Hannu Pöyhönen, Ph.D in Theology and the founder of a monastic community in the Finnish town of Lammi who conversed with St. Paisios the Athonite, calls on us to take advantage of the current trials and look at our lives from a Christian perspective. “Trials that God sends us can bring us closer to Him,” he says. “We should only go through them in a Christian manner.”
—Dr. Hannu, has the life of the monastic community at Lammi changed due to the pandemic and the attempts of the state to combat it? Are people free to go to churches and pray there?
—On a practical level the coronavirus pandemic has not affected the life of our Panagia Monastery at all—life goes on, and it has not changed. But because of the travel ban (the capital is presently cut off from the rest of Finland) and the restrictions on public meetings (up to ten people) we have had almost no guests from Helsinki, and only the closest friends are visiting us these days.
Because of these bans some Finnish monasteries have closed their doors to pilgrims, which is very deplorable: now people desperately need consolation and protection. Here in Lammi we have not thought of such measures—we are visited by a rather small number of people even in “normal” times. Our doors are open, and everybody can take part in our prayer services.
A lack of pilgrims also affects the economies of monasteries, including our Panagia. I believe that in spite of everything these communities will survive in Finland for spiritual support of people during such crises. Perhaps in the near future they will be in greater demand.
—I hope all the brethren of the Panagia Monastery are in good health. Do you still hold daily services, as before? Maybe you repeat some special petition during prayer services?
—We all give thanks to God for keeping us healthy. Glory to God, daily prayer services continue, and, besides, we carry on with housekeeping, as before. Our community is small, and, carrying out all necessary work, we have to allow for a lack of time for particular joint prayers for the recovery of patients and the victory over the pandemic. But in our petitions at prayer services during the morning and evening prayers we do ask for God’s protection over all people, especially those close to us and those we are responsible for before Him.
By our mission, if we can say so, in this situation we have chosen the task to calm and instill a sense of proportion to those we talk with. Following media news reports, you can get the impression that the entire world is in the clutches of coronavirus. And it is seen in the excessive reactions of some Local Churches. As is largely the case everywhere, in Finland people are forbidden to attend services and the participation in Holy Communion is considerably restricted. As though in our Church we have ceased to believe in the help and protection of God, putting our hopes exclusively on medical science and public administrative measures! It is important to keep in mind that pandemics (just as other disasters and trials) are allowed by God because of our sins; which is why our repentance is needed, as stressed in the statements by Metropolitans Neophytos of Morphou and Athanasios of Limassol of the Church of Cyprus to their flocks. First and foremost, repentance should be offered on behalf of the Church. As we see in Church history, it was through conciliarity, fervent prayer and the participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion that people’s repentance was revealed.
This pandemic has revealed the smallness and superficiality of our faith. This situation offers many reasons for inner self-knowledge on all Church levels. I recall the Gospel words that are often cited in sermons today: When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth? (Lk. 18:9). I think that our mission in the Finnish land could be in the awakening of such constructive self-knowledge. And the Church must help people in this—where else will they be able to seek help?
—Can it be said that there are some positive aspects to the situation all of us have found ourselves in? How can I as a Christian benefit while in self-isolation?
—Of course, we can find many good seeds in this pandemic and they can ensure considerable spiritual growth in the future. The Lord allows all of this for our good. Through trials He leads us to Himself to change our lives for the better and transform them so that we can realize that we are only temporarily here and moving towards our final, perpetual place of abode in eternal life. I hope we will be able to hear the Lord’s call and won’t forget our experience after the end of the crisis!
Life outside the usual hustle and bustle can help us understand the vacuousness of our souls, arousing a desire for something better, a yearning for heaven. It may inspire us to pray. Silence in our homes may have the same effect. Once fuss has died down, the Lord’s “sound waves” can be heard by someone, perhaps for the first time.
Among the good works I see here in Finland is that on account of their inability to attend church services some laypeople have begun to read the morning and evening prayers regularly at home—in their family circles. The crisis has united these religious and active people spiritually, which is very welcome news. I see such people at our spiritual Center quite often, which has helped us rally around in one large family. What can be better? Christ said: Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). All Christians need such intercommunication, not the least in a world where everybody feels so unsure.
—Dr. Hannu, do you think that the worse is to come, or life will gradually return to normal?
—The Lord has allowed this crisis because of human sins, calling on mankind for repentance and the regeneration of spiritual life. The reason behind the pandemic is in us. The Lord can have mercy on the human race and indeed will do it, seeing sincere repentance. Elder Paisios would especially emphasize that the Lord doesn’t allow anything bad unless a greater good will follow after it. That is why in this situation we should keep our consciousness clear and maintain an inner calm, bearing in mind what the Apostle Paul said:
Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:4-7).
I suggest not panic but repentance—it is a very effective remedy.