There is no event in living memory that has shaped the life and outlook of people worldwide as much as the coronavirus outbreak of 2020. Some have likened it to the psychological and political impact of a world war. While this may be true, these are still passing considerations: the bigger—and much more important—lessons of the coronavirus for the timeless Orthodox Church and for the world at large are the spiritual lessons. It is the spiritual lessons which, if they are learned, will heal the souls of individuals and nations in a way that will endure into eternity. If they are not learned (as the old adage reminds us), God through history will replay them, again and again if necessary, to awaken the souls of mankind using the most common and effective means God has always used: repentance through suffering.
Here, we will discuss five major lessons of the coronavirus for the spiritual lives of the faithful, and for the life of the Orthodox Church as a whole.
Does My Faith Live at My Home?
Most people lived restricted lives because of the coronavirus. Isolated at home, life laid bare what we had and what we lacked in terms of spiritual roots. While electronic and online resources provided some help, these are not alive: they all depend on real people to put them to use in active ways.
This exposes all sorts of gaps in our Christian life: Do we pray as a normal part of our day? Do we even know the prayers? Do I make the effort to contact my priest when I can’t simply drop in to the church? When I can’t hear a Sunday sermon, where am I getting spiritual teaching? Online? Is the source faithful, or even really Orthodox? Is going to church the only time we really pray or even think about God and the real purpose of our life? Do we live as if God and His purpose are real? Does spiritual life and practice permeate our family?
For those who have family responsibilities, if we have not invested the time and effort to shape our home in this way, what is our plan now to change that? This first critical, personal lesson—does my faith live at my home?—is grossly impeded by the reality that for many people, the period of the coronavirus crisis was spent in a combination of physical inactivity, or in recreation and escapism. Far from being a time that was ideal for gaining spiritual strength (despite the fact that it occurred in the midst of Great Lent), too often, the period of the virus saw people neglect their spiritual condition, falling victim to the Internet, comfort food, video games, and movies. For all the talk of turning each home into a “little church”, too often this time at home became a lost opportunity—although not a lost lesson, for those who would learn from it.
Do we have any king but Caesar?
The start of the pandemic saw the Orthodox world divide into two groups: those determined to keep churches open and services functioning as long as possible—even if in meant standing up to the state—and those who anticipated the spirit of the moment, and quickly closed churches and banned services.
In general, a divide might be drawn between countries with an Orthodox majority which had recent experience of totalitarian governments, versus those in the liberal, secular West who cannot envision such a regime ever being possible. Those who come from former or current totalitarian countries—the former Soviet states, the Balkans, Greece, Romania, Georgia, China, and others—seem to have no problem recognizing the great responsibility for and need for leadership from shepherds of the Church in times like these. In general, people born and raised in the West have not learned the same lesson.
While few would argue against the need for health precautions against a worldwide pandemic, the Orthodox Church is left with a critical question which draws on its own recent experience with persecution: at what point would Church leaders (hierarchs and priests) take a position calling repeatedly on a civil government in defense of religious freedom? Would it require a ban on hospital visits for this to happen? Would it require churches to be shut down for three months? For six months? For a year?
And if it would take Church leaders this long to recapture the spirit to stand up to civil authorities, would it even happen at all? Are Orthodox Christians in the West simply too much at ease with any “new normal” that anyone within the Church who took such a stand would not only be unusual, but would in fact be criticized and attacked by those within the Orthodox Church in the West?
It is not the burden of the faithful to show that public Liturgies and the Holy Mysteries are essential: it is the burden of the hierarchs to defend the faithful. This is especially true in cases where the state gradually and increasingly encroaches on that freedom.
All crises are opportunities. There are those in Orthodox circles who invest much energy in dialogues with the heterodox at other times. A crisis such as this was and is the perfect opportunity to cooperate on a deep and fundamental question of religious freedom: the opening of churches. Orthodox bishops could have taken (and still should take) the initiative and stood together with the Roman Catholics and others and demand that the same rules that apply to opening liquor stores and lotto services apply to churches. Why don’t they do so now?
Our second spiritual lesson from the coronavirus must be this: Is God our King, or is Caesar—our civil government? And when our civil government opposes the free exercise of the historic Christian faith, will we rally our Christian courage and confront it, or will we simply join the call to be “good citizens”?
Do we fear Death more than God?
Fear has been the single biggest motivator during the coronavirus crisis: not faith, not politics, and not even science. Yet fear—especially the fear of Death—is the exact opposite of the Lord’s teaching:
And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing further they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear Him who after He kills, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!(Matthew 10:28)
The panic among leaders and decision-makers—including those in the Church—has been embarrassing, but why has it happened? We should expect this from secular-minded people who do not believe in God, or who believe that this life is all that people are given. Yet Christians know this is not true—our whole life and all our decisions are based on hope in eternal life. This is the reason we draw our bishops from among the monastics, and have them advised by a council of other bishops who are also monks—not a staff of insurance reps, lawyers, admin assistants, medical experts and lifetime bureaucrats.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
In the midst of the coronavirus, many Church jurisdictions leaned heavily on insurance reps, lawyers, admin assistants, medical experts and lifetime bureaucrats to make decisions about Church life, without a circle of seasoned spiritual elders in sight. The result? Our Council of Secular Experts advised our authorities—both political and within the Orthodox Church—to fear Death more than God, and to plan accordingly.
That’s just what they did.
The third lesson we might draw from the coronavirus is this: the Council of Secular Experts won’t be of any help before the Throne of Judgement—and they may even be wrong about things in this life. We are all going to die soon, whatever happens. The only question is whether we act like Christians or not while we are here.
Hard Evangelism, Hard Conversion
The virus tested the seriousness of Orthodox Christians. During this time, many faithful strengthened their prayers at home, received the Holy Mysteries as best they could, and sought out ways to serve the Lenten services without interruption. In contrast, there are many stories of those who moved completely to viewing services online, becoming spectators of the Great Fast rather than participants. This suggests that, when the time of the virus ends, two groups will emerge in the Church: one that is deeper, stronger, and better rooted in the traditional practice of their Orthodox faith, more prepared to survive the challenges of the years ahead, and a second group who are uncomfortable when Orthodox life does not resemble comfortable, secular life—easily accessible online, in shops, without struggle or endurance, and with the click of a button.
The implications for evangelism to the Orthodox Church are obvious.
The period of the virus has revealed just how few people in Western society are really up for the work it entails to be a Christian. In recent decades, much time and effort has been put into making churches comfortable to those who might be interested in joining: the Protestant “seeker sensitive” movement of the 1990s was based on such an idea. Such sentiment has infected many parts of the Orthodox Church, too, where there is no price that is too high to pay to avoid giving offense to visitors of inquirers. This stands in sharp contrast to the three-year Catechism period of the early Church, in which those preparing for baptism were not only taught, but trained to have such a deep root of faith in Christ, that they would be prepared to face martyrdom.
Today, we too often live in an environment that hesitates to make visitors find the Church any different than their home family room.
Church life without entertainment is difficult: it demands something of each person. Closed churches during Holy Week meant Orthodox people had to take up the Cross of praying the services themselves: those who did can attest to the great blessings this brought. They also know how few of their friends and family are up for making such a spiritual journey: it is much easier to “sell” people on viewing a link on YouTube. One can already see the emergence of a cheap, substitute pseudo-Orthodoxy, which will be very appealing to people with modern habits and tastes. The virus shutdown made this eminently clear. Sadly, it will be tempting for clergy and laity alike to try to sell this Plastic Orthodoxy to outsiders as an easy and less demanding way to “enter the Church”—thinking they are getting the fullness of the faith of the saints and martyrs, but for a fraction of the personal cost.
The fourth lesson the coronavirus teaches us is, the Church necessarily includes those who are seasoned by struggle—and also necessarily loses those who refuse it. This will mean churches will be smaller, and Her clergy and faithful will have to get used to inquirers who walk away from Orthodox Christianity when they don’t get their own, easy way.
Is the Orthodox Church Useless?
A church that is deemed useless in a time of crisis like this is also useless in normal times.
What is the purpose of a church during normal times? There are better places to have a social club, an intellectual chat group, a school, or a centre to alleviate poverty. The distinctive function of the church is the place where the Holy Mysteries are offered, in order to heal souls (prayers go along with this: if churches were for prayers alone, one could pray at home and sell off the church buildings).
Most of modern society already feels the central function of the Church—the Holy Mysteries—has no practical use, and is ineffective for anything but making people feel better, psychologically. For this reason, many Orthodox parishes follow the Protestant model to make themselves “relevant” to secular people by offering functions (such as rentals, clubs, classes, and charitable works) which secular people would believe makes the Church “useful”. Some Orthodox people (even priests) spend the majority of their energy on activities such as these, leading them to believe that they are very active Orthodox Christians—when in fact, they are not, at least not without the Liturgical life of the Orthodox Church.
Historically, Orthodox Christians did everything they could to assemble to receive the Holy Mysteries. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire, the enemies of the Church allowed at least a few churches to operate. Those too fearful to attend might arrange to have the Holy Mysteries smuggled out to them, receive Holy Baptism in a private home, or meet in a remote forest for Holy Unction. Even during times of plague, Church authorities would not close the churches: on the contrary, they made the Holy Mysteries more accessible—taking certain precautions if lives were at risk—but always using the Heavenly Power of Christ’s Church for it’s true function.
Authorities—both Church and secular—achieved during the few weeks of the coronavirus what pagan Rome, the Muslim Turks, the Soviets, and the Fascist Ustache could only have dreamed of doing: closing down every single Orthodox church in a matter of days. Orthodox nations refused this; Orthodox in the West generally complied, or even cooperated.
This very foolish (or wicked) compliance will likely have an unanticipated consequence, a message sent to people inside and outside the Church that unlike every single example given by the saints at a time of plague or crisis, there are those in the Orthodox Church today who believe the power of God in the Church is useless against this great evil.
This is of course a lie. Yet it is the implicit message.
What message is sent when Orthodox churches are closed in the midst of a social disaster of any kind? Whether to the faithful or the secular, the message when this is done is clear: the single unique function of the Church—the Holy Mysteries—is not essential or even useful in the midst of a crisis.
Orthodox hierarchs, clergy, and faithful in some other countries understand this. This fifth lesson is perhaps the most fundamental lesson Orthodox Christians in the West—especially in North America—have yet to learn. Until we do, we cannot say we think like or like as Orthodox Christians.
Whether the coronavirus lockdown will be enough to teach it to the faithful here—or whether God will permit several more rounds of such lessons for us to learn it—remains to be seen.
Archpriest Geoffrey Korz is a parish priest of the Orthodox Church in America, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.