The COVID-19 pandemic has peaked in the United States and the number of new cases is falling in many countries around the world. Many of us can’t wait for life to get back to “normal,” whatever that means from this point forward. But many Orthodox bishops are taking things quite slowly. So slowly that some people are growing restless – even angry. Witnessing other Christian communities opening around us may lead to bitterness, judging others, anger, or disobedience. But don’t jump ship.
Our bishops are under considerable pressure from every side. Each one is responsible for the lives of thousands of people and they want to preserve both body and soul. What makes the most sense to them right now is to listen to doctors and follow the guidance of the governing authorities, particularly through agencies like the Center for Disease Control. Presently, there are conflicting studies about the seriousness of this virus. Some people argue (quite well) that we’ve overreacted; others (again, quite well) that it was our “overreaction” that has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Currently, opinions are developing and being shared at a much greater pace than research is progressing. No matter our opinion, we can find an article or YouTube video to back it up. Our bishops, however, are being cautious.
POSSESS YOUR SOULS
Our Lord said, “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). Something beautiful happens when we obey God with patient obedience. Peace begins to fill our souls, restlessness is forsaken, the stirring of sinful passions is stilled, and we encounter grace. Why? Because obedience requires humility and humility fills us with the grace of God.
As a monk once told me, “Obedience is greater than life.” And as another monk said,
Genuine obedience – which brings great benefit to the soul – comes when you act in defiance of yourself. Then the Lord Himself takes you in His arms and blesses your labors.
-St. Nikon of Optina
Such a pious sentiment sounds good until the time comes to obey something we don’t like. Obedience is easy – or at least comes with little resistance – when we’re told to stop doing something self-destructive that we know we shouldn’t be doing anyway. But how obedient are we really if we only obey when we agree with our spiritual authorities? As St. Nikon said above, “genuine obedience” is obeying when we don’t want to.
But when we strive against our spiritual authorities, we fight against God and our own salvation. When we refuse to obey and be patient, then we find ourselves in a situation similar to King Saul in the Bible. God gave Saul a command and he disobeyed. Saul made the excuse that he was going to offer to God as a sacrifice the things God told him to destroy. The Prophet Samuel came and rebuked Saul saying,
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
-1 Sam. 15:22-23
Stubborn disobedience is idolatry. It’s idolatry because we reject God’s command and set up our own opinions and desires in the place of God, worshiping ourselves. Those opinions and desires may be for noble things such as church attendance. That was Saul’s sin. He wanted to offer a liturgical sacrifice to God, but in his own way. So, he disobeyed, and God rejected him. There’s also the example of those who opposed Moses wanting to worship God in their own way (Dathan, Abiram, and Korah, Num. 16). They were literally burned alive by fire that came from the presence of God. The rebels who were not burned had the earth open up and swallow them. A similar event happened with the sons of Aaron – Nadab and Abihu – who offered “strange fire” (Lev. 10).
Such graphic examples remind us that genuine obedience is one of the hardest virtues to acquire – especially when we’re being told not to do something that looks good outwardly. We must trust that God is guiding our bishops in the Holy Spirit.
A few years from now, when much more research has been done and we can look at this in hindsight, perhaps it will be determined that the bishops were more cautious than necessary (which may or may not be the case). However, if we have patiently obeyed through this, we will have far greater grace, spiritual growth, and inner peace dwelling within us then if we go to church somewhere in defiance of ecclesiastical decrees. To offer a sacrifice of worship to God that is not in obedience is akin to witchcraft and idolatry.
WHAT WE CAN DO
In the meantime, my wife and I pray the vespers and typika services in our icon corner – our little home church. Near the end of typika, we drink a little Holy Water in place of having communion. Some of our modern elders have said that the grace of God that is present in the Eucharist is also present in the Holy Water we take at home because we are unable to attend the services.
Just as the period of Soviet persecution formed some of the toughest and most devout babushkas in Russia, so I think this period of tribulation will provide a unique opportunity for spiritual growth – if we endure with faith, love, and obedience. If we allow it, God will make us into something that American Orthodoxy has never seen before.
In the meantime, stay involved with your local Orthodox community in whatever ways have been provided (Zoom meetings, online discussions, phone calls, etc.). If a program is not in place, initiate something by giving someone a call and checking up on them. Stay strong and pray often, and in patience, possess your soul.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.
Every obedience which seems difficult becomes very easy when we fulfill it, because that is how obedience works.
-St. Nektary of Optina
While fulfilling an obedience, consider that it has been given by the Lord through a person, and that your salvation depends on your zeal in fulfilling it.
– St. Ambrose of Optina
Quotes from the Optina Elders come from Living without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina.
Featured Image is from a German manuscript from the 1400s featuring Nadab and Abihu being punished by God for offering their incense in Leviticus chapter 10.