What do we do when the doors of the Church are closed to us, and it seems that everyone around us is filled with panic and anxiety? There are three easy options that will not help us very much. They reveal a lack of depth in our spiritual lives, it seems to me. But it can be a good thing for our need to be revealed.
#1. We can join in the panic around us, and queue up for food and toiletries that we don’t immediately need. We can think the worst, and assume that everyone we know and love will contract the corona-virus in the worst possible way. We can begin to look on everyone around us as a source of potential infection, and our heart can be filled with fear. There is something missing deep inside us if we find ourselves thinking and feeling like this.
#2. On the other hand, we can act as if nothing has changed, and try to preserve the outward appearance of everything. I have concerns about people watching videos of liturgies as if that was the same as being present. Trying to recapture certain feelings of community by imagining that we are altogether when in reality circumstances have changed. Not just with the warmth of happy memories, but as if watching the Liturgy was a necessary or even possible substitute for participating in the Liturgy. There is something missing deep inside us if we find ourselves thinking and feeling like this.
#3. And it is even possible for us to not think very much at all. To treat the closure of the Churches as a bit of a holiday. To get through the day watching TV, occupying ourselves with various things. Neither panicking, nor being so concerned that the regular schedule of Church events has been interrupted. Making sure that we pray for a few moments in the morning, but without Church services to remind us, finding that God is not really present to us. There is something missing deep inside us if we find ourselves thinking and feeling like this.
What are we to do? It seems to me that what is required of us in a time of crisis, whatever the cause, is repentance. We should take time to repent. Not as if God has sent corona-virus as a punishment. Not as if God is taking account of our sins to harm us. But in the proper sense of the word repentance, which means to change our mind, or change our way of thinking.
In a time of crisis, such as this one, God gives us an invitation and an opportunity to change our way of thinking. It is our thinking that drives our feelings and our behaviour. When we think in a wrong way we will feel and behave in a wrong way. A time of crisis allows things to come into sharp focus.
Am I filled with fear and anxiety – this is not what God wants for me. It is not what the Christian life in its fulness offers to all.
Am I missing the outward and formal aspects of our Orthodox life, so that I feel I have nothing much left – this is not what God wants for me. It is not what the Christian life in its fulness offers to all.
Am I rather happy to have less activity in Church so that I can get on with my own life – this is not what God wants for me. It is not what the Christian life in its fulness offers to all.
At a time of crisis, when the Churches are closed, we discover how close we are to God himself. We discover whether his presence with us and in us is so overwhelming that we continue with a daily experience of God that is already rooted in our heart. Now is the time to reflect on our experience of God, and to change our way of thinking so that this experience becomes more and more sustaining, more and more transforming.
How do we change our way of thinking at this time?
#1. God himself has to come first in everything. If the Church is closed it does not mean that God is not present to us. But we must choose to seek and discover and desire that presence above everything else. God comes first when we are changing our life so that we can pray as unceasingly as possible. We can pray anywhere, and at every time, and if God is first then we will desire this above all else and change our priorities so that this becomes our experience. When God comes first in our lives then we discover him present. We must repent that we have not made God first in our life. This is not a matter of negative regret but of positive and determined choice for the present.
#2. We must take up the spiritual practices of the Church. We should not be surprised that there is something missing when we cannot attend the services of the Church if we are not already filling each day with our own connection with God. The practices of the Church are not to be reduced to a bare minimum, so that we can be happy that we have prayed a little, and read the Bible a little. These are but the beginning. God desires us to be occupied with the spiritual life in every moment so that every moment becomes an experience of life with God. We must repent that we have not made becoming a spiritual person the goal of our life. But again, this should be a positive and hopeful decision for the present, not a regretful dwelling in the past.
#3. We can also fruitfully reflect on our own experience of the Liturgy, when it is taken away from us. Am I often late to services without any great obstacle? Do I pay attention throughout the service to all of the prayers, and am I always offering the congregational or diaconal responses with warmth of heart? How do I view the people around me? Do I join in gossip about others? Am I always criticial of the servants, the priests and bishops? Do I think that just attending the Liturgy is all that God can demand of me? What do I need to repent of in my own participation in the Liturgy so that things are changed for the better when the services begin again? This is not so much a matter of sin, though we may have sinned, but of changing our way of thinking about the Liturgy and about our worship of God in the Liturgy.
What should we do?
There is nothing new in what we are called to do by the Church, as a divine invitation to union with God in the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Those who have become spiritual men and women in the Church have practiced these same things for 2000 years. In as time of repentance, of changing our way of thinking, we can choose to take them up with renewed commitment and with a desire to discover the presence of God in an overwhelming way in every moment within us.
#1. Pray and pray and pray. Take up the Agpeya again. Pray with warmth in the morning and evening. It is better to begin with a little with warmth and attention. But we must not be satisfied with a little. We are not seeking to please God but to enter into his presence in Prayer. We cannot have too much of the presence of God. We come alive, truly alive, when we pray from the heart with warmth and attention. The divine life fills us and in time everything becomes clear, and every temptation is overcome. We no longer feel afraid, lonely, bored of anxious in the presence of God. So we must pray and pray and pray.
#2. We cannot always pray from the Agpeya, but we can always pray the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. We can pray this for ourselves, we can pray this for others, we can pray this for our church and for our nations. Each time we pray these words with warmth and attention brings us into the presence of God. If we pray this prayer 25 times at a measured pace it takes about 5 minutes. If we pray this prayer 300 times in the day then we will have prayed for an hour. Prayer is not an obligation but an invitation and an opportunity. We can fill each moment with prayer if we choose with the grace of God.
#3. Read the Bible. Read the passage from the Gospel of the day. Read a chapter or two or more from the Gospels. Do not read as a duty, but as if you expect God to speak to you through what you read. And he will! Read the passage slowly and prayerfully. Then read it again, even more slowly and reflectively. Not analysing the passage but waiting to see what stands out to you. A verse, a word, a phrase, an action. God will speak to you when you take the time to listen.
#4. Serve others. We experience God when we share his love with others. The more we think of others and serve them with humility, the more the grace and love of God are active within us. In any and every circumstance we can be kind and caring, thoughtful and helpful. Indeed, when the external supports of our faith are removed it becomes easier to see what spiritual fruit is present in our lives. This can include keeping in touch with the vulnerable in our congregation, and those for whom we have some service. It is in putting our relationship with God into actin in words and deeds that we grow in grace.
#5. Of course we also must try to keep the fasts. Not only in the season of Great Lent in which we find ourselves, but in the ordinary fasts of Wednesday and Friday. They are not an obligation, but together with all the other spiritual practices of our Orthodox Tradition, they are an invitation and an opportunity to learn to say NO to self, and YES to God. If it becomes harder to keep the fast from meat and dairy in a time of crisis, we can always fast in other ways that allow us to learn to say no to ourselves and all our own selfish desires, and yes to others and their own needs.
#6. There are lots of others things we can do to nourish our spiritual life. We can listen to hymns, watch videos of Liturgy, listen to sermons. These can all be useful and fruitful. But we must not allow them to become a substitute for the personal encounter with God through prayer. Every moment in which we are not prayerful in one way or another is a wasted moment.
In this time of crisis we all of us need to think about changing our way of thinking. We need to reflect on our response to the present situation and allow this to reveal the state of our heart, and how much more closely we need to grow to God. When it ends, we need to be different people, more spiritual people. This requires practical repentance on our part. Our life-giving Orthodox Tradition has all the means we need, even if we cannot attend Liturgy, to unite us more closely with God.