Every year during Lent we celebrate the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was only 12 years old she left her home and traveled to Alexandria where she threw herself into wanton and “insatiable” sexual behavior for many years, “ensnaring many souls,” sinking deeper and deeper into depravity, until one day—upon attempting to enter a Church–she experienced herself barred from entering by an invisible presence. She realized her sin, repented deeply, prayed to the Mother of God, was allowed to enter the Church, and so began a new journey. Eventually she took up life in the desert and there remained for many years until a spiritual father encountered her twice, whereupon she died after finally having received Holy Communion. In an oddly moving twist to the ending of the story as it has been passed down, Fr. Zosimas was assisted in burying her in the desert by a passing lion. Anyone who knows and loves Aslan of Narnia will, I’m sure, share my love of that little detail.
We enter into this stark and amazing story, in the midst of our Lenten journeys, which emphasizes not only the power of repentance but the battle between impurity and holiness. And yet, sometimes in ensuing discussions I feel left with a sense of a script for purity and piety (and possibly more than a touch of mistrust of feminine eros) rather than having touched the depth and complexity of human experience. I think that if we look to this as a story of morality and ascetic struggle for the sake of morality rather than existence itself, we may actually risk missing the full and extraordinary magnitude of what may well have happened, and—perhaps more poignantly—what still can happen in our own lives.
In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it is often hard or even impossible to think about what comes next, after the crisis ends. What will our life after lockdown look like? What will happen to our personal dynamics after social distancing? And what about our spiritual life after not going to Church for what feels like an eternity? All these questions, and many more, are legitimate. Every crisis gives rise to a judgment. In a way, that is the role that crises play in history, sorting out the chaff from the wheat as we start to make sense of a tragedy and discern the opportunity to live up to the radicality of the Gospel.
Within the Orthodox Church, we have seen a wide range of answers and solutions, but also an increasing polarization of the members of Christ’s body, with virulent arguments raging about questions that touch the essence of our faith, particularly whether, since the Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Christ, we can get sick by receiving Holy Communion. But I am afraid that by engaging in these debates, we are missing what is really at stake here. We find ourselves paralyzed by these arguments at a time when we need to rediscover the virtue of being and becoming more apostolic. In other words, we are at risk of trying to save the Church and Christianity rather than seeking our salvation in them. In this sense, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had one of the best insights into the challenges we face in a recent message when he said: “However, that which is at stake is not our faith—it is the faithful. It is not Christ—it is our Christians. It is not the divine-man—but human beings.” In this time of crisis, we need to be less argumentative and defensive and more apostolic: our true priority is our neighbor.
We wish to hear your views on the current situation,
since your theology plays a great role in the present circumstances.
Metropolitan John: My theology, unfortunately, cannot be applied. In
Greece they have already closed the churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not
being served. Is it served in Serbia?
Taking into consideration the decision of the government
that the number of people in one place be limited, as well as the issue of
getting around and social distancing, the Patriarch Irinej’s newest decision is
that services be held in churches but without more than five people.
John: That’s acceptable.
In America it was decided that the priest, chanter and
altar server be present, in order for the Liturgy to be served, so that they
might have the holy mysteries in order to commune the people. What do you think
Metropolitan John: For me, the Church without the holy Eucharist is no longer the Church. On the other hand, the danger of transmitting this virus to others imposes on us the need of doing whatever is necessary, even if that means closing the Church. The Greek government has taken drastic measures due to the very serious matter at play.
Christianity is a religion of desire. At first glance, this statement may seem counterintuitive and contradictory. After all, Christians are told to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow Christ (Mt 16:24). Several prayers, especially in the Divine Liturgy, also seem to downplay desire. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays for the revering of the Lord’s commandments so that, “having trampled down all carnal desires,” the Christian may do that which is pleasing to God. Similarly, the the prayer during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest prays that “No one bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near, or minister to You, the King of Glory.” Church history is filled with numerous examples of ascetics and saints who renounced their desires, whether that includes St. Benedict throwing himself into the thorn bush to chasten his sexual desire, or Eudocia the Samaritan (whom the Orthodox Church commemorated on Forgiveness Sunday) who abandoned her earthly riches and physical beauty to the disdain of her former lovers. Countless entries within the Church’s illustrious hagiography follow a similar trajectory: a person with worldly fame and material pleasures experiences a conversion, and then sells her belongings, and embraces a life of poverty and self-denial. It would then seem that “desire” has an awfully negative place within Christian discourse. In other words, if you desire something, it is probably bad and sinful, and the way to holiness is thus avoiding what we desire and instead pursue those things we do not like.