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The Orthodox Ethos Podcast
Episode 10
April 27th, 2020

Responding to the Crisis: Christian Realism and Worldly Idealism

In this episode of The Orthodox Ethos podcast: 

  1. To be a "New Christian" or a True Christian
  2. Insane in the Eyes of the World
  3. Q&A, including:
    1. Healing the Spiritual Schism
    2. What to do when you are shut out
    3. Don't remain idle: take the fight to 'em
    4. St. Paisios Example and Us
  4. Christian Realism and Worldly Idealism

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April 27, 2020

Episode 10

Responding the the Crisis: Christian Realism and Worldly Idealism, Q & A

In this episode of the Orthodox Ethos podcast, the insanity of being an Orthodox Christian today, and part 2 of answers to your questions.

Our Lord promised that in the world we will have tribulation, but to take courage that He has overcome the world. And this is a theme that I think we need to focus on increasingly in our days.

As I was preparing to answer the questions that many of you have sent, and there are many. We will get to them slowly through these next couple of episodes. I pulled out of my library a little book that I had put together some 25 years ago, excerpts from the writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose when he was a layperson, a layman.

And this is a little booklet that you can see here that we put together for our conference back in Rosehill College back in, I don’t know 1994, ‘95, Bright Thursday of ‘95. And in this, it is called Christian Realism and Worldly Idealism, a Letter to Thomas Merton. You can find this in an old Orthodox Word, or you can find it in the writings of Fr. Seraphim; excerpts are in his Life (Life and Works of Fr. Seraphim Rose).

I want to read to you, to begin and end this episode, just a few lines from this, which I think are really powerful and important for us as we face this spirit of the world today, behind this panic to overcome the virus. And there is a great temptation that is hiding behind the response of Christians.

So we will begin, we will address some of these things in the questions, then we will end again with Fr. Seraphim.

He says, the present day, surely, to the impartial eye, the darkest and most desperate hour man has ever known, has at the same time inspired the greatest worldly hope in history. Indeed the more desperate the situation, the more intense and frenzied becomes the hope of men, who if they had not this to cling to, would perish of despair.

It is uncanny, the accuracy of his words in our present situation. Of course these were written in the 1960s, this was back when he was still a laymen, before a monk, before a hieromonk.

He goes on: not so the Christian. Many Christians, it is true, succumb to the frenzy of the times, and join in the worldly chant of peace, but these are the new Christians. Men, who the increasingly menacing powers of the world seduce to compromise with the obvious and union with the forces of the worldly.

It would be insanity, surely to do anything else, so speak the worldly. The true Christian is, in the eyes of the world, insane. He trusts in a God who can and will preserve him in the midst of the most painful torture and death, in the martyrdom that all Christians desire, even in the annihilation of the world, which cannot be accomplished by man’s feeble powers, but only by God.

What the Roman Caesars attempted to accomplish with their limited means, the impersonal powers of the world today attempt with much more impressive means of modern technology. Both must fail when confronted with a faith that truly reaches out beyond this world. And such faith the Christian has if he remains true to Christ.

We will come back to Fr. Seraphim to close. These are really powerful words for your consideration, very accurate in describing our temptation, which is this temptation to follow the world in its response and be satisfied with the response of the world as if it is a Christian response.

Let’s go on to our questions, and hopefully these will be very helpful to you as well. So I have had many people write me. One person wrote me who was very involved in one of the states, in the United States of America, one of the states. He was helping the government in preparations at a medical center. And we was also asked to give guidance to some Church leadership.

And he says, and I quote: I have been gravely grieved at the faithlessness, fear, and lack of concern for souls that I have experienced. My advice was not heeded. I helped convince them that there is no rational defense, even for the faithless or heterodox who know not the holy mysteries, to stop the services.

I have not advocated any limitation in numbers either, especially more than the civil authorities. And yet, this attempt has failed. This state that I am living in has been praised as having the best state-wide response in the United States. It has never banned church services in any way. Authorities asked for priests to consider the guidance of no more than 10 in a gathering, but it is not mandated.

And yet, our ecclesiastical leadership has not only banned services for the first week, when this first happened, but has continued to ban services, except for three people. And he prefers that these people are of a particular set in the community. Our civil authorities, he says, would allow the services in a prudent manner, that we see fit. And yet our ecclesiasticalleadership has said no.

This is an example of what we saw and what we are seeing among the leadership of the Orthodox Church, which is of course tremendously disappointing to so many people. And I do not think that the hierarchies understood how extensive the disappointment is. And that is one of the reasons why I am reading this to all of you, not to discourage you, but to encourage you that there are many people in the Church who are resisting a worldly response to this whole crisis.

He did well. He did well. His stance, I think is discerning. He was helping. He was supporting. He accepted the ecclesiastical leadership’s decision. In the end he disagrees with it. And he is very scandalized and upset about it. But he was there and doing the right thing.

I think that is what we need to do. We need to work with our hierarchy, our clergy. We need to make that discernment, that key discernment between the church, as the body of Christ, which entails all of the members, and a segment of that which is the hierarchy or clergy. They can error, as can the laypeople, as can any segment.

And that does not identify with Christ or the Church. So that distinction is key, otherwise you can really lose confidence, not just in a person, but in the Church as the body of Christ. And that would be a great sin and a falling away from Christ. And that would be a demonic temptation that none of us should fall into.

The whole body, and especially the saints. This is the identity of the Church. And those who do his will more perfectly, the saints, are the ones that should be considered as the voice of the church. We need to be a support and a light to our brethren, and not falling into despair. We need to be patient, show understanding, and trust in Christ.

We need to help our bishops and our clergy, to see that they are missing an opportunity, a great opportunity to increase the faith of the people and give witness to the world.

I received another letter from a dear friend who had gone abroad to an Orthodox country, just six months ago, lived in America and moved to another country, a traditionally Orthodox country. And they write me that by a miracle they were able to go to Paschal services in their city, but that unfortunately immediately afterward that possibility ended.

And the Church, the local Church nearby has closed to parishioner. And she writes: I am so scandalized that I feel like I am in a state of shock. I cannot believe the hierarchs are responding in this way. I feel lost at the Church all together. Suddenly I do not know how to tell where the Church actually is.

I feel that the right thing to do is to go to Church in obedience to God and the Scriptures, regardless of the restrictions. I am being told that this is incorrect. But I do not understand why. At what point do we stop listening to instructions which contradict everything we already know about life in Christ?

She asks, the banning of parishioners from the Churches, is this not the social gospel at work? Where are the people who will stand for the truth? How do I find them? My heart is just in pieces. Please, tell me anything you can about how to proceed correctly.

These letters are heart-breaking. This should not be happening. These people should not be scandalized, they should not be left. Somebody wrote me last night and said, I wonder how many faithful have died without confession and communion.

I mean, if we think about it, certainly there are those who know the priest and the people are faithful, and they contact the priest, but there are many who do not have that kind of connection to the Church, and yet, if things were operating normally, theyprobably would have been identified or heard from. And maybe they are isolated and far from family due to the restrictions.

It is tragic and it is certainly not God’s will. So how do we respond to this cry from our dear sister, who is in an Orthodox country. Not in America or Australia, but in a traditionally Orthodox country. And these are just some thoughts for her, because obviously I cannot entirely sooth the pain.

Here is my response. The Church is a family, with a father, and a mother, a brother, and sisters. And just as we would not consider leaving the family when one member is wrong or confused, or even when the father is mistaken, or leading the family poorly, or even in the wrong direction, we should not consider leaving the Church. Not that she was considering that, but truly these are the temptations that come to those who do not know where to turn, and feel betrayed, and cannot accept, cannot understand the decision making process of the clergy.

On the other hand, precisely because the Church of Christ is not run by the bishops, like a business or an army, that is not the way things are run in the Church, but a family, he is our father, in God, right. We can and should speak with love and boldness to our fathers, our brothers, and our other members of the family.

As in a family, there is understanding about who has the last word, and who has the responsibility for that decision, but there is a good, open, loving discussion that does not cast into doubt the hierarchy of things.

The witness of so many elders and fathers in Greece, such as Elder Evthymios and Elder Parthenios, who we commemorated in previous podcasts, or Athanasius Mitilinaios who spoke 40 years ago about this possibility of them closing the churches, and saying that we should not obey the state if they come to close our churches.

Or many of the priests today in Greece who open their churches, commune people, all of these witnesses testify to the reality that you are not being disobedient children when you speak up and are a part of this whole family of God. And yet, in the end, like our previous example, who was helping the bishops and even the state, he is not rebelling, he is not jumping ship, but he is speaking truth, as he understands it, in a loving way, a humble way, the same thing can happen in every case.

So first of all, my response to this dear soul is, first of all, pray. Pray more, and more intensely, that God would show the way forward. Secondly, speak with those priests or clergy that you know in your area that God will enlighten them. Express your agony, express your objections, absolutely. We are a part of this family. Thirdly, speak out spiritual guidance from others near you, brothers and sisters in Christ, for consolation and also see what they are doing, but also, a spiritual father at a nearby monastery or an abbot, or anyone that you trust that has spiritual experience. Seek guidance from them to see how you might go forward practically, to be able to continue the life of the Church as much as possible.

And finally, ask God to open the path up to you to attend Divine services somewhere. It is my experience in Greece, Greece might be an exception, I am not sure, there are a lot of clergy, I know a lot of clergy, personally, and I hear other stories, that in spite of the governmental ban, are having services, are holding services, even in their homes. And there might services available that you can attend, until such a time that this crisis ends, and this ban is lifted.

And there can be a really sound, good patristicaly -based and focus discussion among all of us as to whether this was the true path that the Church should have taken. So give the matter some time. Wait on God, pray, and do not panic. Do not fear. These are not of God. But be patient.

As for your question, is the banning of parishioners from Churches an expression of the social gospel, well, not necessarily directly in every case, but let me answer as best I can.

There may be clergy, and probably are many clergy who are ignorant of this delusion, this threat, this perversion of our faith, the so-called social gospel. They do not see it as a danger, or the path we are on as a danger that could lead to a perversion of the Gospel. So the question is, why is it dangerous. Why is the social gospel dangerous? and why is this change in our methodology of encountering sicknesses and illnesses, shutting down churches, banning people from Divine services, why is this methodology not blessed, and why could it lead to a distortion of our understanding of the Church itself?

In so much as we have put aside our way, the narrow way, the particular Orthodox Christian way of being in Christ, and that means Synaxis, gathering of the faithful, and Eucharist, that is our way. That is how we exist. That is a part of our identity, our nature, as Christians.

And we are doing this in the name of love of neighbor, oddly expressed by isolating him from us and from Christ. We have lost the hierarchy of things, in as much as we are doing it. Put aside the narrow way, put aside the Synaxis and the Eucharist, in the name of love of the neighbor.

Well, this is a loss of the hierarchy of things. It is a loss of our unique Christian vision, criteria. It is a loss of the foolishness of the Gospel and the way of Christ. You see, there are those who are expecting the world to understand and because they are afraid or they do not want to scandalize the world, then they abandon the narrow path, the way of the Synaxis and Eucharist, and the life of the Church.

Well, this is not our criteria of our decision making. This is an error. There are certain non-negotiables, in our life, for us. Without which our very identity as a Christian is questionable. And union with God in the Eucharist is certainly the first of these. And we have already been going on, in Greece, I think we are in the sixth week now. Six weeks. There is an ancient cannon that says after three weeks of missing the Eucharist, the Synaxis and the Eucharist, you are considered excommunicated.

This is obviously time for this experiment in responding to this so-called crisis of the virus to come to an end. As I said in a previous podcast, we can and we must find a way to carry out both of the commandments, to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, which means to commune of the Holy Mysteries, which is a commandment, to worship him in the Churches, and to love and care for our neighbor, these cannot be opposed. They must be two wings on the eagle that ascends to heaven for us Christians.

I want to read you another letter which is, I thought, hopeful, and I thought a very good response in so far as it was in his hands to respond to this whole issue. A good thought, and a good reaction on the part of one of our readers.

He writes: I do not understand how a packed Walmart is a magical place where disease cannot spread. But if you put a cross on the top of a building and reduce the crowd to only 11 people, all of the sudden Covid, Coronavirus becomes super contagious and it is a grave societal sin that could be endangering people.

I think this is ironically put, but very well-put. It is very strange criteria, and of course totally unacceptable. He says, it is frustrating not to be able to do anything about the Church situation. And I am just one person. So I ordered a Book of Divine Services to read the services at home, and I am requesting the Mysteries, the Sacraments that are still available on an individual basis, like confession.

And even calling other Orthodox to pray over the phone if I need to. I had a call with three people and we read the Paschal Matins. I try but I cannot focus on Livestream. I totally agree with you, and I think there are a lot of Christians out there who just cannot sit in front of Livestream television and really feel that this is the Divine Service. I have to read prayers out of a book to be able to focus and really be praying.

So first of all, he is not remaining idle. He is not giving into depression and despair. In as much as he can change the situation, he cannot change the situation, he works around it. And this is right. This is the way we should be acting. He is not compromising with the spirit of the age behind the consideration of the Church as non-essential.

He takes the fight to the enemy and does services himself at home and whatever he can receive from the priest, he is doing it. He stays watchful and prayerful. He can do one more thing, one more thing. He can entreat God and also his bishop and priest, to open the Churches. That is the only thing that I would add to his response to the crisis.

There is a very good, well-put question coming from a doctor, a friend of mine, who wrote the following question. It is a response to the quote from St. Paisios, which was included in the letter of Elder Evthymios in our previous podcast, A Letter from the Holy Mountain.

And the quotation that he is asking about these questions about is the following, St. Paisios said that we should cross ourselves and eat without fear. He was the first to set an example. If he were alive today, it would be unthinkable to see him with a mask and gloves, keeping a bottle of disinfectant in his pocket and avoiding people or talking to them from a distance.

He would surely calm the people and help dispel fear. But most of all, he would be saddened by the closure of the churches.

So he asks: What am I supposed to make of this? Of course, not the closing of the Churches, I get that, he says, but that he would not wear a mask or keep a distance, that germs or viruses don’t exist? Or aren’t contagious? Is that what I should understand from this? Or should I understand that a real man of faith is like the three children in the furnace and is not harmed? Or that those who wear masks and keep distancing are less in faith and unworthy?

Certainly, we are less holy, he says, than St. Paisios, but is this what I am supposed to receive from this. Is even wearing a mask in public then a litmus test of faith? Does this mean the Orthodox Church rejects the findings of the natural world, science, and medicine? Should we even have doctors then?

If I am dealing with Covid patients, should I not wear a mask? All of this, he says, is very confusing to me.

Let me do whatever I can here to help you and all those who might have the same questions deal with this in an Orthodox manner. And I am certainly not going to exhaust the response to this, because there are many, many things that could be said, many questions were asked.

Let me start first by saying that there is indeed a great need for a corrective for many of us Orthodox today who are very influenced by rationalism, especially in the realm of how we should live as Orthodox Christians. We have been literally fed on rationalism from our earliest years. We are immersed in it.

We judge everything through its lens. We do this so much that we do not feel and sense that we are children of the heavenly Father, Who is all-powerful, suspends the laws of nature when he so wills. And our life and the hour of our death is in his hands.

St. Paisios’s example in Elder Evthymios’s words remind us of the witness of the Christians of Alexandria during the mid-third century pandemic, which I read to you two podcasts earlier, and I’ll remind you of what happened and what was said by St. Dionysius there: “Most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly. And ministered to them continually serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the afflictions of others and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains.”

So it goes on. You can read that, or listen to that, in the previous podcast. Or go to Eusebius’s Church history and read that whole portion. I think it is book 7, chapter 22.

So that is an amazing, tremendous example of what we should all be striving for. And of course we are not all there. I understand that, but that is what St. Paisios’s example reminded me of.

Or the quote by Elder Parthenios in a previous podcast. This is our faith, which has overcome the world. Now, overcome the world means overcame death, overcame sin, overcame the devil. The fear of death is no longer for those who have our faith.

These are not just words, this means in practice it becomes a living reality that we are experiencing, no longer living according to the world and its rationalistic, very limited, very distorted vision of human reality, because it has fallen away from this relationship with our father in heaven, which grants us so much peace and security.

So yes, we have lost their sense of immanence of our departure. We have lost a sense of the vanity of this world and the nearness of eternity. We have lost an eschatological stance. We are very attached to the things that are passing away. This attachment makes us inclined towards the wisdom of this world, towards the security, false and fleeting though it be, which this world offers.

The example of St. Paisios stands on its own and speaks to us directly, I think. And I don’t think I need to interpret it line by line. Yes, there is an aspect of this here which does come down to according to your faith, so you will understand, absolutely.

St. Paisios was a man, we must remember, who prayed to receive cancer so that someone else would not have it. And he did receive it and he did repose through this sickness. And he actually welcomed, he said, trials, tribulations and accusations, because he knew he would have a greater reward in heaven.

So, just like the saints of Alexandria in the third century, which the church considers to be martyrs, St. Paisios did not shrink from death; he even sought it out, sought it out.

So, does his example mean that we should not wear a mask or keep distance? Does it mean that a real man of faith is like the children in the furnace? Or does it mean that those who wear masks and keep distance are less in faith and unworthy? Or that wearing a mask in public is a litmus test of faith? These are all the questions that our good friend is asking.

And I guess the answer to these questions is yes, and no. Yes, it means all that if you are like St. Paisios, or prepared to do everything that you can to become like him. For those who have perfect love in Christ, and have eradicated sick self-love, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

And no, no, if you are not there yet, do not have your spiritual father’s blessing, are not able to lift this ascetic struggle, and may actually fall hard and fall away from Christ if you attempt to do things beyond your power, the answer is no. You should not try and imitate this. And you should not feel that this is, that you are less faithful, etc. etc.

Discernment is the key. It is the queen of virtues. And only the humble and obedient acquire it. And it is acquired over time. So that is one answer. I hope it is helpful to my good friend. And to all of you who have these questions.

Finally he asks, does the Orthodox Church reject the findings of the natural world, science, and medicine. And of course the answer is no, but neither does it base its response to sickness or pandemics upon their findings exclusively, or even mainly.

Our way is neither just according to the rational man, nor much more to the irrational man of atheistic scientism, but to the supra-rational man, the saint, he who is enlightened in his nous, his spirit, informed of God’s supra-rational ways and will.

That is our way, if we are Orthodox Christians and strive to be like the saints. And therefore, we do not stop there. And it is very incomplete. The answer of science and medicine, it is very incomplete.

So, as I said, I want to close this podcast with the words of Fr. Seraphim Rose for your consideration, which I think are extremely powerful and important for us. Again, this was written as a layman, just a few years Orthodox, or perhaps just Orthodox:

The Christian is supremely a realist. In the world, he is mingled with the worldly. The rain falls equally on the just and the unjust. He must face the same facts of life, but his attitude towards them must be quite different. The passions that enslave man are accepted as inevitable by the worldly. The Christian must strive to master them.

The pain of suffering and death, inseparable from all life are theoretically accepted by the worldly, though in actual fact, they do all in their power to abolish, or at least mitigate them, and to forget them by looking on the positive side of things. The Christian accepts them, and indeed welcomes them. For he knows that without such trials, there is no progress in the spiritual life.

The Christian expects from life no more, nor less, than the crucifixion his Lord endured. The inevitable end of the world is something that the worldly dread, so they must somehow realize, whether they acknowledge it or not, that this is the final mockery of all their comfortable faith.

But the Christian has no consolation in the worldly superstition of the indefinite future, for he knows the last days are indeed at hand.

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