Will the Church go “online” due to quarantine?
Now when many are forced to pray online, the question arises – is it necessary to return to temples? Maybe, the time has come for the Church to "keep up to date"?
The current situation of strict quarantine, when believers in many countries are deprived of the opportunity to attend temples and participate in divine services, has led to the forced transfer of religious activity online – people are praying at home, watching the broadcasts of divine services, answering "Lord have mercy!” “Let us pray to the Lord!” coming from the speakerphones.
Zealous priests invite you to gospel talks on Skype or other software applications that provide conference calls. The Web explains how to consecrate the branches of the willow or Easter cakes on their own, without leaving the house.
This situation is extremely painful for Orthodox believers and they react to it in different ways. Some are determined to neglect the quarantine requirements, even though the virus has become known to strike pious bishops, priests and monks as much as anyone else. But there is another extreme position – some are ready to welcome religious life going online, seeing in it the future of the Church, belittling the physical presence of Christians in the temple and even the Sacraments themselves, requiring this presence. There are statements in the network by some priests that "the Christian worldview has turned out to be completely integrated into the cult reality"; religious scholars even tell us about some virtual "spiritual communion”.
When can we get to the city of Madrid and the Prado Museum? Probably, never. And here you can comfortably sit in an armchair and go on an excursion.
Indeed, education, communication, art, science – everything has gone online, people even organize virtual concerts, each playing in their apartment, museums arrange virtual tours, the tendency towards the general virtualization of our life has intensified – and this has its own conveniences. When can we get to the city of Madrid and the Prado Museum? Probably, never. And here you can comfortably sit in an armchair and go on an excursion.
If virtual reality is a general trend, and almost everything goes into electronic space (for example, the paper press is practically dying), is it not natural for the Church to follow people where they have gone – online?
After all, until recently our Bibles and prayer books have been exclusively paper, and today we read both the Scripture and prayers from mobile phones – and this does not seem to us wicked. There is nothing terrible about accepting the achievements of technology and turning them to the service of the Church. After all, it was the Church that once dissiminated the advanced information technology of its time - writing and then printing.
What can I say to that?
It is impossible for the Orthodox Church to go into virtual space; the current situation is forced and deeply unnatural for the Church. I myself refrain from attending the temple these days – I do not know if I am a carrier of the virus and do not want to cause illness or death for our priests or parishioners. But such a situation is deeply abnormal, it can be tolerated, given its fundamental temporality, but it is impossible to deny its abnormality.
It is impossible for the Orthodox Church to go into virtual space; the current situation is forced and deeply unnatural for the Church.
For Protestant communities that focus on informational activity – reading the Scriptures and preaching – it is easier to go online. But the Orthodox Church – and in this respect it is much closer to the Bible – is, above all, a Eucharistic gathering. Reading the Scripture and listening to sermons, praying with brothers and sisters on the other side of the screen is good and right in itself. But this lacks the main thing – the communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
The Lord said: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6: 53,54)
Baptism requires the personal presence of the baptized, the Eucharist requires the personal presence of the partaker. Our Lord was incarnated, not virtualized. He calls us to a real, not a virtual feast. And He is really present in the Eucharist – so that this is impossible to broadcast over the Net. “Come, eat,” not “connect”.
Moreover, the very convenience of a virtual presence — you are sitting in an armchair in front of a monitor, or lying on a sofa with a tablet or smartphone — which is attractive in many other cases, destroys something very important in spiritual life. A reverent awe-inspiring presence before God, of which forefather Jacob once said: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:16, 17)
Our Lord was incarnated, not virtualized. He calls us to a real, not a virtual feast. And He is really present in the Eucharist – so that this is impossible to broadcast over the Net. “Come, eat,” not “connect”.
The Orthodox Church is the house of God and the gate of heaven where we, in the invisible presence of Angels and Saints, worship Him who is invisible but certainly is with us. “Let all mortal flesh keep silent and stand with fear and trembling.” I repeat: stand with fear and trembling, and not lie on the couch.
This, of course, does not mean that no spiritual life is possible on the Internet, but it is always a sign of some extreme circumstances. I guess you can confess on Skype if you are locked in an infectious diseases hospital, nobody is allowed in to see you, you are not sure whether you will survive, and your smartphone is the only window left to the outside world. But in less dramatic circumstances, this would be inappropriate. You can pray in front of the monitor, responding to exclamations coming from the speakerphones in case you are unable to come to the temple.
In some cases, this is possible outside the epidemic. For example, a person is ill and bedridden, cannot leave a sick relative, is on a business trip, in a country where there are no Orthodox churches, or some other insurmountable circumstances prevent him from coming to the temple. But it is always a tragic and abnormal situation.
We must be aware that the current situation is exceptional, temporary and deeply regrettable. We must not change our perceptions of the Sacraments and church life so that it seems more normal.
The epidemic will go away, the quarantine will end, and we will return to the temples. And on the Internet, we’ll continue to go to museums and exhibition halls.
God help us!