Over the last several weeks and months, the world has been gripped by the turmoil that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought upon its seven billion people.
Whether affected directly or not, we all have been impacted by its physical, social, psychological and financial punch. This pandemic will be remembered by historians as one of the major global events of the 21st century.
One of the most paralyzing fangs of this invisible enemy has been the feeling of isolation that the necessary practice of social distancing has had on people. Out of protection for ourselves and love and concern for others, sensible and responsible people have had to physically separate themselves from other people outside of their immediate household.
In the news, we have seen examples of painful situations of this. Adult children and grandchildren having to watch their dying grandmother from outside the window of a nursing home because the facility has been on lockdown. We find a husband not being allowed to enter the hospital room where his ill wife lay due to a hospital zero visitors COVID-19 protocol. These are just some of the tragic situations that occur because of the scourge of this pandemic.
Among other concerns by people has been the shuttering of churches to public congregational worship. Along with this we hear people’s laments such as: “What are we going to do without communion for weeks and months?” and “Sunday is not the same without going to church. How long can we go on like this?”
These are legitimate laments.
However, I wonder if God, though not responsible for this affliction upon the world, is instead inviting us to a deeper reflection, stillness and communion with Him because of it.
I look to history in the lives of the desert ascetics for examples of union with God in the midst of isolation. Especially, I think of the great story of the third century figure of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who, having given up a profligate idolatrous lifestyle after a transformative visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, embraced a life of love with the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, she began a 47-year journey of seeking God in self-reflection and self-denial in the Egyptian desert.
We are told that Mary lived a life of seclusion for decades by not encountering another human until a “chance” meeting with the Christian monastic presbyter Zosimas.
Prior to her encounter with Zosimas, we read from multiple sources that she lived a life of solitude in prayer and fasting. During that time, Mary was not part of a faith community, did not receive the Eucharist and did not go to confession with a priest for decades — until she met Zosimas.
Yet, Zosimas was able to discern that after he spoke with Mary. She gave him her testimony that she was attaining sanctification (theosis) through the power of the Holy Spirit.
After their initial meeting, Mary asked Zosimas to come back the next year on Holy Thursday to give her communion. Zosimas did come back the next year and communed her. She then asked him to come back again the next year which he did only to find her earthly remains because she had fallen asleep in the Lord.
As the story goes, with the help of a lion which helped him dig the grave, Zosimas buried Mary’s remains in the desert.
I find that this time of social distancing which we are experiencing today is Providential in timing with the Orthodox Christian calendar as we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt on this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent.
How we learn from St. Mary
The example of Mary should remind us that union with Jesus is our ultimate purpose in life. We may not have access to worship in a church building, the Mystery of the Eucharist, the counsel of a confessor or connection with a faith community; yet, we can be “in Christ.”
Through the blessing of digital technology, we can participate online in prayerfulness with the liturgies and services. I wonder if Christ is not telling us through the current crisis to forego any forms of idolatry to which we may cling — including religion as an end in itself. And the Church Fathers warn us against such forms of idolatry.
Perhaps the message that we are being told in no uncertain terms by Jesus is this: You are not called to worship a creed, a book, a liturgy, icons, a building or a religious practice in and of themselves. You are called to worship Me.
If we are good stewards of this time of urban desert, which is permeated with the seeking of Him, then and only then can we reach the sanctification and union with God that St. Mary of Egypt did.
Then, when this time of spiritual drought ends, we will know evermore He who is the true oasis in the desert of our lives.
About the author
John G. Panagiotou is a theologian and scholar who holds professorships at Erskine Theological Seminary and Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary where he serves as liaison officer to the seminary president.