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- Woodrow Wilson

A conversation for “The Path of Orthodoxy“, Paschal edition, 2020

Christ is Risen, Your Grace! We are joyously celebrating the Feast of feasts even though we find ourselves under unprecedented circumstances, at least for our generation. The coronavirus, that enemy invisible to the naked eye, has prevented the gathering of the faithful in the churches of your Diocese and throughout the world. How did you celebrate the Lord's Pascha in your diocesan cathedral?                                                                                                   

Indeed He is risen!

Many clever people have already made sufficiently deep evaluatons about the broader effects of this virus. These effects go beyond biology and touch on psychology and ecology, so I would not say anything new here. I know only that "even the very hairs on our head are all numbered" (Mt 10:30), and that even through adverse circumstances, the Lord directs history towards its end. But, the lessons of this pandemic will be much better learned once it ends.

We celebrated Pascha and we continue to do so, with a strong sense of “presence in absence”. I believe that each of our bishops and priests, without exception, from the Negotin region to the Pacific coast and from Budim to Melbourne, greeted their invisibly present faithful as “mystically transfigured.” I say “mystically” and “invisible,” since the Liturgy has the capacity to make those not present, present in a mystical manner. In the Church, that which is mystical is sensible in reality. It’s not about a delusion or a fantasy, but the power of the Holy Spirit. This year’s Paschal Liturgy was an experience, a “joyful sorrow” of sorts. For each year the church is filled with the voices of the faithful responding, “Indeed He is risen“; this year we heard only our own echo. 

All of this, of course, is painful and none of us want this suffering. This dimension of “presence in absence” is understood only by those who love, suffer and wait.

Do these new circumstances affect our established model of liturgical spirituality?

Our spirituality is not “origenistic” in the sense that we identify with Christ psychologically or metaphorically, but rather it is liturgical, which entails an overwhelming participation in all the mysteries of the Church, with its spiritual and material context. Praying to God that we come out of this strengthened, I express my hope that we will not have any side effects. As a danger, I see a disguised Evagrian origenism, which leads to individualism (through a narrowly understood “noetic prayer”) as well as an “immaterial” spirituality. Yet, the Church, from the very beginning, uses visible symbols in order to portray that which is being symbolized: Christ and the Kingdom of God.

I was amazed by the Athonite elder Vasileios of Iveron, when he said the other day: if one believes, through this trial he has celebrated the best Pascha this year. How? He says: “In order to have the best Pascha at the time when you cannot celebrate Pascha, one must sense the power of the Risen One, and thus have community with all men.” His point is that only then will we celebrate Pascha with all people and the entire world. I hope we won't lose this logic of the resurrection!

We, the Orthodox, view life within the framework of three realities: the past, i.e., the historical experience of the life of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit; then the present in which the Lord shows us that He is with us; and the future, as the manifestation of God's love and light at the end of time, which is in fact, a new beginning in the Lord. Taking the current situation into consideration, through the prism of these three realities, is it justified to have any fear which today, unfortunately, is present in the world?

I think you said it very nicely and correctly. For me, fear is an important manifestation of human nature. Fear of death is an accompanying part of our historical life. The one who has no fear, shows signs that something is wrong with him. Let’s be clear, only the dead have no fear. Even the Lord in Gethsemane allowed Himself to deny death through a natural human desire for it to pass Him. We remember His words, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Death is not some friend who needs to be hugged. On the contrary!

On the other hand, no natural disaster, including a pandemic, can separate us from the love of Christ… “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”, the Apostle Paul asked, implying an answer known to every Christian.

How do you see the role of our Serbian Church under these new circumstances?

Our entire Serbian episcopacy—both in the homeland and in the diaspora—bears the cross of our day in an attentive and orderly manner. There is no hierarch who does not understand the pain and sorrow of our people and all of humanity. And they all pray that the Lord eliminate this virus so that pessimism might turn into optimism and unbelief to belief. Where sin is multiplied, grace multiplies even more—that’s the evangelical rule. This is true even in a state of suspended life such as ours, and we hope that it will be replaced with an “ever-moving repose” in the Kingdom of God.

I would also add that this state of emergency has helped us to understand more deeply the meaning of the words of the Philokalia which says: “A true monk is distant from all, and with all in unity. This year, we are separated from everyone, so to speak, but—thank God!—we can be with everyone in unity. After all, imprisonment is one thing while solipsism is a completely different thing (solus means “alone” and ipse “self”, so “fixated on oneself”). It is very important that a person avoid withdrawal into oneself since this can lead to various problematic conditions. The best antidote to solipsism is communication, at all levels: state, church, municipal, parish…

With this communication we can win over everyone, even our enemies. For instance, precisely at Pascha, we sing “Let us call ‘brothers’ even those that hate us.” We often do not realize the fact that those who hate us, who gossip and slander us, are essentially waiting for our love, in some secret hope that we will not respond as ones who are hurt and vindictive. They want to witness the strength of our faith. And yet, in those very moments we come across as weak, enslaved by pride and we react like spoiled children and accuse them of godlessness. Yet these ungodly ones oftentimes are not ungodly, rather they reject the God of the Pharisees and scribes.

On the other hand, the criticism of some people from the church at the expense of priests, bishops, the Synod, and even the Church itself, are outrageous. How many are there who are praying for the priests who with teary-eyes and wounded hearts serve in empty churches, praying for the world while receiving arrows from all sides?

At this time, the length of this state of emergency and quarantine is unforeseeable. President Donald Trump, as well as many others on both federal and local levels of government, have expressed their concern for what essentially is the freezing of the economy. At the same time, they are—like us—concerned about the possible spread of the virus if we are allowed to move around and precautions are mitigated.

The consequences of this pandemic are undoubtedly bad for the economy and can already be considered to be very serious and, for some, tragic and incomprehensible. The extraordinary measures will probably last until a vaccine is discovered. Going back to normal, or a “new normal”, is often mentioned in current discussions. However, as Christians, we will approach all things sober-mindedly, even at attempts to establish a sort of utopian, biosocial conservation of the species through naturalistic entrepreneurship. Because we do not desire a mere “recovery of society” or a revival of the economy after the current collapse. Also, we would not like to see an attempt by rulers to convince their subjects that they have no choice but the one they prescribe, much of which has taken place in Serbia. Even so, the arrival of certain fundamental changes is being felt in the air both in America and throughout the world.

How much does this affect the lives of families, specifically, in your Diocese and beyond?

As I hear from priests, our faithful strive to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Christian name. I would sum it up in one sentence: “Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.” These words are not mine, but from the ancient Christian writing, the “Epistle to Diognetus.” Here, Christians are described as being very similar to every other citizen of the then Roman Empire. 

Since I have already mentioned this writing, I would like to point out something useful to us today. It is said there that Christians are “indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs... With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign... “. And then there is the sentence I mentioned, where it is emphasized that Christians obey the existing laws, but in their way of life they exceed them. This should be our measure by which we measure ourselves in relation to the current rules regarding the corona virus. I consider it very possible to obey the laws (social distances, etc.) and not break any Christian law, especially the supreme one: regarding love. In that same epistle it says: “Christians are seen living in the world, but their pious life remains unseen.” What is meant to be said is that Christians are not some sort of provocateurs who cause disorder and especially not public scandal… Here we can see how ancient Christian text “speak” to all epochs.

The American population has not experienced restrictions on this scale since World War II, and many are finding it difficult. The average American feels free to express his opinion, to move about, to be active, etc. Some psychologists are already concerned that the quarantine will have negative effects on the psyche and even the physical health of people.

The scientific research surrounding this virus is both sobering and calming, which has gradually turned into an enormous “emotional monster.” Even when churches will be completely open, we will need to be careful about the underlying epidemiological issues. I wonder, and I know I’m not alone in this, did a virus need to teach us this lesson? On the other hand, there are many faces of death, much crueler than this one, and we needn't succumb to its reduced version, named “corona.”

Many have noted even earlier that America is an urban desert; namely, beneath the cities and developments hides a desert zone. In the same vein, the urban décor of advertisements and greenery masks a desert of self-isolation and distancing. People do not socialize in the streets or in the subways because they have been socially distanced for some time now (in houses, cars, boats, etc.). It doesn't have to be too strict, though. One Athonite monk recognized the Orthodox mark in the “cowboy” spirit: instead of a socialist-realist high-rise apartment buildings with densely populated families, America offers the freedom of space, vast expanses and free time.

Can the centuries-old patristic experience of Orthodoxy help us and how can it be applied in the fight against the negative effects of quarantine and the state of emergency in general?

Patristic experience can help us, but discernment is needed to identify the answers from that experience. It is not transmitted automatically and is not self-evident, but rather theological criteria are needed. Quarantine can work both ways, just like anything else. When you ask them how long they have been on Mount Athos, a true Athonite will reply that even jackals have lived on Athos for a long period of time, and they still remain jackals. The point? I can live on Athos for decades and have yet to visit it. Similarly, one can live in far-off America and have the spirit of the Athonite desert, to receive its rays of grace without ever physically being there. Thus, the church-spiritual space is not geographical or limited to a calendar, rather, its theological.

A monophysical avoiding of the anthropological dimensions of life is alien to our Tradition. This includes ignoring the contribution of science, which we neither overestimate nor underestimate. “To think one knows does not permit one to advance in knowledge,” said an ancient Church father. Therefore, we need to take into account the caveats that come to us from all sides, including psychology and sociology. A measure for this relationship was given to us by a 7th century church father who said, “If you want to become an arbiter, seek always in things that which is hidden from your knowledge. You will find a great diversity of things that escape your notice; you will marvel at your lack of knowledge and be reduced in your own estimation. And when you come to know yourself, you will understand many great and wonderful things.” All of this that is happening with the corona virus is a temptation, but temptation can be transformed into blessings – inasmuch as we reach knowledge through humility. 

The young church, that is, the school-age children, are continuing their education through online classes. When they finish the school year at the end of June, summer break will begin, and with it the start of the summer camp season. If this state of emergency lasts for several more months, what measures and programs will the diocese take and offer to parents and children in the event that holding church camp is not feasible?

We are thinking intensively about this since it is already clear that camps will not be held. We are open to ideas of having video classes, conferences and the like, so we will prepare the appropriate content by the summer.

Can you tell us a little about the OrthoPrax App you developed for mobile phones?

This phone app indeed offers us certain possibilities during the current situation. It is the best Orthodox iPhone and Android app in the world. If there is an ideal church mobile application, then it is OrthoPrax: it has a complete Orthodox calendar, a prayer book, with an archive of over ten thousand icons in high resolution, daily prayers and readings that help us follow the liturgical cycle of the church year. There is also access to the rich text and audio content of the Ochrid Prologue of St. Nikolai of Serbia.

Whether such applications will help build church piety remains to be seen; however, we think the existence of such applications is important. Today’s lifestyle, fueled by technology, has introduced a new and different kind of communication, and as the developers of OrthoPrax have shown, the Church is following these changes and is present in the virtual-digital arena.

Can you mention some of the challenges facing pastoral ministry from the corona virus, and how much will they change when the precautionary measures are reduced?

Unfortunately, in some places, the pandemic of the corona virus has revealed spiritual devastation. People are moving away from each other; superficial piety is manifested. Instead of coming together, people are divided. Instead of embracing one another, they turn their backs to each other. This will not be recorded among their “sevap” (good deeds), as our people say.

Yet, there is also a hidden blessing here, that we might take a deeper look within ourselves, so that when all of this passes, soon, God grant soon, we will live more God-pleasing lives. Already now we can recognize the sincere faith of many who in their hearts live a sincere faith and relationship with God before the icon of Christ, the Theotokos and all the saints. Their hearty faith is saving Orthodoxy. They show the truth of the saying that “both when we live and when we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14: 8).

What can we say about the challenges lying ahead?

I believe that the answer to our dilemmas will not be found in solutions solely from the past. We strive to have our thinking be informed through God’s grace. Tradition is an avant-garde, in the sense that sometimes our answers will suddenly come to us from the future.

What is important for a priest and his ministry under these new circumstances which resulted from the coronavirus, and what about the layman?

As elsewhere, there are some parishioners who interpret this crisis as God’s punishment on both us and others. I would say that this warning has ecological proportions as well. Let us not forget that the Lord instructed the Jews to rest every seventh year in order to give rest to both the fields and nature around them, with a pause in the exploitation of the land. (cf. Lev. 25:2-4)

Priests have told me how, just now, they have become more aware of certain aspects of life in Christ. As much as, on the one hand, we have been deprived of certain things, so much so, I think, our homes have received something which they previously lacked. We didn’t feel like our homes were small churches. And those prayers which are lifted up are now more sincere and deeper.

I suppose that man will realizes the true value of something only when he is left without it. In theory, we have all been taught about the importance of the “other,” about prayers, and liturgy as an act of the people, but we have never felt it so strongly before, with our entire being. At times it seems as if we are losing ground and so we ask ourselves who are we.

I would end by making a reference to one of our priests who had some health issues, unrelated to the coronavirus, but due to the strict precautionary measures, doctors sent him to take various tests. He noted how the current atmosphere in the hospitals, where everyone is masked, had a great impact on him. Or, perhaps it was the possibility in being confronted with a different outcome from the medical findings. It is then, he says, that we realize our limits and just how unprepared we are for the Kingdom of God. And here he mentioned the example of St. Nikolai of Zicha who, while being held in the Dachau concentration camp, was exalted three times before Heaven, and each time he asked the Lord to bring him back to earth—because he felt that he was not ready. Our hope is that this time of temptation will serve to arouse in us an even greater desire for the Lord and His Kingdom.

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