Born and raised in the United States, it was a blessing never to have experienced war firsthand. War was something that happened “over there”—not at home.
Certain liturgical prayers were thankfully not immediately relevant, such as, “For the freeing of our captive brothers,” following the diptychs in the Armenian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. From the perspective of peaceful Central California, who were these people for whom we offered such weekly prayers?
This changed dramatically for many when the 2020 Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War broke out on 27 September. All of a sudden, Armenians were drawn into a conflict in which they had no interest in beginning, merely desiring to live peaceably where they had for many centuries. If only that were possible . . . .
Orthodox pride themselves on belonging to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” founded by Jesus Christ—and with good reason. Orthodox point to the loftiness of Orthodox theology, the beauty and solemnity of its liturgy, its mystical spirituality, the holiness of its saints, and the transcendentalism of its icons, liturgical music, and religious architecture. For many Orthodox, the Orthodox Church is the sole Church of Christ, and other Christian ecclesial bodies are decidedly “lesser,” perhaps not truly Christian, or at best “incomplete.”
But Orthodoxy on the ground, the actual beliefs and practices of Orthodox faithful, Orthodoxy as “lived religion,” yields a different picture. Lived religion focuses the beliefs, practices and everyday experiences of religious persons. Most lived religion studies of Orthodoxy concentrate on measurable practices such as attendance at church services, personal prayer, and fasting, with little attention to religious beliefs. There are a few exceptions. The Pew Research Center report on Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe (2017) examines contemporary Orthodoxy in major countries of Eastern Orthodox tradition. Results of this report were incorporated into the broader study Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century (also 2017), which focuses mainly on geographic and demographic aspects of Orthodoxy, with attention to religious practices and to opinions concerning the church’s positions on issues such as divorce, married priests, women priests, and same-sex marriage. Questions concerning religious beliefs cover basic beliefs in God, heaven, hell, miracles, the soul, and the Bible. But an astonishingly high percent of Orthodox hold non-Christian beliefs such as fate (70%), the evil eye (53%), magic, sorcery or witchcraft (40%), and reincarnation (25%). More Orthodox Christians than Catholics in the region believe in the evil eye and magic and sorcery, and differences between Catholics and Orthodox concerning reincarnation are minimal. And considerably more people (59% to 75%) in countries of Orthodox tradition believe in fate than in the secularized Czech Republic (32%).
“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.