Greetings and Blessed Feast of the most holy apostles and evangelists Ss. Peter and Paul! I write this from the most unexpected of places. I sit on a large couch in an air bnb in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’s North American commonwealth was good enough to receive our temporarily displaced family for a few days and nights when our connecting flight to San Francisco was cancelled. We were originally planning to use Canada for a brief layover to keep down the cost of traveling with a family of seven. Trouble started when this discount travel service bumped our connecting flight to two days later! Suddenly last night, Canada’s strict COVID protocols came falling down upon us and we were left scrambling last minute to find local transportation, accommodation, and a way to explain our unplanned presence in another country.
Scrooge then made bold to inquire what business brought the spirit to him. “Your welfare!” said the Ghost. Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately— “Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
As the coronavirus continues to surge across the nation and many states are rolling back on their reopening plans, it becomes harder and harder to celebrate the Advent and Christmas season with the fullness it deserves. But the answer encapsulated above in the Spirit’s response to Scrooge reminds us that welfare, comfort and safety is not the chief goal of Advent or what the Orthodox Church calls the Nativity fast. Scrooge was violently ripped away from his commercial comfort zone because his business dealings were killing his soul. His night long journey deep into his own soul is what ultimately led to Scrooge’s reclamation, or in other words, his salvation.
One of my favorite obediences as a Deacon in the Orthodox Church is bringing communion to the sick and disabled. It emphasizes what my seminary professor used to call, “the ecstatic nature of the Church”; ecstatic, for she is never satisfied with staying put in a box, but is ever moving outward just as we pray that the Holy Spirit is everywhere present, filling all things. No remote or isolated place on this planet is beyond the reach of our Lord Jesus Christ, and He frequently sends his messengers to those places to prove it. No locked doors, not even the strictest quarantine can prevent His healing touch to the health of soul and body which results from receiving his body and his blood.
Despair is a temptation when life loses its purpose and the threat of an untimely death threatens to shorten that purposeless existence. As the worldwide coronavirus continues to rage with the possible hope for medical relief still months away, it is difficult to find cause to give thanks. Yet the lives of the saints show us how to find joy under all circumstances and the saint we remember this year on the feast of American Thanksgiving especially teaches how to give glory to God for all things.
Saint John Chrysostom the Golden-mouthed Archbishop of Constantinople (347-407) not only lived a life of thanksgiving, he is the principle author of the Divine Liturgy, the means by which the Church communes the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the medicine of immortality and the mystical union of humanity with God. The Liturgy is also called the Eucharist from the Greek verb eucharisto which literally means “to give thanks” or to say thank you. When the church celebrates the Liturgy, She is thanking God, returning the gift received to the Giver of all good things in an eternal circle of reciprocal thanks.
I had my first full week of teaching this past week. After over six months of pandemic restrictions of various degrees, it was invigorating to see several classrooms full of eager faces, albeit masked and socially distant faces. Our family continues the same hybrid model of classroom and at-home education which now, strangely enough, has become almost the norm under COVID-19. As classical Christian educators, we continue with an ancient method of learning that has been baptized and re-contextualized in the light of divine revelation. It is the relationship between these two terms, classical and Christian, which I propose as my topic for this year’s back to school post.
Spider webs can be used to stop bullets; they also can entrap a fly for dinner. The slogan: stay home, stay safe, save lives is a brilliantly effective slogan, but as a simplistic slogan, it can be misguided unless we unravel it and find its proper spiritual application. Unless we parse it a little: expose it to the UV Light of Christ, boil it to disinfect and analyze its DNA structure, we can’t be sure when it will protect and when it will entrap.
As a universal command STAY HOME does not work for everyone, of course. People who are sick or immuno-compromised should take this advise to heart. For this idea to be effective for everyone, we should see its application in the monastic sense as it is given to hermits: Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. This is a good idea while we are staying home more. Use the time to go within, pay attention to the inner person, our heart and mind, do more spiritual reading, especially read the Scriptures, repent as the Lord commanded and practice ascetic feats to accomplish this. Practice more interior prayer; spend more time with our families and care for our relations.
The following is from Friday Reflections, an email sent out every week from the editor of Touchstone Magazinepublished by the Fellowship of Saint James. It describes exactly how I feel about the Church’s proper response to the current coronavirus pandemic. I hope that you find its news about the Georgian Church’s response refreshing and inspiring. Christ is risen!
We did it! We survived Holy Week, Pascha, and Bright Week mostly from our at home services and through live-stream on TV. The joy of the Resurrection and the growing warmth of spring naturally turns us outward, desiring to share the good news with others. But the continued COVID-19 quarantine still places limits on that desire.
A place in western Massachusetts that was bought by one of our parish deacons and his wife and transformed into a farm, retreat center, and sometime summer camp is now a fully-fledged, full-service spiritual oasis, St. John the Baptist Orthodox Christian Monastery. Our family visits the two monastic fathers who dwell here for a day trip that allows us to fulfill our desire to evangelize while obeying the strict rule of the government not to gather in groups larger than ten (7 + 2= 9).
And who is the God who will deliver you out of my hands?
— Pharaoh, King of Egypt to Moses the Great, Patriarch, Prophet & God-seer
The taunt of this particular Egyptian ruler rings down through the centuries and is rehearsed every Great and Holy Saturday during one of the 13 readings from the Old Testament. But it is more than a taunt or even an honest query: It is the prayer of every person in the grip of some power beyond their making or control.
“How do you, Father Herman, manage to live alone in the forest, don’t you get bored?” He answered, “No, I’m not alone there! There is God, and God is everywhere! There are holy angels! How can one be bored with them? With whom is it more pleasant and better to converse, angels or people? Angels, of course.”
In this forth week of our at-home Coronavirus quarantine, we struggle as a family with where to go and what to do. Our travelogue has been quickly and suddenly restricted to our immediate vicinity, and we labor at how to overcome feelings of isolation and boredom. The saints in heaven and especially the monastic hermits like St. Herman of Alaska can teach us what to do with our boredom, and it does not involve surfing to the next binge-worthy series or reaching for our favorite comfort food. It involves a rediscovery of our blessed habitation, that home which Father Herman called, “the blessed place which will render my soul’s salvation.”