The Ascetic Experience is a blog run by the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi on Mt Athos. The blog has consistently provided encouragement to Orthodox Christians during this time of crisis. It features thoughts, photos, and live recordings from recent feasts and prayer services. I thought I’d excerpt a few of their recent posts for the encouragement of our readers:
Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin.
Everything else that men generally call evil is not, but is a bitter medicine to heal from evil. The sicker the man, the more bitter the medicine that the doctor prescribes for him.
At times, even, it seems to a sick man that the medicine is worse and bitterer than the sickness itself! And so it seems at times to the sinner: the suffering is harder and bitterer than the sin committed. But this is only an illusion – a very strong self-delusion.
There is no suffering in the world that could be anywhere near as hard and destructive as sin is.
All the suffering borne by men and nations is none other than the abundant healing that eternal Mercy offers to men and nations to save them from eternal death. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace-filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.Based on Saint Nikolaj Velimirović
On Christian history and pandemics:
In the 3rd Century, a pandemic swept across Italy, Africa, and the Western Roman Empire. In retrospective examination, some scholars believe it was the Ebola virus. At its height, this pandemic killed more than 5,000 people every day in Rome. Some cities had their population wiped out by more than 60 percent.
During the pandemic, people panicked. Many people abandoned the sick in ditches and left the dead unburied. People fled areas where there was sickness and abandoned the elderly, the sick, and the disabled.
The letter of Julian the Apostate
But there was one class of people who refused to panic. The last non-Christian Emperor was a man named Julian, and he wrote that, “the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’”
In a letter to another idolatrous priest, he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Christians during pandemic: the results
During the pandemic, instead of leaving the city, the Christians stayed at great risk to themselves. They cared for the poor, the sick, and the elderly.
Some historians said that you can trace the rise of Christianity to the three major plagues in the 2nd, 3rd and 6th Century. Historians said Christianity grew because people looked at the incredible witness of Christians during times of crisis who, instead of panicking, demonstrated tremendous faith and compassion.
If you are a believer, this is an incredible opportunity to bear witness, to be people of faith and compassion. Instead of hoarding, give generously. Instead of panicking, respond thoughtfully. It is a time to demonstrate a love that is sacrificial and a hope that no disease can destroy.
We need to have discrimination, though, to be the cure and not the source of the pandemic.
On the causes of the pandemic:
Many ask us what the causes of the pandemic COVID-19 are, if it is a natural phenomenon, or if there are state-level actors who generated this epidemic.
We need to understand that this way of thinking is distorted.
Don’t blame others
We must first think why perfect God has allowed this to happen to us. Nothing is accidental.
So, the cause is us, our sins. Since it is a general pain, it is clearly shown that this sin is a general one—and this due to indifference to spiritual matters, an indifference to God.
Thus, we deserve separation from services and Holy Communion, due to the general indifference of those who know almost nothing about faith, and those who know about faith but do not mourn and pray for their state and society in general.
We must cry and pray intensely, patiently and hopefully, waiting for the solution. That is how the problems are solved.
Causes of the Pandemic are spiritual
We, however, have completely changed our value system: we regard sin as virtue and virtue as sin. This is the worst thing of all and, in fact, is the main cause of the trouble. If sin had been accepted as sin, then people would have repented, fought and come back from it and, so, God would have expected our return. Now, when sin passes as a virtue, mankind goes for self-destruction, without stopping, and so spiritual law is bound to intervene.
Of all the sins that pass as virtue, what is the sin—or category of sins—that is the causes of the pandemic?
It is obvious that, since this temptation comes to us in the body, the sins that cause the pandemic are the bodily sins which we see today as a virtue. We are sexually obsessed; we accept any sexual distortion and we no longer know how to satisfy these desires. Therefore, God separates us from each other in quarantines because, by staying together, we destroy ourselves.
Let’s not look for the causes of the pandemic outside of us, even though it is possible that different players, more or less malicious, may have brought or contributed to this pandemic. However, information accusing a state or an organization capable of doing such things will only arouse hatred. This will not solve the situation, but will rather increase the hostility between us.
Once again: the solution is repentance: crying, fasting and intense prayer with patience and hope. Things are simple, but we do not want to apply them because of the overturning of our value system, self-love, and indifference. These are the causes of the pandemic.
I obviously disagree that it’s “obvious” that the cause of the pandemic is sexual sin. But I find a lot of wisdom in these words nonetheless. This pandemic provides increased opportunities for prayer and spiritual contemplation. Our society does view sin as a virtue and virtue as a sin. We must not blame others for the pandemic or engage in conspiracy theories about the virus. As Christians, we must be the cure and not the cause of the pandemic. Finally, we cannot view suffering as an evil in itself. It is bitter medicine.