the most important information about our current trial, which will shake you from head to toe.
It is a recap of a sermon that Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Pskov and Porkhov, a spiritual son of the great elder, Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), gave on the 110th anniversary of Fr. John’s birth, April 11, 2020.
Vladyka Tikhon said, “Fr. John was a prophet. Many who knew him saw this in their own lives. Prophecies are not understood until they come to pass. That is the nature of prophecies, as we are taught by the holy fathers...”
“Well, in the year 2000, those who were close to Fr. John heard the following story. That night he had an extraordinary vision, a voice, a prophetic awakening, with specific words. And on the next day, that vision repeated itself with exactly the same words. When we heard this from Fr. John we couldn’t understand it—the words were just too puzzling.” This happened on November 22/December 4, and the next day, December 5.
Vladyka Tikhon read the words, which were written down by Fr. John:
“He saw something terrible, and heard a voice: ‘Stand, and look at what I have allowed to happen, to bring you to reason: The unsudden death of people. Do not look for who is to blame. Do not look for who is to blame. Pray! Be careful always, and in everything.’
“Of course we cannot say completely for sure that yes, this is about what we are experiencing today. But doesn’t it remind you of the terrible temptation that is happening throughout the world? Death is being allowed to visit so many people, but not sudden death, so that they would have time to assess their lives, to remember what good or evil they have done, and repent of the evil... Now something terrible is happening, and the whole world can see it. Many are saying that it is for our sins. But in the vision it was emphasized, said twice: ‘Do not look for who is to blame.’ People say it is for our coldness, for the breakup of the family, for unnatural sins of the flesh... Yes, that’s probably right. But Fr. John was talking about something else. ‘Do not look for who is to blame’ means that we are to blame, all without exception. This includes church people, because judgment begins with the Church, the House of God. If we try to look for who is to blame outside the Church, then we will get completely mixed up. It will be perfectly correct if we seek the guilt only in ourselves for what has been allowed to happen.”
This, dear readers, should mitigate fruitless discussion among Orthodox Christians on whether the virus came from a bat or a cat or an evil genius. Whatever or whoever is behind this was allowed by God, for our repentance. And we can leave all discussion of herd immunity vs. social distancing and self-isolation to the medical professionals. Our job is to pray, and be careful always, and in everything.
Concerning prayer: During Holy Week we will be posting portions of the Lenten Triodion—the translation by Met. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary, and reprinted by St. Tikhon Seminary Press. It is our personal opinion that a greater and more beautiful compilation of the Lenten texts in the English language has never been made, and we are profoundly grateful to these eminent translators and St. Tikhon’s for making it available to us. Especially if we are praying at home in these great and holy days. There is no substitution for a hard copy of this wonderful book, and therefore we encourage all who have the means to purchase it from the publisher here. You will not regret making this purchase. But in any case, with St. Tikhon’s permission we will post some daily portions on OrthoChristian.com. May our prayer arise to God as incense from every home during these holy days. Our separation from our churches is, apparently, our sacrifice, our penance. May it be pleasing to God, that He might comfort us with the joy of His Bright Resurrection.