Monastic Tips for Self-Isolation: Trees by the Water
“Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by.” (Isaiah 26:20 ESV)
The entire world is experiencing the impact of COVID-19, the Novel Corona Virus pandemic. It is commonly said that one of the Chinese words for crisis can be interpreted as opportunity. With the limiting of so many being able to go out, we invite you to discover the opportunity to go in. To go in to the place of the heart. Over the coming days, we will be posting wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church regarding the values to be found from times of silence, solitude, and reflection.
[a video based on this talk can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4Ay_w1eX0w]
As Orthodox Christians, we begin to prepare for the Sunday Divine Liturgy the evening before with the Vespers or Evening Prayer Service. After initial prayers, and the reading of the evening Psalm 104(103), we chant Psalm One. Here, King David muses on the stability of a soul that meditates on the words of God. He likens such a person to a tree that is rooted by streams of water. Stable. Weather-resistant. Continuing to grow. Firm. These are but a few of the qualities that emerge from his idea.
Contrasted with this is another image developed by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesian Christians. After affirming the unity of our faith (Eph. 4:5), he then shows that the goal is to collectively grow into the fullness of Christ, knowing Him and experiencing the oneness of life that Jesus has with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:13). As a result we are to no more be as children (not in attitude, but in instability) “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:13)
The image of being blown about by a wind conveys the image of a leaf disconnected from the tree. Another picture is a small boat in a large sea without its rudder. In both cases, what move the leaf or the boat are the outside winds. The zeitgeist. The spirit of the age. It is loud and howling now. We can pick it up on Facebook, CNN, Fox Media, Youtube, films, and many other sources. It is like the Athenians of Acts 17:21 who were addicted to the news.
One wind calls us to fear of the Coronavirus pandemic. In this case, our source of daily meditation is simply the daily news briefs. The result is that our faith is weakened. Instead of meditating on God’s promises, we are wondering who will die next and we forget the Risen Lord.
Another wind is fear of the antichrist and the events of the last days. We begin to focus more on the current events to see what prophecies are being fulfilled and our faith is again weakened.
When our Lord Jesus was asked about the final times, He said,
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Do not be troubled; all of this must take place, but the end is not yet. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be famines, plagues [like the Coronavirus], and earthquakes in various places. But all these things are only the beginning of birth pains (Mt. 24:6-8, EOB, Newrome Press).
Birth pains. In the natural, the closer a mother is to birth, the contractions come more rapidly and with more force. St. Peter said the last days began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17). Ever since those times, the pains have been coming more rapidly and stronger. We affirm that we are in the final days. But it is essential that our eyes be more upon Christ than the antichrist. The Thessalonians were upset that the time of Christ’s second coming had come (2 Thess. 2:2). St. Paul wrote to them,
We ask you not to be quickly shaken in your mind. Do not be troubled by a prophecy, report, or letter allegedly from us, saying that the Day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way! This will not take place unless the apostasy comes first and the man of [lawlessness] is revealed, the son of destruction (2 Thess. 2:1-3, EOB)
For many, an apostasy has taken place. Many have withdrawn from faith in the Risen Christ and the Holy Trinity. Yet many more have not. Some say that the man of lawlessness is alive and soon will appear. Perhaps, but perhaps not. We must be careful not to let this report shake us from our steadfastness in Christ. Let us remember the words of Saints Barsanuphius of Gaza in the sixth century:
As for thoughts which come from the demons, first of all, they are filled with disturbance and sadness, and they draw one after them secretly and subtly; for the enemies clothe themselves in sheepskins, that is, they instill thoughts which in appearance are right, but within are ravening wolves (Matt. 7:15), that is, they enrapture and seduce the hearts of the innocent (Rom. 16:18) by what seems to be good, but in actual fact is harmful. The Scripture says concerning the serpent that he is most wise; wherefore, observe always his head (cf. Gen. 3:1,15), lest he find openings in you and settling in them, lay you waste…
And so, if when you hear, think, or see anything, and your heart is even in the least disturbed that is from the devil. But if you have not attained the spiritual measure, but are still a child in mind, then humble yourself before your teacher, that he may chastise you with mercy (Ps. 140:5), and do nothing without counsel (cf. Sirach 32:21), even though it might seem to you to be apparently good, for the light of the demons turns later into darkness.
Guidance Toward Spiritual Life: Saints Barsanuphius and John, 2002, p. 51,
St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA
Our hierarchs in the Orthodox Church have been guiding us through treacherous waters. They continue to hold fast to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and unbroken tradition of the early Christians. They have affirmed the power of Holy Communion to bring healing and yet seek to protect the weak ones from being unnecessarily harmed by close social contact.
Now, let us do our part. Let us steer a steady course through our daily prayers, our daily reading of the Scriptures, and our participating in the Sacraments of the Church when we can. Let us be like the tree planted by the streams of water, by daily keeping a good conscience and maintaining connection with the Spirit of Christ. Let us pray for the world. And please, pray for me.