I love the writings of St. Paisios! Here is a link I found to his discussion/conference with nuns on germs.
The past couple of days have been quite busy. Have continued my Lenten reading (all but Saturday when I was painting the home oratory), but not much to post.
The following two passages from “On the Prayer of Jesus” really struck home to me.
“The name of the Lord is above every name; it is a source of delight, a source of joy, a source of life. It is Spirit. It quickens (vivifies), transforms, purifies, deifies. For the illiterate it can replace in a completely satisfactory manner vocal prayer and psalmody. The literate, having made some progress in the prayer of Jesus, give up the variety of psalmody and begin pre-eminently to practice the prayer of Jesus on account of the superabundant power and nourishment contained in it.”
“We want to be clever, we want to revive our own ego, we cannot bear self-renunciation or self-denial, we have no desire to live and act by faith. It is for this reason that we need a guide to lead us out of our complexity, out of our cuteness, out of our cunning, out of our vanity and self-confidence, into the breadth and simplicity of faith.”
The latter passage is why we all need a Spiritual Father (to use the old language). We are incapable of doing the deep spiritual work on our own, because we cannot guide ourselves out of our self-love and protection. An experienced, read practiced, and mature Spiritual Father has the gift of discernment to see beyond our pretenses and into our hearts to apply the appropriate spiritual medicine.
While it is not just priests who can serve as Spiritual Fathers, let us pray for our clergy that they (we) may especially become those experienced and faithful people of prayer. Let us also encourage them, and hold them accountable to being first and foremost prayer warriors. For that is what prayer is, as seen in the charge made upon the receiving of a prayer rope, or beads, “Receive, brother, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Carry it upon thy lips, in they mind and in thine heart, and say unceasingly: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Laughing at my subtitle: A place to store my thoughts and keep them fresh. Based on my posting history, I do not seem to have many of these. Or is it that I just do not like the writing process? Methinks the latter.
Although, in all truthfulness “fresh” thoughts about theology are usually what leads us to the dread “H” word. We are not charged to come up with “fresh” and “new” theology, but to keep the tradition that has been handed down to us fresh. That is what a humidor does, it keeps the old fresh as it ages them appropriately. Let us not seek our own “fresh” thoughts, but refresh ourselves in the Faith once delivered, for that is the Faith that saves.
I was reminded of this in my reading of “On the Prayer of Jesus” today. In discussing the permissibility, allowed by some spiritual fathers, to pray the prayer in two different parts, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on, a sinner” and “Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”, he quotes St. Gregory of Sinai who forbid frequently changing the pattern of the original prayer. St. Gregory writes: “Trees that are often transplanted do not take root.”
So it is with us if we are constantly chasing the “fresh” and the “new”. We need the consistency, and the constancy, of the Faith.
From: “Orthodox Faith” by St. John of Damascus: “But, since with God creation is a work of His will, it is not co-eternal with Him–which is because it is not of the nature of that which is produced from nothing to co-eternal with that which is without beginning and always existing.” (Book I.8.)
As we are surrounded by inches of falling white stuff we begin the Great Fast. After the year 2020 was, and 2021 has begun, I think it a good time to be reminded of our mortality and its Cure. I know that I need Christ more each day, and need to commit to becoming more like Him each day.
So with that said, on to the annual re-post.
I recently enjoyed a very special cigar as I was working my way through a demanding text. I was alone, and thought it a good day to dive into my reserve. That particular cigar was a Tatuaje robusto, and it has been aging for four years and was a thoroughly delightful creamy smoke. In fact, I delighted in this cigar so much, that I closed the book and just enjoyed the experience of the taste, the smell, and watching the smoke curl toward the ceiling and fill the room with its aroma. It tasted of heavy cream, cinnamon, clove, and a slight hint of pepper. The room note reminded me of “Blanc” incense. So, I just sat back and relaxed, and tried to make it last as long as possible.
Unfortunately, as with all good cigars, at the end of the hour there was just a pile of ash left in the tray, and a memory of that smoke upon my taste buds. I was sorely tempted to open the box and smoke another, but realized that would not be a wise decision, and looked with a bit of melancholy at the remains of what had been a great cigar, and was not but just a memory. This is the fate of all cigars and pipe tobacco, no matter how expensive, how great, how cheap, or how terrible, all of them become just a pile of ash at the end of the day. They burn up, they burn out, and they are no more than a memory.
Is that not the lesson of Ash Wednesday? We are all destined to be just like that great cigar. No matter our station in life, rich/poor, wise/foolish, Republican/Democrat, beautiful/homely, or any other label, we are all destined to become nothing but a pile of ash. We will die. This is not because we are “used up”, but because of the effects of Sin. As the Good Book says, “The wages of sin is death”, and we all get paid.
However, this is what makes the Christian faith different; we have hope beyond the ashiness of our existence. Because of Christ, his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, we have hope that this mortal body, though used up and ashy, will be raised and made new. Because of Christ, death is not the end, and those who are found in Him will be raised like him.
On this day, when we remember our mortality, our common destiny to be put a pile of ash, let us repent and return to the Lord who can raise a pile of ash to new life.
May you have blessed Ash Wednesday.
Part VI of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” Galatians 5:19-26.
“Amma Sarah said, “If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure towards all.” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 230.
This is a time of crisis (lit. judgment), and the world is judging us by our witness. And this is our witness, that we should be Christians. In Acts we read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch. That name is a diminutive, and means “little Christs”. We are to be as Christ for the world around us. We are to behave like Christ. We are to pour ourselves out for the world like Christ. We are to love like Christ.
So let us take stock, and judge ourselves lest we be judged by the Judge before whom we must all give account. Are we living that witness? Are we more loving? Are we joyous? Are we peaceful and seeking peace? Are we patient? Are we kind and generous? Are we faithful, gentle, and self-controlled? Are we seeking the approval of the world or God? Are our hearts pure towards all? Do our interactions with others at home, in public, or on social media bear out that we are Christians?
Or are we full of the works of the flesh?
In all things wherein we have failed to live up to our high calling let us repent and return to the Lord, for he is tender and merciful, always granting us to begin anew.
Part V of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
Love Your Neighbor
“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 1 John 4:19-21
I have been praying over the meaning of neighbor love since I began seeing it pop up regularly, and with disparate interpretations of what actions truly represent loving our neighbor. There is also an implied judgment on those who do not agree with any particular interpretation.
As I prayed, I was given the following:
Christ is love.
Christ proves his love on the cross.
We are called to love.
We are called to the cross.
When I say “you must” so that I may live—I do not love.
When I say “you must not” so that I may live—I do not love.
When I say “I need to live and my mortal life is most important”—I do not love.
When I say “you must limit your life” so that I may live—I do not love.
When I say “my financial life is more important than your life”—I do not love.
If I do not love, I am not in Christ, and he is not in me.
When I see all human life as important as my own—I love.
When I no longer say “you must do” or “you must not do” so that I may live—I love.
When I am willing to suffer so that you may have fullness of life without reference to my own life—I love.
When I am willing to die so that you may live—I love.
When I love, I am in Christ, and he is in me.
This is the paradox of the cross we are called to bear: only by laying aside our own lives do we really live. Here we find our true life is hidden in Christ.
As Christ chose to lay down his life, so we must make that choice.
What would this world look like if I were willing to die for you, and you were willing to die for me?
That would be to love our neighbor.
Without Christ we turn to politics, materialism, and other ideologies to impose our will so that our lives will be saved. Only Christ can save our lives. Only Christ is love.
Part IV of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
Obedience—Secular and Ecclesial
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2.1-4
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are god’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” Titus 3.1-3
I do not normally delve into politics, and keep my own views close to my vest. I often state that I am a monarchist (meaning that Jesus Christ is Lord and King), and that I should not be blamed as I voted for George III. However, in the interest of full disclosure I am a Chesterbellocian Distributist at heart. Thus, in many ways I do not have a dog in the political fights that rage in our State and Nation.
That said, in my private devotions I like to use the following prayers from the 1928 BCP:
“O LORD our Governor, whose glory is in all the world; We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and to all in Authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.” (Morning Prayer)
“ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Prayers and Thanksgivings)
I have been saddened to see how quickly positions on the Virus have been politicized, and have noticed that as we separate into political tribes we show a marked tendency to judgmentalism and groupthink. We no longer seem to pray for our leaders, but to continually think the worst of them, their motives, and despise their very persons. We have forgotten that they are persons, and have made them caricatures, deemed them inhuman, and made them objects of our derision. Neither the political right nor the political left are immune to this, or can claim the moral high ground. I think of social media posts that, depending political affiliation, call out one side for calling an authority names, while disparagingly naming their political opponent. Bluntly, this is not Christian behavior. It is also not Christian behavior to disparage our brothers and sisters in Christ because they hold opposite political views. We must always respond with grace and love, especially to those with whom we disagree.
I do think we all need to be reminded of the requirement to be obedient to the authorities placed over us, even if we do not like them personally, or agree with their policies. This is why we have elections in this country, and are allowed to change our government in intervals. That is not to say that we must be in lock-step agreement with decisions that are made, or not hold to opposite views and seek to make those known in a civil and Christian manner. Of course, we do not need to be happy with everything that is done, and we have a right to organize, seek redress and change, but we need to do so as Christians.
We also need to be aware that we are not required to obey immoral laws, but these are radical exceptions, and not all cases with which we disagree are immoral. Not all cases of disagreement rise to the level where we are to be the next Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or even The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We must exercise great caution in our application of this “exception”, and even in so doing must remember our Christian witness.
It is also important that we carefully analyze whether the decisions are truly “unchristian”. We are not currently being asked to deny our faith, but to take steps to limit the spread of the Virus. We must also be careful to discern the motivations of those who call us to active disobedience, or who actively disobey themselves. Is it being done purely as a Christian witness, and if so what is that witness? Is it being done for the sake of publicity and to be viewed as a martyr? Is it being done quietly and with grace or is a call put out for media presence and coverage? Are they intentionally putting people at risk to make their point?
As regards our own Governor’s edict that the Church, though essential, must limit its attendance to 10 during Phase III and 50 during Phase IV, it can be graciously challenged and even taken to the courts, but there is nothing approaching a radical immorality to the rule. It is limiting, and it has caused difficulty, but we can worship in smaller gatherings until such a time as we can gather as the whole comm
unity. I do not see that the church must disappear to the catacombs at this time.
One of my spiritual heroes (Fr. Zacharias) wrote the following at the beginning of the crisis in the UK:
“If we do not obey our governors who are not asking much, how will we obey God, Who gives us a divine law, which is far more sublime than any human law? If we keep the law of God we are above human laws, as the apologists of the 2nd century said during the Roman Empire which was persecuting the Christians. It is surprising to see in the country where we live, in the United Kingdom, that the footballers show such understanding and discernment so as to be the first to withdraw from their activities with docility towards the indications of the Government to take prophylactic measures. It would be sad for us, people of faith, to fail reaching the measure of the footballers and showing the same docility towards the authorities for which our Church prays….Therefore, my dear brethren, it is not necessary to make heroic confessions against the Government for the prophylactic measures that it takes for the good of all people. Neither should we despair, but only wisely machinate ways so as not to lose our living communication with the Person of Christ. Nothing can harm us, we must simply be patient for a certain period of time and God will see our patience, take away every obstacle, every temptation and we shall again see the dawn of joyful days, and we shall celebrate our common hope and love that we have in Christ Jesus.”
At the same time, as those who proclaim daily that we believe in “the holy Catholic church” it is incumbent upon us to be obedient to those who have been duly placed in spiritual authority over us. Bishops are of the essence of the Church Catholic, and while we may question the decisions made by our shepherds, we are obligated to follow their directives, provided they lead us not into sin. Theirs is the greater burden and judgment, and I am reminded of St. Sophrony of Essex’s experience in obeying a command from his Abbot. When he hesitated to obey, as it would keep him from returning to his hermitage, the Abbot gently told him, “God does not judge twice”. The responsibility for our spiritual welfare falls upon the Bishop’s shoulders, and we are freed through our obedience.
That means, even more, that we need to keep our Chief Pastors in our prayers as they negotiate these days. Do not doubt that as a priest of the Church I have been fully engaged in the councils of the Church in the Diocese of Springfield on these questions, but 17 years ago I vowed:
“Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), The Ordination of a Priest, 526 (Also occurs in The Ordination of a Deacon, 538).
It is never appropriate for a priest or deacon to make a public spectacle of themselves in taking their bishop to task in homilies and writings. The place for disagreement is in the council chambers. As I told the Mission Leadership Team, if there was a time that I could not fulfill my vow of obedience in good conscience, I must first take counsel with the Bishop, and if still given direction that I could not obey, the only action that could be taken with integrity would be to resign my Orders. I am reminded of St. Theodoros’ writings:
“The struggle to achieve obedience is won by means of renunciation, as we have learned. He who seeks to be obedient must arm himself with three weapons: faith, hope, and divine and holy love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13). Thus defended, he will ‘fight the good fight’ and receive ‘a crown of righteousness ’ (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Do not judge the actions of your spiritual father, but obey his commands. For the demons are in the habit of showing you his defects, so that your ears may be deaf to what he tells you. They aim either to drive you from the arena as a feeble and cowardly fighter, or simply to terrify you with thoughts that undermine your faith, and so to make you sluggish about every form of virtue. A monk who disobeys the commands of his spiritual father transgresses the special vows of his profession. But he who has embraced obedience and slain his own will with the sword of humility has indeed fulfilled the promise that he made to Christ in the presence of many witnesses.” St. Theodoros Century of Spiritual Texts 41-43
I am also comforted by the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers. St. Ignatius of Antioch (the God-bearer) wrote movingly of the Episcopate as he made his way to martyrdom in Rome, and his letters to the churches have been preserved. One of which states,
“May I ever have joy of you, if I be but worthy. It is, therefore, seemly in every way to glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that you may be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery, and may in all things be sanctified.” Ignatius to the Ephesians 2.2.
“So then he who does not join in the common assembly, is already haughty, and has separated himself. For it is written “God resisteth the proud:” let us then be careful not to oppose the bishop, that we may be subject to God.” Ignatius to the Ephesians 5.3
It is the special vocation of the clergy to be obedient to the Bishop, but it is the duty of all Christians to do the same as they would Christ himself. While perhaps not popular in today’s environment, there can be no argument that this was the teaching of the Ancient Church.
Part III of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
Worship during Pandemic
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18.20
This, not surprisingly, has been the toughest topic to pray, and work, through. Worship is essential to our lives in Christ, and we have been forced to be separate at this time.
First, we need to remember that the Church gets its name from the Greek term “ekklesia”, and originally was a term to denote a group of citizens who were called from their private lives to a public gathering. The “ekklesia” is literally those who are “called out”. We as Christians are those who have answered the calling out of Christ and are expected to gather as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
While the term “church” has come to stand for the place of gathering, it nevertheless remains the name for the people who are gathered, and we must not forget that the gathering of the people is essential to an identity of Christians. Additionally, as the Son and Word of God saw fit to take on human flesh (Incarnation), so we find that we are not simply soul and spirit, but body, and that our bodies are important. This is taught to us through the worship of the catholic Church throughout its history by the emphasis on the Sacraments, which are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. The very stuff of creation is taken by God, blessed, and given back to us in a physical and spiritual reality. We baptize in water and the one receiving is regenerated, born again through that water, as a new creation. Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We do not simply get together for lectures and mentally stimulating readings, we eat, we drink, we stand, we sit, and sometimes we even smell.
And this Incarnational meaning is further shown in the teaching that what is gathered as “church” is the Body of Christ. As St. Paul reminds us, we need each other, and we need to assemble as that Body for our own spiritual good, and the spiritual benefit of our brothers and sisters. The other image that is often used is that we are “a family”, and a family that does not gather together for celebratory meals is not a healthy family. There is no doubt, in terms of our faith and Christian journey, all of us as a local church become poorer when we cannot gather.
While we are reminded of the necessity, we are also aware that we cannot gather at this time as we once were able. I hope that the future will allow us to meet as “one body” again, but we need to take advantage of other opportunities to “gather”, even if they lack the fullness that we desire, or that is necessary.
Throughout its history there have been those who entered into an eremitic life. These hermits were separated from the local fellowship to focus on their lives in prayer. Yet, they were never truly separated from the sacramental life as they returned to worship, or had small gatherings to celebrate the Sacrament. They also had spiritual counsel with an “Abba” or “Amma”. This has been a bit of the model that I have used in the last several months, and encourage all of us to take the time in which we are separated to become like monks in our lives of prayer.
Nowhere in the New Testament is there a numerical qualifier to the gathering. That is except for Christ’s own words in Matthew 18.20 quoted above. Thus, while it is desirable that the entire body gather, in these days, it is perfectly acceptable for the body to gather in smaller groups as we work our way through the time of the Virus. At this time, our Bishop following State guidelines, has limited the gathering to those necessary to stream the service. When we reach Phase III, we will be allowed to have services of 10 people, including the clergy presiding. Again, while it is not perfect, it is a chance to gather in the fullness of Christ’s presence and share the common life. Of course, this means that there will need to be multiple services scheduled for those who wish to avail themselves of the opportunity, even if we cannot all meet on the Lord’s Day. (Actually, the Church moving to more services throughout the week is a good that results from this time, and I pray it continues.)
It must also be noted, that the Church has long carved out exceptions to the expectation of gathering for those who are infirm, and I believe that it must be extended to those who would find themselves in the category of “high risk” at this time. This is where the exercise of prudence is important.
Although I am thankful for the technology that allows us to maintain a connection at this time, “online” worship is not a permanent substitute for the actual gathering of the Body of Christ due to its disembodied nature. I know that the Evangelical world has been experimenting with this for years, and even encourage people to “sleep in for Jesus” and worship in their pajamas, but this is not theologically, or ecclesiologically, correct. It is close to becoming a gnostic experience, since it denies the essential nature of the Church as the gathered people in incarnational relationship with each other and the Triune God. As the Trinity is a community of love with each hypostasis in real presence with, and to, each other in unity of Essence, so we are called to be the same as a Church. “Online” worship may be a second or third “best” option, and one with which we should avail ourselves at a time of emergency, but it will always be but a shadow of the reality.
Despite the limitations, I do encourage all of us to take advantage of the myriad of offerings “online”, while remembering that it is incumbent upon us to “be present” to our own local churches. We still need each other, and it is an encouragement to your brothers and sisters to “log in” when services are held, particularly on the Lord’s Day.
Finally, I need to clearly state that there has never been a recorded case of an individual becoming ill from receiving Holy Communion from the Common Cup. As a priest who consumes what is left following communion, I have no qualms about quaffing the cup, including your backwash, at any given liturgy. I would think that if this were a great vector of disease we would see more ill clergy on a regular basis.
Part II of “Working Thoughts During These Days”.
Fear, Death, and Hope.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love”—1 John 4.18
I always struggled with this verse as a teenager. I just could not figure out why I should not be afraid to go to sleep after watching the latest iteration of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or finishing a chapter in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. It seemed natural to be frightened and fearful. In fact, truth be told, it was a bit fun, but did this mean that I was not yet perfected in love?
Obviously, my immature mind could not grasp the depth of what St. John wrote to his disciples. Love does indeed drive out fear, but it is the perfect love of God, and our love of God in return, that drives out fear. Not the terror and adrenaline rush of watching or reading a Stephen King thriller, but the greater fears of life: Punishment and Death.
Each human being has an innate fear of death, and the soul strongly fears being detached from the body. This is a natural passionate fear, but the lives of the saints are full of stories those who have conquered the psychological, and ontological, terror of death itself, through falling love with the God who is love. They, like us, began with a fear of death and turned, out of that, fear towards God. However, this was the beginning of a life of growth in love towards God and embracing the love of the Holy Trinity towards them. Of course, there was struggle involved and they needed to move through the new fear of punishment, and into a perfect love that kept the commandments of God, out of a desire to not disappoint the One who loves. (That may indeed be a fear, but it is not what John is talking about.”
To cultivate this deep love toward God, to be perfected in Divine Love, is our work as Christians, and it is vitally important that we set our minds and souls at it. If God is love, as we proclaim, and if we are to be raised as Christ is raised and are promised that his life is to be our life, what have we to fear? This is the Gospel message contained in the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not a cliché, or a saccharin preaching point, it is the truth that we proclaim and hold fast.
We should hold the classic Christian exhortation, “memento mori” (remember you must die), in front of us on a regular basis in our Christian journey. It is a reminder that this life is not all there is, and is not all that is important, what is important is what we do with the time that we are given, which for Christians is to prepare for coming face to face with God and being met with pure love for eternity. Hence the call to constant repentance, which is the downward move of humility to recognize how much we are in need of salvation, and how deep is our propensity to sin and a failure to love God.
To be clear, it is not that we should go forth seeking death. Indeed, we should be about practicing the virtue of prudence, but we also need to practice the virtue of fortitude (sometimes rendered courage) that comes from a sincere faith in Christ. Each of us must take counsel for our risk, and the impact upon our families, as well, but we are not called to live in fear.
When the news of the pandemic hit, I found myself in a strange place, compared with the media narrative of our culture and reflected I social media, as there has never been a moment of fear. This may partially be due to my age, but increasingly I find myself comfortable with my own “mortality”. However, lest anyone accuse me of dismissing the risk, I most assuredly do not, as I have two conditions that make me a prime candidate for a significant impact from this virus. Early on, in a discussion amongst clergy of the Diocese, I wrote, “Our hope is not in this life, and if I was given the virus by being in worship and succumbed, then I pray only that I have time to repent and pray.” That was not then, nor is it now, mere sentimentality.
I will say that I am concerned about the rise of a new form of xenophobia (fear of strangers). As physical distancing has been put in place, and adopted by the wider culture, I have not been shocked to see people recoiling in fear if someone accidently enters their new “personal space” of six feet. I have seen this more than a few times in my limited excursions to purchase necessary items. This virus has placed in our collective psyche the fear that the other is dangerous to us, they might be the cause of our death, and hence they must be avoided at all costs. To protect ourselves from others we have erected new barriers and now only have discourse in public places through layers of plexiglass and feel uncomfortable if the barrier is not present. We have also eliminated any physical contact between people who are not “of us” (i.e. under our own roof), and I wonder what the ultimate result will be? Humans are social beings and need both physical and barrier free social contact to be healthy. (No, I am not arguing that protective measures should not be taken, but that we have done so at a certain cost to our collective psyche that may prove problematic in the future). This new xenophobia is most definitely not a Christian attitude. We are not called to be afraid of strangers, but to love them. Of course, we should do our best to maintain the requested distance, but we need to check our attitudes when our “space” is violated.
I also wonder what the impact will be on the Church in the future if this becomes our normal social behavior. Will we be more distrustful of our fellow parishioners? Will we lose a key component of our Incarnational faith? Will we allow for anointing and laying of hands when we pray for each other? Will we share the peace in an incarnational expression, or will a simple “head jiggle” recognition be all that we have? Will we be poorer for it?
Part I–Introduction and “Social Media”
Over the past several months of our experience with COVID-19, I have been wrestling with, and praying through, the multiplicity of implications of this time as regards the Church, the Government, and the Virus. While I am not certain these thoughts have fully completed their fermentation, I am making an initial attempt at summarizing them. I have continually returned to Scripture and the Tradition as I seek to make sense of what I am seeing, hearing, and experiencing. I suppose no one will be genuinely happy with these, as I, myself, am not. Yet, we are called to be faithful, not “happy”.
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” James 3.5-10
Maybe the same should be said for the modern equivalent, the keyboard!
I am more and more convinced that Social Media should be reserved for celebrations of important moments and pictures of puppies and kittens. Seriously, my experience of Social Media over the past two months is that to call it “the ‘adult’ equivalent of a bad school-yard” is to be gracious. While it does contain media, it is anything but social. I have watched as people who once cared for each other have been pushed apart by their disagreements over, well, anything related to the Virus, the Response, or the Politics.
There is no conversation, as there cannot be, in that environment. It is a repository for “hot takes”, arguments, and a new form of “social distancing” which causes people to distance themselves from any opinion with which they disagree, and to decamp to their small tribes of agreement as each raises the flag of its virtue in the face of the other to the cheers of their tribal members. I have seen it devolve into name-calling, and frankly unchristian behavior, on all sides of “the issues”. Of course, these posts are all done uncritically (without self-criticism) as so often what side one accuses side two of, is in fact, what side one is doing, and vice-versa.
If you must post anything beyond celebrations and puppies and kittens, please do so after careful self-analysis that you: a) are not thanking God you are not like others, especially those sinners, b) are not simply signaling your virtue, c) can handle disagreement, argument, and yes, even abuse without losing your temper and needing to “unfriend” those with whom you disagree. Consider whether what is being posted is filled with the light of Christ, or the division of the “powers and principalities”. If you feel the need for snark, or anger, sleep on it for 24 hours. Trust me, you will be healthier and have a better witness.
Does this mean that Social Media is totally useless? No, I do believe the Church can shine a light into the darkness that is there, but it must do so in a measured and reasonable way, and with the Gospel, not our politics. And yes, we should expect a reaction to the Gospel. The presence of so many “live” services is a good and holy thing, and we should explore how to be involved in Social Media while being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. Might I suggest, we all focus on what builds up the Body of Christ and does not tear down others?