Russian Bishop’s Covid-19 Advice
Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) of the Russian Orthodox Church was hospitalized with Covid-19, and has now recovered. He offered his thoughts about how to react to this pandemic. He is resident at the famous Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra (abbey), where lots of priests and monks fell ill with coronavirus. He explains how it happened:
Priests have placed and are placing themselves at great risk by hearing confessions. At greatest risk are those who don’t avoid the people, those who humbly offer themselves as a sacrifice to the sickness in feeble hopes that the sick parishioners will stay home. But their hopes were not justified.
Great Monday. [Monday of Holy Week] Morning. The gates of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra are closed. Standing before them is an angry crowd, demanding that the Lavra be opened. The protesters behave themselves very aggressively, cursing and swearing. Vladyka Paramon opens the Lavra for all of Holy Week and Pascha.
The pestilence began on Great Friday. Our best clergymen got sick, some seriously. Vladyka Paramon [the abbot of the Lavra] also got sick; I got sick, as well as the Lavra elders and one of ours in the Academy. On Great Friday, appropriately, we were all nailed to the cross. And below the cross, also appropriately, was a crowd demanding a miracle. The miracle didn’t happen.
We have been criticized for abandoning the people. This is not true. We could only answer in one way—by getting sick ourselves, so that seeing our suffering, people would have pity on those who are still healthy; on their bishops, priests, and cantors.
Can you imagine the kinds of Christians who stand before the gates of a monastery closed during a pandemic, cursing the monks for not letting them in to give them what they consider to be rightfully theirs? Yes, I can — because we have seen behavior in a similar spirit among Christians in America.
Bishop Pitirim goes on:
We have to have understanding, patience, and humility. Well, and most importantly, repentance. We, my friends, have become very spoiled lately; we have forgotten about the living God, replacing Him with frequent Communion, feasts and pleasant fasts, rites, cross processions, and pilgrimages. This is all of course very good, but what is the aim? The aim is our salvation. So now the Lord has turned us back to that one and only aim toward which we should be striving.
That last paragraph is exceptional. In it, the bishop reminds us that all the things that appear to be the substance of our religious life are in fact nothing but signs pointing us to salvation, which for Orthodox Christians means theosis — to encounter the living God, to become filled with the Holy Spirit, and to be transformed. What Bishop Pitirim is saying is that the extraordinary challenge before Christians now is continuing on that path of conversion and transformation, as is our calling, without the usual aids to our pilgrimage. This is a test of our faith.
This experience has clarified for me a prime reason for the Benedict Option. When I was working on the book, and mentioned the idea to Father Cassian Folsom, who was then the prior of the Norcia monastery, he told me that families who don’t do some version of the Ben Op won’t make it through what is coming. I assumed that he was talking about the rising tide of secularism, and maybe he was. But now, with this virus, I see that the prior’s warning certainly applies here. If you haven’t internalized Christianity as a way of life, one that you carry with you in your heart even when you are not permitted to live the normal Christian life for a time, you won’t make it. This miserable time is a call to deeper conversion.
Recently an editor at the Wall Street Journal invited me to contribute to a symposium in which people contribute 600-word speeches that they would give to college graduates this year, in the pandemic. The paper published them over the weekend. They’re all behind a paywall; here’s my contribution, which calls on graduates to study the lives and examples of the Christian heroes who stood up to communism, and who sacrificed greatly for the true and the good. Excerpt:
A young man once confided to a religious elder his anxiety over the hard times in which he was living. This is natural, said the elder, but such things are beyond our control: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
In fact, the anxious youngster was no man, but a hobbit, Frodo Baggins; the religious elder was the wizard Gandalf, to whom Frodo disclosed his fear on the road to the evil realm of Mordor. These heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” saga came up in a conversation I had two years ago in Prague with Kamila Bendova, a key figure among Czech anticommunist dissidents.
Despite constant pressure from the secret police, Ms. Bendova and her late husband Vaclav Benda had raised their children under totalitarianism, teaching them all to be faithful Catholics. How had they done it? She talked about the many books she read to the kids. Tolkien was a particular treasure. Why Tolkien? I asked. “Because we knew that Mordor was real,” she replied.
The Mordor into which you all are now graduating has no doomed mountains or political prisons, no orcs or secret police. But thanks to the pandemic, it is still a frightening place. You did not ask to live in these times—but here you are. What to do?
The courage and vision of ordinary people who faced down Soviet communism can light the way forward through the darkness. Traveling last year in countries once under the Soviet yoke, I met many people who lived in defiance of their dark age. None of these heroes expected communism to collapse in their lifetime. They resisted in part because their Christian faith taught them to receive suffering as an opportunity to demonstrate love for God and others.
Your mission is not their mission, exactly. But the Class of 2020, believers and nonbelievers alike, does have a mission. It is to be a source of light in a world suddenly shrouded by the pandemic’s darkness, a source of warmth in a world struck cold by the hand of fear. So ask yourself a radical question called forth by these Christian dissidents’ labors of love: What if the trying times you have been given are not a curse but a blessing—indeed, a severe mercy?
I’m convinced that the only way we ordinary, everyday Christians are going to get through this coronavirus trial is if we receive it as a severe mercy. Maybe our fear, and even our anger over the absence of services, is a diagnosis that reveals sickness in our souls. In my own case, I have had to face how dependent I had become on the Sunday liturgy to carry my spiritual life. It’s a tricky thing, because it’s a good thing to make the liturgy the center of one’s life, spiritual and otherwise. But as Bishop Pitirim points out, the liturgy (and all the rest) are not the living God; all these things are means of leading us to the lifelong and life-changing encounter with Him: theosis, or, to use a term more familiar in the West, sanctification. The point of our lives on this earth for Christians is to die to ourselves so that we can live eternally in Christ. Eternal life is not something that begins after we die; it starts now, when we start to die to ourselves. The coronavirus crisis, as Bishop Pitirim avers, ought to be regarded by Christians as an extraordinary opportunity to die to ourselves. They are a severe mercy.
I know people in various churches — Orthodox and Catholic, in particular — are mad at the clergy for not doing enough to support the religious life of the laity during this awful time. They may have a point, in particular cases (e.g., closing church buildings to private prayer), but on the whole, I strongly believe that we in the laity should show a lot of mercy to religious leaders now. They are having to deal with something real and terrible that nobody has ever had to deal with in living memory. My wife is on the parish council at our mission church, and I know from the things she has told me that the Orthodox bishops in our jurisdiction are trying to figure out how to open up safely. She was reading to me from one of the most recent documents sent down to the parishes by our bishop. I can’t quote from it, because it’s not public, but nobody can read that thing and fairly accuse our bishop of being indifferent to the needs of the faithful. It’s so clear to me that he and the others who have worked on that plan have been extraordinarily considerate of spiritual needs as well as health considerations.
I imagine something similar is happening in church leadership circles everywhere. We lay Christians cannot allow ourselves to be like that insolent Holy Week crowd, standing outside the gates of the monastery, cursing and demanding their “rights.” When we behave that way, we condemn ourselves. It is a difficult point to consider, but it’s true: the Divine Liturgy is the most precious gift we have, but if our attachment to the liturgy has become a stumbling block to theosis, then we must repent.