A letter that may be of some interest to our faithful concerning the coronavirus epidemic and the related strictures that were placed on the Orthodox Church in Greece.
I pray you and your family are healthy and well, and that you have enjoyed a peaceful and restorative Pascha!
I apologize for my delay in responding to your inquiry. Besides finding the time to watch Father Peter Heers’s report, I also wanted to read the letter from Father Euthymios, study the subject, and confer with others before offering a response.
As with most controversial issues, the subject is not black and white. In my humble opinion, both Father Euthymios’s and Father Peter’s reports have ideas that are both helpful and harmful for Orthodox.
On the positive side, I will note the strong admonitions to cultivate a deep spiritual life through Holy Communion, prayer, and ascetic labor. These are well-established general principles that no Orthodox Christian should question. Equally important and helpful is the more specific advice of not giving in to fears and anxieties provoked by the epidemic, which are indeed harmful to good thinking and proper behavior. The epidemic may constitute a serious threat, but Christians handle threats courageously and with equanimity, having their eyes on the “big picture” of eternity and Providence.
In what follows, I do not want to downplay these positive elements, which are well expressed in Father Euthymios’s letter and nicely underscored in Father Peter’s presentation.
The problematic elements of this material are the following:
1) This is a gross oversimplification of the Greek State’s handling of the crisis and the Church’s response to the State.
One would have to say that at least three-quarters of what the State has done is responsible and beneficial for its citizens. In comparison to other countries and in an epidemiological sense, Greece has handled the crisis well, keeping the spread of the disease under control (for the present).
With respect to the Church, however, the State certainly went overboard with the banning of most liturgical activity and denying the Church’s request that faithful be allowed to enter Churches to venerate the Epitaphios and receive Holy Communion at Pascha (while observing social distancing and other health protocols). Arguably, the State violated the trust it receives from the Church. Consequently, the Church does indeed have a duty to push the State to repair this trust and be more responsive to the Church’s future concerns.
2) The letter and report grossly overstate and simplify other issues, even falling to untruthful hyperbole. To say that “Neither Diocletian, nor the Turks, nor the Communists in Russia, nor the Germans during the years of the occupation managed to stop the Divine Liturgy and the faithful from approaching Holy Communion” is historically inaccurate and wrongly upsets Christians to think they have suffered an unprecedented injustice. In fact, all of those political forces not only forbad Christians from congregating but even seized and then repurposed or demolished their cherished places of assembly (Churches)!
Of course, such precedents by governments hostile towards the Church do not justify the present measures. It simply puts things in a more accurate perspective and helps us to temper anger and outrage. Perhaps more to the point, it is not inappropriate to note that the revered Kapodistrias himself instituted quarantines and a cessation of Church services to manage epidemics during his rule. Perhaps what differed between those years and our own was a confidence among the faithful that the State always had the best interests of the Church in mind. As I mentioned, that confidence has eroded and needs to be addressed. (I think that all of us are agreed on this point.)
A similar hyperbole, inspiring an unproductive fear or anger, may be seen in the characterization of government restrictions as “unconstitutional, unbearable, extreme, and unfair to the Greek Orthodox, while they have also created an atmosphere of terrorism.” “Unfair to the Greek Orthodox,” as we have all said, yes. Terroristic, no.
3) I also find the seeming medical advice problematic. Yes, under the guidance and direction of Saints the faithful have, in times past, survived all kinds of threats, including epidemics. Similarly, they have been healed of diseases. Often such protection came from a procession with relics and icons, special prayers, and even the simple Sign of the Cross.
But it would be wrong to generalize from these charismatic events and suggest that, in the case of a radiation leak, a disease, or an epidemic we simply must have faith, practice prayer, and make the Sign of the Cross to be safe. Such counsel would, frankly, be irresponsible. And yet an uninformed reading or hearing of this material could well lead to such a conclusion.
Medical science is blessed and praised by our faith as providing a beneficial service to the faithful. The goods that medical science provides are not, of course, the ultimate goals of Christians. But when we are given comfort, therapy, and healing we have time to repent, reasons to be grateful, and an opportunity to express love of God and neighbor.
We are not at war with science, in general, or medicine, in particular. What we must do is guide our faithful and, if possible, society around us in the employment of the scientific and medical developments in a manner that is responsible and beneficial.
4) I am afraid that in the last part of Father Euthymios’s letter the arguments spin into conspiratorial thinking that is more reflective of an unhealthy atmosphere on Mount Athos—which, just like social media, has problems with its own “filter bubble”—than truly Patristic and Orthodox thinking.
It is, on the one hand, true that, in the time of crisis, opportunists will seek to take advantage of the chaos and the absence of social “restraint” to advance their own causes. For example, there is good evidence that administrations worldwide inclining towards totalitarianism (e.g., Hungary) are taking advantage of the crisis to consolidate authority and curtail foundational elements of democracy (voting, freedom of the press, civil rights, etc).
But it is a different matter to think that aspiring autocrats, globalists, secularists, satanists, or whatever have conspired to create this controversy or that our response most be especially focused on these evil-doers—who are, in fact, always with us. In that sense, I find the following very disturbing and harmful to a Christian mentality: “Top doctors and scientists are pointing out that what is happening is a discipline test: the goal is to manipulate the people in the direction they want…. These people are openly speaking of the mark [of the Antichrist] and world-wide dictatorship, but do we get it? And what are we doing?” While the authors do not mention it, these comments open the door to the rampant theories that the virus was engineered and created (e.g., by government labs) specifically for some nefarious purpose.
With seeming assurance, both Fathers Euthymios and Peter allude to Saint John’s Apocalypse, implying that these current events constitute a prophetic fulfillment of its vivd and highly symbolic imagery. The correct interpretation of this difficult Scriptural text is no easy matter. A good introduction to a Patristic exegesis of the Apocalypse can be found here. By contrast, a correct understanding is certainly not to be found in the Western (mostly fundamentalistic Protestant) interpretations that have made their way into the Orthodox world, constitute another shackle of our continuing “western captivity,” and promote an unhealthy conspiratorial mindset and paranoia.
In this mentality, our watch and warfare are directed against evil colluders, who conspire against us and for the sake of their own wicked ambitions. We forget that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood [i.e., our fellow man], but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). Love of our enemies, in the polarization of modern polemics, is next to impossible, since all of our efforts are aimed at disclosing the concealed alliances, collusion, delusions, plots, or evil motivations amid the enemy camp.
We are made suspicious of our fellow man, and we are polarized and factionalized into cliques that serve as echo-chambers amplifying suspicions into paranoia. The Internet’s “filter bubbles” and “recommendation engines” are not the path to the phronema pateron, the “mind of the Fathers.” And the fear and angst they promote is far removed from what should characterize a true believer: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (Romans 8:15).
The Church and Christian community should be a hospital and training ground where we can be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2) and genuinely know the Truth that liberates from the confusion of partisan contention.
I think we have to conduct our search for the Truth on two levels.
First and foremost, we must engage in a struggle for purification and illumination through the traditional methods provided by the Church: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, study, repentance, confession, Church Services, and Holy Communion. If we practice these methods well and with good guidance, we will grow in virtue and acquire the two wings of humility and love for the sake of spiritual ascent. And safeguarded by humility, we will hone our critical skills for the sake of a watchful self-examination and accusation. We will see others as surpassing us, and see ourselves as the most likely of all to be condemned. Such exercises are the doors to the Mind of Christ, who is Himself the Truth and Who liberates us from sin, death, passion, and delusion—the instruments of the Devil, who is the “father of lies” (St. John 8:44).
Secondly, for the sake of our investigations and communications, we must employ the best techniques of critical thinking, guided by our spiritual precepts (as laid out, above). Seeing ourselves as flawed and understanding all of mankind to be created in the image of God and called to salvation, we will honor every interlocutor—whether or not he belongs to our circles. Before we opine we will responsibly educate ourselves for every angle of an issue, bewaring the seductive lure of valuing popularity and emotional resonance over the truth. (If we do our duty exceptionally well, we will be able to argue all sides of an issue compellingly!) And we will judge matters from the lofty perspective of the Church—having in mind, again, the wish for the salvation of all—and not the petty contentions and passions of a factionalized society. This is what St. Paul means when he counsels us to “strive lawfully” (II St. Timothy 2:5), “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), yet, as much as anything, striving to “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).
The coronavirus will surely pass. The real question is whether we will be the better or worse for it. In my humble opinion, if we are watchful over ourselves and keep in mind these sound Patristic principles, not a “hair of our heads shall perish” (St. Luke 21:18).
Your Humble Servant,
† Bishop Auxentios of Etna and Portland
Servant of Metropolitan Chrysostomos