Dear Sister Vassa, Would you consider answering two questions if you have time? First, there is a lot of talk that the vulnerable should not be too upset about doing without church gatherings since Jesus did not really start a church but a movement to tell people that the Kingdom of God is here ( I might be mixing two ideas here). I don’t know how they interpret “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” – he didn’t say that he would be starting a movement, at least I don’t think so. But I digress…
Then there is the advice from Jesus that when we want to pray, we should just go into a closet. People back then didn’t have closets, did they? So what do you think he was referring to? I was wondering if he was referring more to the heart or somewhere within ourselves where we would encounter him…or is that far off track? If you have any ideas on this, I’d love to hear them! Love, N
SISTER VASSA’S RESPONSE:
Dear N, 1. In response to your first question: “…the vulnerable should not be too upset about doing without church gatherings since Jesus did not really start a church but a movement to tell people that the Kingdom of God is here…”: I think they can go ahead and be upset. But certainly, when there is no other option than this, (i.e., to do without the usual church-gatherings), then we do need to make the best of it, and remember that, indeed, God and His grace is not limited to the confines of our church-spaces. It doesn’t mean that we deny that Christ founded both a Church and its sacraments, celebrated at church-gatherings. But sometimes, not without God’s providence, we might find ourselves cut off from these celebrations. Say, if we are in some place where there is no church, or we are bedridden or something like that. Also, at certain times throughout Church History, people have been cut off from church-services, for example, in the Soviet period and in other times of persecution. And in these dark times, many people actually engaged in a more intense prayer-life than do we in peaceful times, when churches are open and all over the place, perhaps because we tend to value more that which is scarce, or suddenly taken away from us. There were also those, I mean ascetics, who went off into the desert, who abstained voluntarily from normal church-gatherings even in times of no persecution, in order to engage in the intense discipline of the solitary prayer of the heart. Because indeed, there is a different set of challenges, and rewards, connected to solitary prayer for prolonged periods of time. And maybe God is sending us the opportunity to experience it now, even while we did not seek it out ourselves. My point is, the Church has survived and continued to pray and thrive throughout many different circumstances (and by “Church” I mean all the faithful), also when the externals of church-life have been disrupted or changed for different reasons. Because, as St. Paul says, “we know that God works all things (also the bad things, like a global pandemic) together for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8: 28).
2. Re: “there is the advice from Jesus that when we want to pray, we should just go into a closet…” Yes, the traditional interpretation of this passage is that He is talking about praying in our heart. And about not focusing on the externals, like what our prayer looks like from the outside. We might get hung up on which or how many prayers we are reading, while the whole point of our tradition is getting into sync with, or having that communion with, God, in heartfelt prayer. As St. Theophan the Recluse said, with regard to the fire that must burn in our hearts for God, – It’s not important which fuel you put in that fire, whether it is brief or long prayers. What’s important is that you keep that fire going. In times like this one, of a global pandemic, we are challenged by being stripped of the externals, so we can surrender or give up our own concoctions (or efforts to “save” ourselves), that we may finally “receive” salvation, amidst the privation of our external props.
So I think we shouldn’t waste time by resisting or lamenting the situation, but we should get on with it, and get our own “house” in order, even while our beloved church-“houses” are closed. Let’s adopt a bit of a daily discipline, of some heartfelt prayer in the morning, perhaps also at noon, and in the evening. Just a bit, throughout our day. That’s what I am doing, anyway. And it works. It keeps you sane. If nothing else, just say the Our Father, from the bottom of your heart (and kneel if this helps), three times a day, and hand it all over to Him.
Be well, dear N, and love from Vienna, SV