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November 29, 2020

Seven Nuggets in the Time of the Coronavirus (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)


By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
The coronavirus humbled us all, disorganized our society, took us out of our anxious "bliss", our self-sufficiency, our activism and the veneer of our faith. At the same time, it humbled the arrogance of some scientists and politicians.

Each of us, locked in our own monastic cell, thinks, "philosophizes", prays, fills our time creatively and plans. Others suffocate in the small spaces of their residence, contemplating the "before" and "after" of the coronavirus.

In this perspective, "whispering to the people of God", I make a few thoughts, where I could say that they are "nuggets" in the time of the coronavirus, offered with love to my fellow brethren who are being tried.

1. Economy and Health

The responsible State, in adverse conditions, tries to balance between the economy and physical health. A society based on economics and physical health is difficult to balance.

If the movement of citizens is left free to move the economy, the National Health System will be unbearably pressured and the lives of the citizens will be endangered. If they are interested in the physical health of the citizens and in the National Health System, then the economy will be destroyed.

Thus, with the assistance of the "experts", it tries to lead society, which, however, has been accustomed to work, to have fun after midnight, to move out of the house, the "house of the father" according to the relevant Gospel passage.

This task of balancing between existing situations is really difficult and requires a lot of knowledge, composure and great understanding from all of us.

2. War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy's novel "War and Peace" is well known, which describes the coexistence between the two states and their succession. Leo Tolstoy, describing the situations of war and peace, raises key questions, such as what is war and peace, what is the object of history, what is the special characteristic of each and every one, because there are many different characters.

Leo Tolstoy is a literary philosopher and writes in a literary and philosophical way, describing great historical figures, such as Napoleon's France and Tsarist Russia, during times of war and peace. However, it seems that war goes hand in hand with peace, and peace can be experienced in war. Peace is the bright face of war and war is the tragic "face" of peace!

Such issues have been touched upon by ancient pre-socratic philosophy, namely by Heraclitus, who spoke of the opposite aspect of the same thing, but also of the whole unity, despite the apparent multiplicity, of the multifaceted multiplicity. "Health" is something else he spoke of, since illness makes us see health "as something pleasant and good", as well as the sequence of things. He spoke of "becoming" and of war as the "father and king of all", but also of the Logos, which is the universal law, the supreme principle that governs the becoming of the world.

Thus, war is not the opposite of peace and peace is not the opposite of war, but both coexist, so that the "sour word" that continues everything reveals the "confession", that is, the deep "agreement between the wisdom of man and the rational order in the universe."

At this time, with the pandemic of the coronavirus, I was thinking about all this, because we see this great war on health primarily in the hospitals, where there is an excess of human pain, and all the staff of the hospitals, who fight an invisible enemy, that knows no boundaries, no continents, no airspace, that does not diffuse only in the air, but mainly destroys the cells of the patients, like a hijacker, even their organs. What is observed on the battlefields, with battles, deaths, illnesses, famines, is now happening especially in the hospitals, where generals and soldiers are all the staff of the hospitals, who fight with the sick against an invisible enemy.

This war is also progressing in homes from closures and restrictions in cramped living spaces, but also in society from the closure of shops and unemployment.

However, according to the law of the "unity of opposites", peace and tranquility can prevail when one has an inner, mental and spiritual balance, which is expressed as faith in God, prayer, love, sacrifice, hope, maturity and fulfillment.

In this war one can feel inner peace, but also with outer peace one can experience inner war intensely.

3. Two Extreme Situations

Every difficulty and every temptation highlights the problem that exists within us. Thus, in the case of the modern pandemic, the weaknesses of our society and the people living in it were revealed, which means that two extreme situations appeared.

Others claim that only medical science can help us deal with the problem. Of course, medical science is a great asset, it offers a lot, no one can dispute that. But it does not stand alone. Medical science fights with death, but in the end death cannot be defeated by it, in the end it will be defeated by death.

Unfortunately, many today view medical science through three principles of the Enlightenment. One is that "biological life is the highest good." But there are other goods, such as altruism, to sacrifice one's life. The other is "to consider man a living machine." And the third is "the deification of scientific knowledge."

However, existential philosophy has shown that beyond what appears, there are also those things that do not appear.

People in this category cry out that "we have to do what the experts say", and they mean the infectious disease experts, the epidemiologists. Of course, we honor all of them, and in fact in the present pandemic they are valuable and their opinion must be heard. But there are other experts, such as psychologists, sociologists, scientists of all specialties, theologians, clergy. This means that we should not see the pandemic only through those who are concerned with the health of the body, but also those who are concerned with the mental health of man, since man is not a "soulless machine".

Others say that only God will help. Of course, God intervenes in our lives and works miracles on those who truly believe and not on those who believe magically!  But God also works through medical scientists, and when they are unable to help, then He heals those who believe, He works through medicine, foods, since everywhere there exist the "logoi of being". God does not deny human volition, choice.

We need cooperation between faith and science. This is called synergy. It is not possible, in the name of faith, to deny science, or in the name of science to deny faith. We must not, for any reason, go back to the Middle Ages, when Western scholastic theology clashed with science then emerging in the West.

Saint John of Damascus makes a distinction. "What is up to us" is one thing, the other is "what is not up to us", but up to God. And the saints use medical science and then leave it to God.

I consider those who are distinguished by a "one-dimensional" treatment to human problems as very dangerous. Therefore, in our days we need balanced people, who will move between the two extremes.

4. The Way of Facing the Coronavirus

People behave according to their education and upbringing. All subjects are fruits of education, even theological and ecclesiastical education. This also applies to the way the coronavirus is treated.

Others are distinguished by the fear of death. It is a terrible feeling to see death coming. Everything collapses, dreams, pursuits, achievements. Man becomes the weakest of beings. Something appears that he had not thought about before. All modern education presupposes that it will make people immortal on earth. It trembles before death, although Plato considered philosophy to be a "study of death." These people who do not see life beyond death fall into depression. On the contrary, the Christian who believes, considers death as the transition to the heavenly Church and the meeting with Christ, the Panagia and the Saints.

Others are distinguished by a "narcissistic bravery". They are indifferent to the dangers that exist in order to end one's life in a martyric way, with painful suffocation, because they deify themselves, their strengths, their gifts. This is a psychopathological condition. It seems like they are doing a monologue with themselves.

There are others who live with both. It is a so-called bipolar disorder, which means that they live with constant alternations between depressive and manic episodes, and they are in a worse condition.

Thus, it is important to see how we can deal with issues related to the virus. They gave different names to the specific virus. It was called a coronavirus because of the fact that on its surface there are some bumps like a crown. They called it covid-19. One Athonite told me they called it the "hesychast virus". Why? Because of the result it creates.

We live in isolation, self-isolation, self-limitation. This leads us to our inner selves. Verbalism and activism distract our attention, turn it to the outside, the constant activities make us forget the inner, existential issues of life and death, which are related to the questions of who and what - who we are, what is the purpose of our life. We have a tragic monologue with ourselves and now we are given the opportunity to have a redemptive dialogue with God and the people around us.

Thus, we see our family, we understand its value, we study, we pray, we are living out the "look within", we enter the "treasury" that Christ says is in our hearts, we see that it is not completely just biological life. And this is very beneficial, since "when the human nous distances itself from God, what is beastly becomes demonic" (St. Gregory Palamas). The nous enters its space. We see our mistakes and our perspective.

And after all this we leave ourselves to the Providence of God and in the hands of the doctors and the nursing staff, since we are not immortal on earth. Indeed, they are unwise "who do not know that the measures of life are made by God and not those who determine their daily lives" (St. Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid).

5. Existential Psychology and Existential Philosophy

In the western world, as a reaction to the Enlightenment that identified existence with the functions of the brain, existential psychology was developed and then existential philosophy.

The exponent of existential psychology is Viktor Frankl, a student of Freud, who, in describing the tragic situations in which man finds himself, considers man by his nature to be a tragic being, but his greatness is manifested in the way he faces tragic events. He repeatedly speaks in his texts about the tragic triad, which is guilt, pain and death.

These are three great tragic events for man, which he must face in his life and which his doctor must not obscure. Man cannot avoid this tragic triad, because it is his whole life, that is, he is connected with its existence. In fact, the attempt to deny these existential events constitutes a neurosis of our time, as he writes: "The more the neurotic tries to deny it, the more he will confuse it with another pain."

In fact, in his important book titled "Man's Search for Meaning", referring to the camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, where he himself was imprisoned for three whole years, he writes, among other things, that he saw some of his acquaintances behave like beasts and others like saints. At one point he describes that in the jacket of a man who had just entered the gas chambers, he found the prayer that as a Jew he had to say to God every day.

And he writes characteristically: "A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

Irvin Yalom, who is a representative of existential psychology and existential psychoanalysis, tries, and succeeds, in his book titled "When Nietzsche Wept", to connect the existential psychology of Viktor Frankl with the existential philosophy of Nietzsche, in the search for meaning in life. He does this in the meeting, which never took place, but was created by Yalom, between Breuer, Freud's teacher, and Nietzsche. In this technical discussion that takes place between them, each one tries to take advantage of the views of the other, which shows that the rationalist conception of life and its leveling neutralizes the human being as one who exists that seeks meaning in life, he wants to find the meaning of pleasure and pain, as well as the meaning of life and death.

These terrible existential issues arise in cases where man loses external support and is confronted with himself.

The German philosopher Heidegger will talk about two ways of life, namely the "everyday way of existence" and the "ontological way of existence". Referring to these two ways of life, Yalom writes that with the "everyday way of existence" we consume and divide the things that surround us and "we are full of admiration for how things are in the world". And with the "ontological way of existence" our attention is focused on our own existence and not on things.

This is why philosophers talk about the "borderline experiences" that "shake" us to get out of "everyday life" and to focus our attention on our own "existence". Among these "borderline experiences", "the most powerful" "is to come face to face with your own death".

Among the "borderline experiences" that change the perspective of our lives is mourning, the processing of the death of someone else. In fact, when we face the death of the other, we are confronted with our own death and this causes pain.

All this shows us the great value of Orthodox theology as asceticism, sacraments and hesychastic life that teaches us to face things in their depths and to turn away from the tragedy of appearance, to enter into communion with God and our brethren, not simply to extend life, but to overcome death in Christ. This is the real hope.

6. Holy Institution and Charisma

The Church is the Body of Christ and a community of theosis. This is a charismatic community related to Pentecost.

Because over time various administrative problems arose, the Local and Ecumenical Synods determined how the Church was governed. Thus, the holy institution of the Church was developed, in which the true charismatics live and the Holy Spirit "completely constitutes the institution of the Church", which means that the holy institution of the Church is closely connected with the charismas of its members, as the Apostle Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians.

The Professor of Dogmatics of the Theological School of Thessaloniki, Mr. Vasilios Tsigos, in an important book "Charisma and Institution", studies the life and teachings of St. John Chrysostom on this issue, since he lived in a critical time in which there was indeed a confusion and rivalry between charisma and institution, and he himself tried to preserve them united.

In the Fathers there is, as the Professor writes, a "harmonious, inseparable and organic relationship between the charismas and the institutions, as well as in the institutional and charismatic dimension of the Church".

It is characteristic that Saint John Chrysostom, even after his unjust condemnation by the Synod in Dre, "recommended to the bishops, the clergy and the laity, those who supported him, to obey and accept the decisions of the Synod, even though it was clearly unjust towards him. As a true shepherd, he was concerned with a unique issue, and this was observed in the preservation of schism and division. 'Come forth, brethren, and friends of Christ, I beseech you not to leave His Church.' He urges his friends again and again 'do not leave the Church.'"

Thus, according to Professor Vasilios Tsigos, "the association and the coexistence of an institution and charisma mean that, within the life of the Eucharistic community, no institution can be understood, developed and operated independently of the charismas of its members, nor is there any charismatic appearance without its necessary institutional existence."

Of course, from time to time and in our time, there are self-made rules and overestimated honors. Others overestimate the external institution, the way of administration, and others overestimate the various charismas of the members of the Church.

However, there can be no true institution of the Church that ignores the charismatics, nor can there be charismatics who ignore the institution of the Church. Nor do we in the name of the institution reject the charismas of its members, when they operate canonically, nor in the name of the charismatics do we reject the institution of the Church. If there are some who reject one of the two, they live in secularization. Of course some exceptions confirm the rule.

We must constantly strive for the unity between the whole institution of the Church and the charismas of its members, as Saint Dionysios the Areopagite analyzes them wonderfully in his book "On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy." This constitutes the famous "ecclesiastical mindset", which goes beyond the institutional organization of the Vatican and the autonomy of the various Protestant groups.

However, in a time of confusion and crisis we remain humble in the sacred institution of the Church, praying to God for the overcoming of crises.

7. Divine Communion

Various "shapers of public opinion" often refer to the Mystery of Holy Communion in a rough sociological way. Even though "scientific specialists" ad nauseam say that the Mystery of Divine Communion is a theological issue, that the World Health Organization has decided that the virus cannot be transmitted through swallowing, but by inhalation, they continue to insist and ask if the virus can be transmitted through Divine Communion. They have a neurotic obsession with this subject, while they have not solved the other major problems related to this pandemic and are related to the general state of society and the National Health System.

Because we, who have an absolute say in this matter and an experience of twenty-one centuries, emphasize in various ways that there is a "red line" for the Church regarding the mystery of the Divine Eucharist and Holy Communion, I therefore want to remind you of a troparion we chant as we commune of the Body and Blood of Christ:

"Of Thy Secret Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I kiss Thee. But like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom."

This troparion is the most appropriate answer to all who deal with this subject. The supper is "secret", it moves beyond the limits of reason, it is eminently empirical, about which "experts" can speak, that is, the living members of the Church, and the saints. It is a "mystery" that we will not analyze with rational arguments with the "enemies" of God, who seek to investigate it through reasoning, but in the background hide their disbelief and atheism. Perhaps the best answer for them is Christ's attitude before Herod, that is, the majestic silence. But we believers who approach this mystery must also be careful not to give a treacherous kiss, as Judas did at the time of Christ's arrest. Only through the confession of the thief, who theologized on the cross that Christ is the King of glory and repented, can one approach this great mystery.

Beyond the theology of this hymn which shows the way of our "gainsaying" and our confession to the enemies of Christ, according to the words of Christ, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces" (Matt. 7:6), I think the best response is the liturgical action itself.

At a critical moment of the Divine Liturgy, the liturgical clergyman raises the holy bread, that is, the Body of Christ, and exclaims in the hearing of all: "The holy for the holy." By this act he says that what he holds in his hands is holy and it is given only to the saints, and the people answer: "One is Holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father." Finally, saints are those who believe in Christ, keep His commandments, live in repentance, that is, those whom the liturgist invites: "With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near."

They know the mystery, they are friends of Christ, they have the conditions to commune the Body and the Blood of Christ. Others who judge things rationally and come to this great mystery unconditionally are "enemies of the Cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18).

These are seven "nuggets" in the time of the coronavirus, which are offered accompanied by a little theological wine for reflection and prayer.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.