3/25/2020 - "Some Thoughts on the Crisis and the Call of the Corona Virus"
by Bishop Alexis of Bethesda (OCA)
The Bishops of the Holy Orthodox Church love their flocks and ever strive to lead them to well-watered and rich pastures. They care for them, body and soul. In so doing, they are following their Master Christ who not only “cast out unclean spirits,” but also healed “all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” (Matthew 10:1). In the Gospels, we see that Christ sometimes treated the soul first and the body second; at other times, the body first and the soul second. In the presence of the highly contagious and potentially lethal corona virus, the Bishops’ concern is for the bodily welfare of their people lest even a single lamb be needlessly lost. This is not from a lack of faith or dearth of compassion, but from unwavering faith and an abundance of compassion.
Compassion is expressed in giving each sinner the time necessary to repent, for in “hell there is no repentance” (Saint John of Damascus). Faith is expressed in the certainty that our Lord can always be in our midst, that He can always be by our side, for the Psalmist proclaims, “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). And if I am shut up in my home away from Church, “Thou art there,” even as the Lord was there for and with the Apostle Peter when he was locked up in prison, so He is there for and with us.
During times of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, we naturally turn to God for refuge, peace, and courage. This is our birthright as baptized Orthodox Christians. Indeed, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change” (Psalm 46:1-2). With the corona virus, the earth has changed, but we do not fear. The faithful are isolated in their homes, physically separated from loved ones, and even unable to gather together as the Church for the celebration of the mysteries, but we do not fear, for God remains our refuge, our peace, and source of courage. Many are understandably discouraged and downcast about the decision to ban eucharistic gatherings in Church for the sake of the health of our neighbor whom we love. Yet, God remains our refuge, our peace, and our source of courage. Within this trial, this threat to so much that we hold so very dear, there is a call that is given and a promise that beckons. But to hear that call and see the fulfilment of that promise, we need to approach our Savior as His faithful children have always approached Him, not with self-righteous indignation or self-pitying despondency, but with humble, patient hope.
The call is to prayer of the heart. The promise is the purifying and illumining grace of the Holy Spirit. In the emphasis on more frequent communion over the past forty years, we might be tempted to neglect the necessary ongoing moment-to-moment inner communion with Christ by prayer, that talking with Him and walking with Him that characterized most of the lives of the Apostles before and after the institution of the Mystical Supper. Many of our greatest saints were deprived of Holy Communion for periods of time that for us would be unbearable to contemplate, but that for them were periods of continued growth from glory to glory, because they were never without Holy Communion with Christ through prayer. Prayer is not easy; it requires concentration, dedication, and love, but through the gates of prayer, we can touch Christ, Christ can touch us, and we can be healed. It is imperative for us all to learn to serve Liturgy at the Altar of the heart and the time is now at hand.
During this crisis of the corona virus, we are given the opportunity to become men and women of deep prayer. We are given the occasion to “enter into our closet, and when we have shut the door, pray to our Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:6), offering Him our repentance, our gratitude, and our love. We can come to understand that “prayer is a safe fortress, a sheltered harbor, a protector of the virtues, a destroyer of passions. It brings vigor to the soul, purifies the mind, gives rest to those who suffer, consoles those who mourn. Prayer is converse with God, contemplation of the invisible, the angelic mode of life, a stimulus towards the divine, the assurance of things longed for, ‘making real the things for which we hope’” (Theodore, the Great Ascetic, Century 1:61). As Saint Sophrony of Essex puts it, “prayer is infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science. Through prayer we enter into communion with Him that was before all worlds…Prayer is delight for the Spirit.” (On Prayer, 9).
The Elder Aimlianos whose love for the Divine Liturgy was incomparable once said, “It is pointless to go to Church, unnecessary to attend Liturgy, and useless to commune, when I am not constantly praying” (The Church at Prayer, 14). A spiritual life of private prayer is not a monastic prerogative, but the common inheritance of all the faithful. The saintly elder further notes, “The harm that befalls us if we do not know how to pray is incalculable. Incalculable? It is the only harm from which we suffer. There is no catastrophe that can compare to it. If all the stars and all the planets were to collide with one another, and the universe to shatter into smithereens, the damage would be far less than that which befalls us if we don’t know how to pray” (The Church at Prayer, 10). The threat of the virus perhaps can open our eyes to the threat of not knowing how to pray to God in our heart. The threat of the virus may turn into a blessing that can enliven our spiritual life.
The temptation before us is to deafen our ears to this call to active, arduous prayer to approach God and instead to prefer more passive, easier ways for God to approach us. Now is not the time to try to devise any means to avoid this prayer in private, but it is the time to heed the call to prayer in our heart to the God of our heart. There is a rich, inner world beckoning to us, a world where God is all in God. Let’s take the gift of this time to enter into that world. And if we do so, when we come together for the Divine Liturgy with a yearning magnified by distance apart, that Liturgy will be more radiant and more angelic than anything we have known before. Through a deep life of inner prayer, we will indeed learn how to set aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all.
4/3/2020 - "The Sign of the Prophet Jonah in our days"
by Bishop Alexis of Bethesda (OCA)
“For those with eyes to see and ears to hear,” these days of being in the belly of the whale, physically separated not only from one another, but also from our beloved Churches and places of prayer, we have a rare opportunity for spiritual growth. In this crisis that has overcome the entire inhabited world, we are given the sign of Jonah that calls forth a response from us all. Saint Ephraim the Syrian writes, “the sign of Jonah served the Ninevites in two ways. If they would have rejected it, they would have gone down to Sheol alive like Jonah, but they were raised from the dead like him because they repented.” The sign of Jonah that is given to us in our forced isolation out of love for our neighbor is a call to repentance, a call to change the way we look at the world around us, the world within us, and the world beyond us. As I suggested in an earlier reflection, it is an opportunity to become men and women of deep prayer who have learned to serve the Divine Liturgy on the altar of their hearts.
There are many books about how to pray from which believers can learn the art of prayer. There are many prayer books that have morning prayers, evening prayers, services of supplication, and akathists that the faithful can read on a daily basis. There are the Psalms of David that we can chant throughout the day enabling us to pour out our entire heart before God. And of course, there is the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” that every God-loving soul can say, again and again and again, so that it falls like a droplet of pure water upon our stony hearts refashioning them into hearts of flesh that can welcome the King of glory. But all these beautiful, holy words will enable us to touch the hem of Christ’s garment and to become more Christlike in the process only if we say them with the proper disposition of the heart, a heart that is humble, a heart that yields, a heart that can effortlessly utter the words of the Most Pure Virgin, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
This Holy Week and Pascha, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the faithful a hard saying. They will be deprived of celebrating these high and holy days in their parishes. They will be deprived of receiving holy communion. Nevertheless, they need not, now or ever, be deprived of Christ, for nothing, neither death nor life, neither things present nor things to come, can ever “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). It may be tempting to become angry or despondent, but neither of these states will enable us to pray to God or permit God to approach us. Neither of these responses will help us to receive the sign of Jonah given to our generation. What will enable us to pray is a humble acceptance of our condition in which we make peace with this world as it is, a willingness to yield before that which we cannot control, and then even further to give thanks for the fact that our own will, no matter how good and holy it may seem to us, is being cut off by the severe sanctions now in place. This may sound strange to those unfamiliar with our monastic tradition, but truly when the will is cut off, “the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings” (Saint John of the Ladder) by virtue of holy obedience. In other words, gently, graciously, and gratefully yielding to this situation with humble acceptance will enable us to pray as we have never prayed before.
Obedience is not easy. It is “the tomb of the will,” but it is also “the resurrection of humility,” (Saint John of the Ladder), humility, which is “the very raiment of the Godhead” (Saint Isaac the Syrian). In humble obedience, we are following not only the path of the holy fathers of old, we are walking not only in the footsteps of the Apostles who strove to be obedient to every commandment of their beloved Lord, but we are also imitating our Lord Himself, who “as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phillipians 2:8). But death is never the last word with respect to obedience, the final word is always life, abundant life, life everlasting. “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:9-11).
Let us receive humbly the sign of the Prophet Jonah in a way that leads to the light and life that are ours in Christ Jesus. This Pascha, let’s sanctify our homes and lives in wonderful ways. Let’s humbly do whatever is necessary to make one room in our home into a Church. If we don’t have an oil lamp burning before the icon of the Most Pure Virgin Theotokos, let’s try to acquire one. If we don’t have a hand censer, charcoal, and incense, let’s decide to order them. And then with a humble, but grateful heart, let’s worship the holy Lord Jesus Christ, the only sinless One. Let’s venerate the icons in our homes, let’s light our vigil light, let’s cense our icons, let’s make our prostrations, and let’s make the words of whatever prayers we offer our own. Let’s mean what we say. Let’s trust in the Lord. Saint Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “The prayer of a humble man is like a word spoken from the mouth into an ear.” Let’s speak to God now as his humbled children, for in this time of trial, He will surely “hearken unto the voice of our cry” (Psalm 5:2) and in turn make our peace as a river and our righteousness as the waves of the sea (Isaiah 48:18).