Monday, March 23, 2020

Questions and Answers 134 - 142 (A Coronavirus Special Edition)

I received an email with a series of questions from a certain individual regarding the events we are currently going through with the coronavirus. I thought they were good questions that many Orthodox Christians are having right now and want some clarification about, so I selected some of them I believe are of general interest and provide my answers below.

Question 134: Is there an historical precedent for the closure of churches due to an epidemic? It doesn't seem right to me.

Answer: No, certainly not at the scale of what is going on today. Usually when churches close, it is done involuntarily, such as in times of persecution, and not voluntarily, though it is debatable how voluntary it really is right now. That doesn't mean the decision to close churches is necessarily the wrong decision. Churches have closed in the past, at least partially, during times of pestilence or war, but nothing I know of at a large scale or with total closure. Typically in history people fled to the churches in times of trouble. I do think it is odd we can congregate in grocery stores but not in churches, even if safe distancing measures were implemented, but this is the way things are. If a bishop chooses to close churches in a case that he believes is best for the Church under his care, even if he is wrong, then it is justified. This is the type of authority a bishop has. He is the shepherd, and we are merely his obedient flock.

Question 135: Shouldn't churches at least be open for private prayer?

Answer: In some places around the world, such as Greece, churches are open for private prayer but not for public worship. This is the call of the local bishop in cooperation with the state authorities.

Question 136: In many parishes the priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy on certain important holy days, like Holy Thursday, early in the morning, and over the course of 3 or 4 hours people trickle into church and receive communion. These people do not attend the Divine Liturgy itself, and it is permitted because on Holy Thursday children still have to go to school, typically, and adults have to go to work. Can't we do something like this at this time to allow people to receive communion?

Answer: Yes, of course. However, bishops have chosen not to do this. There are several options of how to bring Holy Communion to the people in times like this, but it simply comes down to what the bishops authorize and choose to do. Maybe in the coming weeks, if things are prolonged, bishops will figure something out.

Question 137: I have read articles where people are afraid the virus can invade not necessarily the eucharist but the spoon, the wiping cloth or the chalice. What is your opinion on this?

Answer: I really have no opinion on this. Is it possible? Yes, it is probably possible. I think it is highly unlikely though. Probably the most likely is through the wiping cloth, if anything. There is no evidence to indicate this is not possible. People who receive communion, receive with faith and hope that nothing will harm them when they receive, but they should also be open to what God wills in their life. Like anything in life, it requires faith. When I walk outside to pick up my mail, it is by faith and hope I do so, since such an act can result in my death in a variety of ways. An asteroid can fall from space and crush me, a car could veer off the road and strike me, a deadly bug or animal could bite me, an escaped convict can apprehend me and slit my throat or shoot me. Just because something is possible, doesn't mean it will happen. All day long we unconsciously weigh the probability of things and make our choice. It is the same with going to church and receiving communion. We shouldn't let fear run our lives, but at the same time we must be prudent and cautious when necessary and have some common sense.

Question 138: What do you think of the current practice in Russia where they are allowing communion and are dipping the spoon in alcohol after each time someone receives communion?

Answer: I think it is a valid means of distributing communion at this time out of economia, which means that if it is done this way then it should only be for a short period of time until what prompted this practice has passed. As I stated above, people have a choice to approach under these conditions, and weigh the probability of possibly being infected. If they are open to the possibility of being infected, then I certainly would not criticize them for it. I would just be more concerned of the people congregating in close proximity with one another and then coming into close proximity with someone else outside the church at this time. People should use discretion and common sense especially at this time.

Question 139: You've brought up examples such as Elder Anthimos and Elder Eumenios and other saints of the Church who communed people with communicable diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis and then consuming the eucharist afterwards. Should priests and people take this as an example in our current environment, consuming with people known to have a communicable virus?

Answer: I think it is an option each priest and individual has. We go to church and receive communion all the time with people who on certain occasions may have a dangerous communicable illness or virus, such as the flu, which can be very deadly for certain people, but no one really thinks about it. However, right now there is a worldwide effort to stop this particular virus by distancing ourselves and isolating ourselves from one another, and this is what the bishops prescribe, so this is what we must do. At the same time, we must be careful to take as examples in such circumstances holy elders and saints, because these are people most likely with greater faith than the average pious Orthodox Christian, and personal holiness through great faith I think plays a big role in how one is affected by things like this. There are people who completely put their lives in the hands of God and will do things out of love for people that they are willing to give their up lives if necessary with no thought for their own safety. Mother Gabriela, for example, would cleanse the wounds of lepers in India with her bare hands, knowing the consequences.

Question 140: I have heard examples such as St. Mary of Egypt and St. David the Dendrite, who did not receive communion for a number of years, as examples which we should follow at this time. They call it "eucharistic fasting." Is this a justifiable comparison?

Answer: First of all, in the Orthodox Church there is no concept of "eucharistic fasting." There is such a concept in the Roman Catholic Church, and it seems like people who are talking about this are influenced by their practice. In the Orthodox Church, the only reason one abstains from Holy Communion is through excommunication or simply not choosing to receive when it is being offered. Right now, we are going through something unprecedented, though different local Churches are practicing different things. In the Greek Archdiocese of America, which I belong to, a priest can serve the Divine Liturgy with a chanter and sexton, but the congregation can only participate through live streaming. Something like this has never been done before in the history of the Church, where a Divine Liturgy is offered but no one is allowed to receive communion. I would list this as a sentence of excommunication of sorts towards the people, because according to our bishops we present a danger to one another if we did receive communion. It is not necessarily because we did anything wrong however. Our bishops believe this is what is best for us. This is the decision they have made, and we must be obedient to it. We have no say in the matter. Our obedience alone will justify us at this time.

As far as the comparison with Mary of Egypt and David the Dendrite, among many other ascetics and hermits of the Church, I consider the comparison with our situation to be foolish. First of all, we don't know if David the Dendrite received communion or not while he lived up in the tree. He did this while living on monastery grounds, so it is quite possible he did receive Holy Communion, therefore I will dismiss this example based on our ignorance of the situation and lack of information. Mary of Egypt, however, was a baptized Christian who had a falling away from the Church for a number of years, then decided to repent of her sins by fleeing into the desert. In one version of the story, she received Holy Communion before she went into the desert, but this incident is omitted in some manuscripts so it is debated whether this happened or not; likely it did not happen. She fled into the desert to be purified of her sins through extreme repentance. She considered herself a virus that was inclined towards infecting others with her sickness, so she fled. Over the course of many years, she completely subdued her base passions and attained a state of illumination by God's grace, as well as deification. It is in this state that God brought a priest into her life to confess her sins and bring her Holy Communion. In other stories of the Desert Fathers, where they attained a high level of holiness away from people, an angel brought them Holy Communion. This was because they were in a state of being worthy, as much as humanly possible, to receive Holy Communion. It was the belief of many in the Church, and really is still the teaching of the Church, that Holy Communion should only be received by the illuminated who have been purified of their sins. This was especially a belief of many ascetics and hermits, who aimed towards the ideals of the Church. The ascetics and hermits often wanted to be completely purified of their sins before they received Holy Communion. However, there was another belief more popular in the cities and parishes where it was allowed for someone, out of economia, to receive Holy Communion if they are in the process of being purified. This has become a standard belief today. Ideally we should be purified and in a state of illumination to receive Holy Communion, but people are typically allowed to receive communion as long as they are in a state of repentance and on the path towards purification. The story of Mary of Egypt presents to us the ideal state of when we can receive Holy Communion. Therefore to compare her practice to our own is just absurd and dangerous. Dangerous because then you can justify never receiving communion until before death by making such comparisons, and similarly you can even justify never having to go to church or frequent confession or almsgiving, just because Mary of Egypt didn't do it. When bringing up an example of a saint, you have to think through all this. We can also bring up examples such as St. Constantine the Great or the Three Hierarchs and many in the early Church, who chose not to be baptized until they were adults or even before their death because they wanted to be properly prepared for the purifying waters of baptism, the illuminating chrism and the deifying body and blood of Christ. Being involuntarily quarantined for a virus has no comparison with any of these examples. If we want examples at this time, we should bring up examples of obedience.

Question 141: How long do you think is the proper time to be away from Holy Communion at this time? You mentioned in one of your posts three weeks, and in another up to five weeks.

Answer: The Canons of the Church allow for up to three consecutive weeks without communion, at which time you would be self excommunicating yourself. Five weeks is not recommended. However, these prohibitions are for those who voluntarily don't attend church and receive communion. Today we are going through the unique condition of involuntarily not being able to attend church and receive communion. Right now we are in a state of obedience to our bishops. If our bishops tell us to stay away from communion for three weeks, or five weeks, or ten weeks, or even a whole year or more, then this is what we should do, and we would be justified for doing so. Our obedience is our only sacrament at this time.

Question 142: What advice do you have for this time?

Answer: Simply to stay positive and optimistic. I think we are fortunate that this is happening during Great Lent, which is a season of repentance. If you want to set up Mary of Egypt as an example, then have her as an example of repentance. It is a time we can still better focus on our spiritual life, and there are many online resources that can help with this. Churches all over the world are streaming services, the Mystagogy Resource Center has many daily resources for this time, and I'm sure you can still communicate with your parish priest or spiritual advisor and confessor either online or over the phone. Get yourself better acquainted with the lives of the saints and daily services of the Church in the context of your home. In many ways, we are in ideal conditions for Great Lent, despite not being able to go to church. As far as secular worries, such as your job situation, financial matters, and health issues, be patient and place your hope in God's providence to get you through all this. Focus on what you can do and what you can control, not what you can't do and what is out of your control.

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