Semester 1, 2020 was the semester that none of us expected. We all began the year just like any other, and in a matter of days - almost overnight - we transferred to online classes and found ourselves at home for the majority of the semester.
With semester two around the corner, many USYD students will continue to study from home. Faced with a continuation in this unexpected university experience, as well as the ongoing developments of COVID-19, how do we, as Orthodox Christians, navigate through it all?
One of the most prominent issues which has arisen during this pandemic is the heightened sense of fear which has rapidly permeated through our society.
This (quite strikingly) manifested itself in panic buying, with supermarket shelves stripped bare and toilet paper becoming seemingly more precious than food. We turned on the news, or scrolled through social media, and were constantly bombarded with the latest numbers of death and infection.
We also experienced the sadness of our churches closing - being separated from the Divine Services and Holy Sacraments which we depended on for strength and renewal. For the first time in living memory, we weren’t able to physically participate in the events of Holy Week and Pascha.
This separation made each of us realise not only our dependence on the life of the Church, but our dependence on our Church communities. Our journey of salvation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but alongside every member of the faithful. In the Bible, we hear countless references to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’. One of the most vivid is our Lord’s description in the book of Romans that just as the human body has many members, so too does the Church. We all have different talents, characters and roles, and together we each bring a unique and precious gift to the Church. We are codependent, united as one family in Christ who says:
“I am the Vine, you are the branches.”
- John 15:5
With this in mind, how should we approach the fear in our society during this time that seems at odds with the life of unity and peace within our Church?
In the second book of Timothy we read,
“For God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and of a sound mind.”
- 2 Timothy 1:7
Fear is not from God. The enemy of humanity, the devil, is the one who desires a spirit of panic to permeate through the human heart. Our Lord on the other hand, bestows on us the spirit of peace. As Christ told the Apostles, and likewise all of us:
“My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid.”
- John 14:27
The word ‘peace’ doesn’t only appear numerous times throughout the Old and New Testament, but also during the Divine Liturgy. Repeatedly, the priest blesses the congregation with the words, “Peace be with you all.” As the parish priest of St George Orthodox Church in Chicago reflects:
“Why so many times? Isn’t once enough? Why do we repeat everything? Well repetition is the mother of all learning and the Church is trying to teach us that Christ is in our midst and He is giving us His peace. This peace is not forced upon us. Indeed, it cannot be forced upon us. We must receive the peace of God and allow it to dispel all contrary thought and feeling within our hearts and minds. Another reason it is given repeatedly throughout the worship service is because the devil and demons are working here in the temple to trouble us by sending distracting thoughts into our minds and making us aware of every possible annoyance around us. We need the peace of God repeatedly to help us through the worship service.”
We see here that peace is a tool for our salvation, a characteristic and gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s peace is what strengthens us against the spirit of fear. It is the everlasting assurance that His presence will be with us always.
St Anthony of Optina, referring to the cholera epidemic of 1830s Russia says the following:
“You should be afraid not of cholera, but of serious sins, for the scythe of death mows a person down like grass even without cholera. Therefore, place all your hope in the Lord God, without Whose will even the birds do not die, much less a person.”
The martyrs of our church, and indeed all the saints, each possessed an unshakable boldness; a fervent confidence in the Lord. This was in spite of the immeasurable suffering they faced. Reflecting on the example of the Apostles, St Silouan the Athonite writes:
“Filled with love, the holy Apostles went into the world, preaching salvation to mankind and fearing nothing, for the Spirit of God was their strength. When St. Andrew was threatened with death upon the cross if he did not stay, with his preaching he answered: ‘If I feared the cross I should not be preaching the Cross.” In this manner all the other Apostles, and after them the martyrs and holy men who wrestled against evil, went forward with joy to meet pain and suffering. For the Holy Spirit, sweet and gracious, draws the soul to love the Lord, and in the sweetness of the Holy Spirit the soul loses her fear of suffering.”
The second major theme pervading the pandemic has been isolation. For the most part of 2020, we have experienced limited interaction with our extended families, friends and Church communities.
When we think of isolation, or solitude, in an Orthodox context, one of the first things that comes to mind is monasticism. Even for monastics who live in coenobitic communities, (i.e. with other monks or nuns) a portion of time is given every day to being alone with the Lord. We read of wondrous stories of saints who spent months, even years, in total isolation – in a forest or desert, praying unceasingly to God. Where does this desire to be alone with God come from?
As Orthodox Christians, we know that our connection to God is the source of life for the soul. If this connection is cut, then though alive, we are “dead”. This is why we say that all the saints, especially our Most Holy Theotokos, were the most “alive” human beings, for they always kept this connection with God strong. Their souls always desired to be near to God, whether they were awake or asleep, in church or at work. This is why we say that the Mother of God experienced a “deathless death”, and was translated “from life into life.” As a result, Dormition of the Theotokos is not a mournful event, but a second Pascha; a victory over death.
But we’re not hermits or monastics. How is solitude relevant to us?
Indeed, for us living in the world, it isn’t necessarily our calling to pray for hundreds of days in a forest. But Hesychasm (from the Greek ‘ησυχία’[hēsychia], meaning ‘quiet’) - the idea of quieting the soul and spending time alone with God, is something not just for monastics, but for all on the path of salvation. Each of us depends on a connection with God for the ‘spiritual health’ and life of the soul.
Time in isolation, is time where we can rekindle that connection with God. St Paisios, who before becoming a monk, was a radio transmitter in the army, described this connection as being like a radio receiver in contact with the army headquarters:
“The soul must be constantly ready and alert and always in contact with the spiritual headquarters, that is, God. Only then, it will feel secure, full of hope and joy.”
Connecting with God can be a simple thought of God during the day – a prayer for help, for thanks, for doxology. It can be carving out time once a day to open our Bibles, or listening to the Paraklesis service in the quiet of our bedrooms. No time spent in this manner, however small, is overlooked by God. As the Athonite Elder St Ephraim of Katounakia states:
“If I read a hundred prayers in the silence of Athos a day, and you, in the noise of the city, with work and family responsibilities, read three prayers, then we are in the same position.”
This, dear friends, is our antidote to the uneasiness pervading our current culture. We are surrounded by souls tormented by insecurity, depression, and anxiety. But Christ, along with all the saints, remind us that it’s our connection with God which will give us an unshakable peace and boldness in the face of any crisis.
May Christ, Panagia and the Three Hierarchs give us strength, wisdom and endurance as we move forward into semester 2.
With love in Christ,