Will churches become empty?
The other day a church rector whom I know called me and we talked about life. He complained:
“If churches will remain closed for parishioners for a longer period, then hardly anyone will return to them when they finally reopen.”
I understand how painful and sad it is for him to serve alone in an empty church, which a short while ago was packed with people and where children’s laughter could be heard. But then I began to meditate on his apprehension. What is the Church for me? And the answer didn’t make me happy at all. I had gradually and imperceptibly gotten used to the splendor of churches. So the church I have always attended with great reverence has turned from the house of God into a mere beautiful comfortable place where, to put it into modern terms, “my spiritual needs are met” and where my acquaintances whose company I enjoy go to as well. Whenever I must confess or take Communion, I run to church at breakneck speed; but when it is not so urgent, I am “too busy”. In other words, I can usually be found there on Sundays and feasts, but, as a cynical acquaintance of mine used to say, “without fanaticism”—only because “I need to be there.” In my mind I realize that God doesn’t need these visits with my shifting from one foot to the other and casting an occasional glance to the watch. As for me, it’s my habit. I’ve gotten used to church as to a good store where you go shopping with family on weekends or like going to the countryside.
But when I go to a store, my heart isn’t burning—I just need to buy diapers for my little daughter. Likewise, I neither cry nor put my arms around birch trees while I’m in the countryside—I just walk. As for church, you can’t just be present there—your soul must repent and feel awe there. Because God dwells there. Every Liturgy is the place where heaven and earth meet; at this time the Lord becomes incarnate for me, bears suffering, dies on the Cross, and rises from the dead. It’s not some spectacular show—it’s the eternal Divine life where Life triumphs over death. And it’s by the Lord’s great mercy that I’m vouchsafed to participate in this life.
When I am in church, I participate in this eternal life, even though I shift my feet and cast a glance at my watch. Some did the same, “satisfying their spiritual needs” and seeking miracles. And soon they cried out, “Crucify, crucify Him!”, mocking and spitting at Him and exclaiming, If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross (Mt. 27:40). Where are they and where am I? Indeed we are not far from each other. Not least when churches are closed and it is easy to choose new amusing TV series instead of the evening prayers.
On the Ascension
On the Ascension Day I reflected on what this feast means in our lives. St. Nikolai (Velimirovic) wrote: “Thus did the One ascend to Heaven Who held heaven within Himself1”. He ascended into heaven not only as God but also as man—physically, in a human body related to ours by its nature. He ascended and was seated on the Throne of His glory next to His Heavenly Father. And we, adopted by the sacrificial Divine love of Christ, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, hope to end up together with Him in heaven. St. Nikolai (Velimirovic) wrote about this too:
“He who carries hell within himself will end up in hell, but he who bears heaven within his soul will ascend to heaven. And truly, no one can ascend to heaven other than those who have heaven within; and no one can end up in hell besides those who have hell within.2”
We Orthodox hope to see heaven with our own physical eyes; but we can experience the Ascension of the Lord in our hearts already in this life on the earth.
We experience it every time we don’t spare ourselves in order to support someone else, or devote our time to doing something for others, though it’s inconvenient for us. We experience the Ascension when we forgive those who have offended us or have been unjust to us; when we want to judge but don’t judge; when we feel bad but don’t complain; when we can do something bad, some obvious and pleasant sin, but refrain from this out of love for God; when there is an opportunity to boast, but we keep silence.
Besides, we experience the Ascension when we forget about our great egos (which eclipse even the sun) and become very ordinary people, like millions around us. Then our souls, like angels, soar up high over the earth and partake of celestial joys.
There was a clap of thunder
The other day I dropped in at a fruit store I go to very often. The shop assistant was speaking to her adult married son with a raised voice: “How dare you hurt your wife? She is an orphan! You’ll be responsible for this before God so you'll wish it had never happened! And I’ll give it to you, though I’m your mother!” Such was the dialogue I happened to hear unexpectedly. A simple woman who maybe doesn’t go to church is certain that you shouldn’t offend an orphan because you’ll have to answer for that before God. And if you ask this simple smiling woman about her attitude towards discrimination against old people and children, you will find that she is of the same opinion. In the sense that if you hurt them, Divine retribution is sure to follow. Even it was all done on the sly and will be kept secret, you will have to answer anyway. Because there is the Judgment of God above our earthly judgment and laws. Any old lady in the yard will confirm this. Not because she is “ignorant and uneducated” but because she has become convinced of this over her long life and her heart feels that it’s simply can’t be otherwise.
When the whole globe ended up in lockdown, some suddenly began to think not only of personal protection equipment and the declining salaries but also of the things few people cared about until recently: how we educate our children—whether we truly educate them or corrupt them with these trendy “sexual education” programs, and so forth; old people, whose voices are ever weaker and the help they receive is becoming ever poorer; genuine culture that has found itself in the ghetto, while what claims to be our “culture” makes us blush with shame and fills us with disgust; the Church, which has found itself between a night club and a pub; our environment, which has been polluted and almost exhausted; and what we, “goody-goody human beings”, live in this world for.
Earlier, everybody was satisfied with everything and didn’t ask such questions. But now the lockdown has made everybody stop and look at themselves attentively. And that’s good. It means we have a chance to try and answer the questions honestly. The main thing is not to deceive ourselves by thinking that things will sort themselves out and life will resume its normal course. It won’t happen! The pandemic has exposed all the contradictions, weak and sore spots of our life: in politics, economy, society, and Church life. This situation may inspire us to start sorting everything out, and above all improving ourselves. Otherwise we risk becoming like the characters of the popular Russian proverb, “only the grave can straighten the hunchback.” If only it were not about us!
Support your Church
Some can’t understand why priests and church staff should be paid for their work like any other citizens and why churches should pay taxes and the water and electricity bills. But those who go to church regularly and are interested in the life of their parishes are well aware of their current plight. So help your priests, help your churches! They are going through the hardest times. What priests are doing now is a podvig which is no less worthy than that of doctors: they too save lives while being exposed to hazards, take care of all of us without any rest or days-off, serve and pray. And they too die while on active duty.
If you need spiritual help, confess your sins or take Communion, you call the church and the priest comes to you. In most cases they have large families and many children whom they too want to see when they become adults; like us, they want to live, they have something to lose, but they will come and do their best so that peace can reign in your souls. Unlike state servants, doctors and social workers, they aren’t paid hazard pay and overtime pay. The State doesn’t support them, their welfare fully depends on donations of parishioners, but now that churches are closed due to coronavirus there are no donations.
Don’t listen to tales about “fat priests who all travel in Mercedeses”—that is sheer nonsense! I know many priests personally and visited their homes—most of them live very modestly, if not in poverty. Even before the crisis they lived difficult lives, and now their children have literally nothing to eat. So help them as generously as you can: submit lists of names of the living and the departed to be prayed for over forty days or longer or just approach your church rector and inquire how you could support them. Or bring your pickles, jams, flour, potatoes and other food preserves to church—they will later be distributed among the priests and the church staff, choristers and acolytes. And you will receive a hundredfold from God for your mite.
We’ve gotten used to seeing churches in their stately, festal golden attire: golden domes, the gold of icons and in priests’ vestments. It is not “love for luxury”, as some believe; rather, these things signify Christ’s victory over death, Paradise, the heavenly realm, the Church Triumphant where there is no sorrow, no crying. But today the Church is in need, “in rags and tatters”, “going cap in hand” to us. And those who are only used to taking from the Church will shrug their shoulders and walk aside, and some may even hoot with laughter: “Look, they are in misery! Ha-ha!” For it is only an evil heart that rejoices in someone else’s misfortunes.
But the hearts of the faithful won’t be confused, seeing their mother in need! They won’t say anything—they will just take her by the arm and support her because God is with them.
Chakhokhbili for mom
In the evening I cooked chakhokhbili3. This dish is usually cooked with chicken, but you can make it with any kind of meat: don’t be stingy with meat and herbs, and then it will be juicy and delicious. The first pulpy, crimson, sweet Azerbaijani tomatoes appeared at the market. It is best to make chakhokhbili with them if you don’t live in Georgia (we live in Russia’s Ural region, for example). Astrakhan tomatoes are good too: they are sweet, but their time hasn’t come yet. You also need to buy some young garlic, red onions, fresh basil and coriander at the market. It is best to have chakhokhbili for dinner when your whole family gathers around the same table in the evening after a working day. It is a good Christian tradition when the entire family sits around the table not only on holidays but also on weekdays! Nowadays few families uphold this tradition—every family member is always busy with his own affairs and they have meals separately at different times; but the religious families whom I know well still keep this custom. Such families eat together, relax together, pray together and go to church together. In such an atmosphere the faith quickly becomes natural for children—they are all together and united and Christ is with all.
Our mom stayed with her sister for a week and was due to return the next day, so I kept chakhokhbili for her in a special dish in the fridge. In the morning dad went to make himself breakfast before leaving for work, opened the fridge and asked:
“Is this for mom?”
So he made sausages for himself. In the afternoon brother came over and fried eggs with sausage for lunch. Sister-in-law came from work hungry and cooked pelmeni (meat dumplings) for herself. Mom arrived in the evening, went to the kitchen and called me for dinner. She wanted to tell me in a quiet atmosphere at the table how my aunt was doing, to ask how we were getting on, what had happened in her absence, whether her plants in the garden were whole or damaged; whether any of us had had gotten food poisoning or fallen sick… When I entered the kitchen, I saw the warmed-up chakhokhbili on the dish! I said:
“Mom! What have you done? It is for you!”
But she waved:
“Thank you, sonny, for your concern! I’ve already had some fresh cottage cheese and a cheese sandwich; and I’ve reserved the meat for you! You’re tired after a long day! So fortify yourself!” This is how we live…