Today, June 1st on the Old Calendar, is the commemoration of St John of Kronstadt. A number of things stand out for me about St John. I remember visiting the St John of Rila convent in St Petersburg which he founded and venerating his tomb in the basement there.
In the article by Bishop KALLISTOS entitled JOHN OF KRONSTADT: SAINT OF COMMUNION, SAINT OF CONFESSION he discusses the power of love, as shown in the life of St John of Kronstadt himself. But this is not a sentimental or emotional feeling he is talking about, it is much more profound. Bishop Kallistos writes,”The kind of love that they envisage [that is, St. John in his Epistle and our Savior in the Gospel] , a universal all-embracing love, a love without limits, can only be a result of prayer, of ascetic effort.” He asks, what is the deeper basis for this love? “It is … the service of the Holy Eucharist, which is indeed a sacrament of mutual love. Our love has its foundation and inspiration in the Divine Liturgy.” But,
“If we are to show more vividly the kind of love of which the apostle John and our Lord speak, that can only come first and foremost through a deeper experience of Holy Communion, through frequent Communion received after profound and searching preparation.”
And how should we prepare he asks? “We are to prepare above all through the use of the sacrament of Confession.” And then he goes on to enumerate three compelling reasons why frequent confession should accompany frequent communion. He concludes :
“St. John of Kronstadt was above all a Eucharistic Priest. He put The Holy Liturgy at the center of his life, and this was the source that enabled him to show such a dynamic and universal love.”
Sometimes we can take the most important aspects of our lives for granted because they are so familiar to us. But when they are taken away from us we can either yearn to experience again the joy of being with a person or we may become resentful that we are inconvenienced. So it is with Holy Communion. For some weeks at the beginning of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ period our churches were closed and we were unable to receive communion. Then, slowly, more people have been able to attend. This last week I was privileged to attend Divine Liturgy twice and to receive communion both times. It was a profound joy to participate in the communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour with the assembled throng, 20 strong including children. I think that the weeks of enforced abstention from church had indeed deepened my experience of the Eucharist. So I can thank the Lord for His inscrutable wisdom and bountiful love for us in all things.
Back in the day when my father-in-law lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan the family used to visit him over a weekend. Whenever possible on Sunday morning I would visit the ROCOR church nearby in Dexter, St Vladmir’s. One Saturday evening after Vespers there I made a confession with the priest, Fr Gregory (Joyce). He asked me what spiritual books I was reading. I had never been asked this before in my life and I told him that I was trying to wade through the “Syrian Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life”. He commented that this must be rather indigestible and suggested that instead I read “Father Arseny; Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father“. I took his sage advice, got hooked on the ‘Russian way’, and never looked back since.
All this is by way of introducing a priest from the ROCOR church of whom I have the highest opinion. Fr Gregory has a blog called Blogtushka where he urges his parishioners to “Read. Think. Pray. Question. Repeat.”! What follows are a few comments on a blog posting he made on March 31st 2020 on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic. The arresting title of the post is :
He starts with a quotation (also employed in the Father Arseny book) from Galatians 6:2 :
Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
He asks “Whose burdens are we bearing when we absent ourselves from the Divine Services?”, and gives the answer, “The weak, the infirm, the elderly, and all those who would otherwise die” if they were exposed to the disease. He points out that a single young person unknowingly carrying the disease (ie, asymptomatic) can easily infect another young person at church who then goes to visit his grandmother: and she dies. He states baldly “That is how it works.”
[And from bitter experience we know that this is exactly what happened when the Monastery Holy Trinity / St Sergius was forced to open for Holy Week and Pascha by an angry mob, cursing, swearing and demanding that the Lavra be opened – see LESSONS OF A PANDEMIC by Bishop Pitirim (Tvorogov) which also lists a host of clergy who got sick and died as a consequence. According to newspaper reports from Russia itself “as of 1 May symptoms of coronavirus infection have been manifested in 150 of the approximately 170 residents of the lavra, many of whom are in extremely serious condition” RUSSIA RELIGION NEWS : Senior monk dies in pandemic on 76th birthday ]
Fr Gregory asserts that we are ‘social distancing’ because we are Pro Life. He follows up with “We cannot just be against killing children in the womb. We have to be against killing old people too. And sick people. And people with underlying conditions.” And then the shocking but reasonable conclusion: if we infect a person who ends up infecting a vulnerable person and she dies then everyone in that chain killed her. “It is not a question of ignorance anymore. It is a question of hubris.” “The virus is real. People are dying in droves from this disease. Your hubris, conspiracy, or delusion do not change that.”
And then, the point :
“If we aren’t fighting this scourge we should be praying for those who are. If we are fighting this scourge we should know that others are praying for us. THIS IS A SPIRITUAL OBLIGATION! No one is blessed to be on vacation now.”
He goes on to write :
“NO VACATION. War is work. We are at war. Embrace that paradigm. There is no other paradigm that gets us to the mindset that we need here: we are fighting for our lives and the lives of others. For most of us that fight will be fought at home in the greatest isolation we can manage so that we do not spread the virus, but for some: on the front lines.”
He draws a comparison with the effort that people made together during World War II (or the ‘great Patriotic War’ as they call it in Russia) :
“But we aren’t being asked to build bombers now. We are being asked to stay home. To pray for those who are fighting and to work on our spiritual lives. Probably staying home is harder than building bombers. We want to DO something. But prayer IS SOMETHING! We have to do away with the evil paradigm of the world that prayer is nothing. Prayer is work! Prayer is effort! Prayer is the path to victory.
And then :
“THIS is how we show the world that we are really Pro Life. This is how we show the world that faith and wisdom go together, not faith and ignorance (or hubris, or pride, or whatever you want to call it).”
And finally, commenting on the closure of a cathedral church in order to protect everyone he writes :
“when we have no control over a situation, we should give this situation and our life to God, knowing that He desires our salvation even more than we do. To be at peace. To know that when we lose control the Lord will reign, if we do not oppose Him.”
He points out that we need to entreat the Lord to strengthen us in the work of marriage and bringing up children; “acting through prayer and tending and harvesting the spiritual fruit can can be found in our desert.” And “Just as the farmer sows with faith and labors in hope of a crop that will appear only in the future, so too do we sow the seeds of prayer in our desert, trusting in the spiritual fruit that will flower and mature in time.” And to conclude, he urges us to “be good children of the Church in this extraordinary time when we are being asked to labor with zeal by staying at home!”
Consider the image of sowing seeds of prayer in our own personal desert of soul, entreating the Lord to water them with Divine blessings and then trusting that spiritual fruit will indeed flower and mature; what a profound and encouraging image this is!