“Heartful thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King.” So writes St John Climacus, seventh-century abbot of Mount Sinai, in his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. I do not think that he intended to lay down an inflexible rule to which no exceptions could be allowed. It was rather his purpose to indicate the usual pattern, the normal sequence, to be followed in our practice of prayer. Thanksgiving, repentance, petition: such is the basic and primary succession that we should envisage.
To many it might seem that to pray is essentially to ask God for something, to bringing before Him the distress and the needs of others and ourselves. Alternatively, some of us might imagine that prayer should begin with an act of repentance. But this is not the perspective adopted by Climacus. On the contrary, before bringing before Christ the suffering and pain of the world, and before looking downward at our own ugliness and failings, we should look upwards at the beauty and glory of God. All too often our prayer can take the form of grumbling before God, of complaining and expressing regret. But that, so Climacus assures us, is not true prayer.
I’ve always admired the early monks and nuns of the desert literature. Not because they discovered ways of escaping the reality of paying taxes. Not only because their words were inspirational and their prayer transformative. And not primarily because they withstood the power of the empire and the test of time. But because they prevail as symbols of an alternative course of action. While their ideal is often mythologized or romanticized, even manipulated and exploited in many church circles, it nevertheless remains an image of the value of silence. Of doing less or doing nothing. Of wordlessness and inconspicuousness. Of praying instead of producing. Quite simply: of being.
In contrast, the global pandemic of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has exposed a great deal about priorities and weaknesses as a society—an extraordinarily complex community, a tangle of political, financial, health, educational, and religious institutions that affect every person worldwide. Each of these institutions is today desperately trying to come up with answers on how to restore life and save the world as we knew these. No one is immune, even the “asymptomatic”—even the most powerful nations, the most secure economies, and the most righteous believers.
When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene as a nuisance, and not a pandemic, the Churches responded by making slight alterations to the rite of receiving communion. Catholic and Protestant Churches instructed people to refrain from partaking of the cup, and the people exchanged the sign of peace without handshakes. Eastern Church leaders instructed people that it was not necessary to kiss the icons, the cup, or the priest’s hand, and the people took the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) themselves, while refraining from drinking the zapivka (post-communion wine) from a common cup.
As COVID-19 evolved from nuisance to perilous threat, the Churches have continued to respond by altering their liturgies. Catholics and Protestants limited the number of people who could attend services before some cancelled them altogether. The Orthodox adopted the skeleton crew approach until more recently, when many bishops directed parishes to suspend services indefinitely.
The Churches have attempted to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their liturgical rhythms. Catholic priests celebrate private Mass on behalf of their people. All of the Churches use technology so that the people can participate online. Several communities livestream their services while smaller groups gather for virtual Liturgy on Zoom.
The Church’s strength, during these difficult and unpredictable times that humanity is experiencing due to the invisible coronavirus, is not manifested through careless and senseless acts. Some believe they are beyond any danger, that their perilous actions might not endanger the lives of those who congregate in places of worship.
Jesus did not succumb to the second temptation to manifest His strength by falling off the highest point of Solomon’s Temple; instead, He responded to this challenge by answering “Do Not Tempt the Lord Your God”.
The Church’s strength is demonstrated through its faithful, who, out of an increased sense of responsibility for the public’s welfare, will not attend Church services during this critical time period, but will remain home in prayer.