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Jean-Claude Larcher on the origin, nature and meaning of the current pandemic (1)

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Interview with the famous French theologian, patrologist, philosopher and writer Jean-Claude Larcher; one of the remarkable modern Orthodox theologians, doctor of philosophy and theology, professor of philosophy, researcher of the patriarchal heritage. He is the author of many books in which he explores the problems of health, disease and healing in the light of the Orthodox spiritual tradition. His book Therapy of Mental Illness has been translated into Bulgarian (Komunitas, 2013). Jean-Claude Larcher is the author of three monographs on the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor and is considered one of the best connoisseurs of his spiritual heritage.

The author of the interview, Archpriest Zhivko Panev, is a professor of canon law and history of local churches at the Orthodox Theological Institute “St. Sergius ”in Paris and head of a Paris parish.

Father Zhivko Panev’s conversation with Jean-Claude Larcher was awarded first prize in the competition for Christian journalism entitled “Tell the truth” in the interview category of pravoslavie.bg.

You were one of the first to develop a theological understanding of disease, suffering, and medicine. Your book, The Theology of the Disease, published in 1991, has been translated into many languages, and will soon be translated into Japanese in connection with the Kovid-19 epidemic. You also published a book, A Reflection on Suffering, “God Does Not Want Human Suffering,” which has also been published in many countries. At the beginning I will ask you what is your summary of the epidemic that is happening to us at the moment?

It does not surprise me: for thousands of years there have been about two major epidemics in each century, and several others with a smaller scale. However, they are becoming more and more frequent, and the concentration of population in our urban civilization, the movement favored by globalization, as well as the numerous and fast modern means of transport, easily turn them into pandemics. The current epidemic, therefore, was predictable and declared by many epidemiologists, who did not doubt its occurrence, knowing only the exact moment at which it would come and the form it would take. Surprisingly, some countries (notably Italy, Spain and France) lack training, which, instead of providing medical staff, hospital structures and the materials needed to meet this scourge, allowed hospital care to disintegrate and be exported (in China, like everything else) the production of medicines, masks, respirators, of which today there is an acute shortage.

Diseases have always been present in the history of mankind and there is no person who has not encountered them in his life. Epidemics are simply diseases that are highly contagious and, through their rapid spread, affect a large part of the population. The characteristic of the Kovid-19 virus is that it severely affects the respiratory system of the elderly and people weakened by other pathologies and that it has a high degree of infectivity, which quickly saturates the intensive care systems with a large number of people affected by the disease simultaneously in a short period of time. time.

The Orthodox Churches reacted in stages, with different speed and in different forms. What do you think about this?

It must be said that the different countries were not affected by the epidemic at the same time and to the same extent, and each local Church adapted its response to the development of the disease and to the measures taken by the respective state. In the most affected countries, the decision to suspend services was taken quickly, with only a few days to go. Because they did not provide for closure in such a short time, some Churches (such as the Russian Church) took measures to limit the possible contagion during the liturgy or the distribution of the sacred mysteries; today they are forced to urge the faithful not to come to church.

These various measures gave rise to controversy and even controversy among the clergy, monastic communities, the faithful and theologians. One of the first subjects of controversy was the decision of some churches to change the way of Eucharistic communion.

In this respect, a distinction must be made between two things: the circumstances surrounding the communion and the communion itself.

There may be a risk of infection through the “accompanying” circumstances of the communion: wiping the lips of each participant with the same towel (as is done with great persistence in some parishes of the Russian Church) or drinking after the communion, as is customary in The Russian church, a “drink” (a mixture of fresh water and wine) with the same glasses. For this reason, there should be no objection to the measures to use paper napkins in the first case and disposable cups in the second case.

As for the sacrament itself, a number of Churches have abandoned the traditional way of giving it to the faithful – to put it in the mouth with a holy spoon. Some Churches recommended pouring the contents of the spoon into the open mouth, keeping some distance from it, while others – such as the Russian Church – suggested disinfecting the spoon with alcohol after each participant or using disposable spoons, which were then used. to be burned.

I believe that no Church has admitted that the very Body and Blood of Christ, for which all prayers before and after communion recall being given “for the healing of soul and body,” may in themselves be a contagious factor. thought occurs only in one article – spread with the speed of a virus on the Internet [here Jean-Claude Larcher points to the article of Archimandrite Cyril Govorun “COVID-19 and Christian (or?) Dualism” with a link to the site public orthodoxy], the reason due to which I will quote – the article of Archimandrite Cyril Govorun, which is a collection of heresies).

But there are doubts about the spoon itself, and this is debatable, as some pay attention to the fact that it touches the mouths of the faithful, others consider above all the fact that because it is immersed in the Body and Blood of Christ, it is disinfected and protected from them. The latter note that the priests in the great churches, where among the faithful there are inevitably people suffering from various diseases, at the end of the Liturgy consume the rest of the Holy Gifts, without causing any infection. They also note that during the great epidemics of the past, priests gave communion to the infected faithful without infecting themselves. As for the latter, I do not have reliable information from historical documents. On the other hand, the comment that in his “Pidalion (collection of commentaries on the canons of the Orthodox Church) St. Nicodemus of Mount Athos (who lived in the second half of the eighteenth century) allows on the occasion of the 28th canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council” priests to make some changes in periods of plague “in the way the sacrament is taught to the sick,” by placing the holy Bread in a sacred vessel so that the dying and the sick can take it with spoons or something like that “,” the vessel and the spoons must they must then be placed in vinegar and the vinegar must be poured into a metal casting vessel or in some other possible way that is safe and canonical. ‘

This suggests that in his time (and probably even earlier) it was customary to give the sacrament through more vessels and spoons, which were then disinfected (due to its alcoholic degree and acidity, vinegar has antiseptic and antifungal properties (which, incidentally) , would be completely insufficient against Kovid-19.) It is this text, which is quoted in the leadership of the great Russian liturgist of the nineteenth century SV Bulgakov, served as an argument of the Russian Church for the decisions it took.

For my part, I think that one who has enough faith to partake of the trust with a spoon does not take any risk, and that the Churches that have made special decisions have done so at best, with the faithful in mind. -weak faith and doubts. In some ways, the Churches followed the recommendation of the Holy Apostle Paul, who says, “For the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak” (1 Cor. 9:22).

It should be remembered that the sacrament has no magical effect: as with all sacraments, grace is given in full, but receiving grace is proportional to the faith of the recipient (Greek fathers used the Greek word “analogia” to denote this proportionality). to such an extent that it is even said by the Apostle Paul and reminded in the prayers before communion that one who partakes unworthily can become mentally and physically ill (1 Cor 11: 27-31) or “eat and drink his conviction. “

In any case, every local Church is free to make, economically, all useful decisions in any extraordinary circumstance.

The second subject of controversy was the closure of churches and the interruption of liturgical worship.

First, it should be noted that most states did not order churches to be closed, but only restricted access to a few people and visits to isolated individuals; but at the same time the quarantine measures made any movement and visit impossible.

In most of the local Churches, however, the Liturgy continues with the priest, a singer, possibly a deacon and an assistant (except in Greece, where it was forbidden even in the monasteries, which is paradoxical, given that this is a country with a strong Orthodox identity in which the Church enjoys official recognition by the state).

Some extremists have developed conspiracy theories, seeing behind the decisions of states the will of some influential groups to destroy Christianity. They drew a parallel with the period of persecution from the first centuries and called on Christians to resist, citing the martyrs as an example. These positions are clearly exaggerated, and the parallel with the persecution is malicious.

Christians are not asked to renounce their faith and worship another god. The churches are not closed and the restrictive measures for visiting them are temporary. States have done their only duty to protect the population by taking the only measure they have – quarantine – to limit the infection, to take the best possible care of the sick and to limit the number of deaths.

I will add that the church is not a magical place, completely protected from the outside world, where one could not be infected by any disease, especially if it is highly contagious. Indeed, in ancient times, during epidemics, the course of action was different: people gathered in churches and processions increased. What is forgotten is that churches have become hospitals for the dying. Thus, during the great epidemics known to the Byzantine Empire, it was not uncommon for hundreds of corpses to be found in churches.

The church has a duty to protect the health and lives of its faithful, but also to protect those they may infect outside of it, and not to complicate the work of health workers who, if the system is overloaded, risk not being able to they take care of everyone, but to choose, in other words, to abandon and leave the most vulnerable to die. Furthermore, if there are many dead at the same time, they can no longer be provided with a burial: we all sadly saw a convoy of military trucks in Italy drive dozens of dead directly to the crematorium, with no possibility of family or religious presence. on a conveyor belt thousands of corpses and only after a few weeks the families can come to pick up the ashes of their deceased relatives from the pallets with piled urns.

All the communities of the monasteries (including those of Mount Athos) have decided to close their doors and thus protect visitors and worshipers from mutual infection, as well as to protect their members, which allows them to continue to celebrate the Liturgy and perform one of their main tasks. which we need extremely much in this period: to pray for the world.

The fact that communion has become impossible for some time poses a serious problem for some faithful. In this, too, some extremists see the successful outcome of some anti-Christian conspiracy…

I do not share these conspiracy theories because they suspect people and organizations until, as I have already said, epidemics return cyclically to the history of mankind; after all, I think the devil has a hand in this epidemic and its aftermath. I’ll tell you why in the continuation of our conversation.

Several things can be said about deprivation of communion.

Those who are accustomed to partaking of the sacrament every week (or more often) and receive great strength from the sacrament in their lives suffer greatly in this situation, and this is understandable. As a consolation, I will remind you that St. Mary of Egypt, whose holy life we ​​solemnly celebrate on the fifth Sunday of Lent, partook of communion only once in her life, just before her death; and that in her time (this is recalled in the Life we ​​read in church on the occasion of this feast) there was a custom for the monks living in a quinoa to retire alone to the desert and return to the monastery only on Maundy Thursday to take communion. We can also recall that many fathers living in the desert partook of communion at most once a year.

Due to the circumstances we are forced in the same way to move away from communion during this Lent, and so we can, thanks to the quarantine in our apartment (which in our world of constant movement and activities outside for many people has become as strict as a desert) little of their experience.

We can derive some benefits from this. First of all, today, especially in the diaspora, communion has become frequent (while, on the contrary, a few decades ago, it was rare in Orthodox countries) and to such an extent that there is a risk of trivialization.

A few years ago, I spoke to Bishop Atanasij Jevtic about this, and he told me that it is useful to fast from time to time in communion in order to rediscover the meaning of its importance and to approach it once we have really felt the desire and need. In addition, we can recall that the effects of the sacrament do not disappear once we receive it. They are proportional to the quality of our receptivity, and this receptivity has to do not only with our readiness for the sacrament, but also with our attitude toward it after we have received it.

To help us, the Church offers us a series of prayers before and after communion. I know many spiritual fathers who encourage their spiritual children to read the prayers every day after communion until the next communion and thus keep the awareness of “the precious gifts that have been given to us” by continuing to update the grace they have brought us.

What can be said about the impossibility to participate in the liturgical services?

I think it is possible to celebrate them at home in the intended way, in the absence of a priest, reading the Typics instead of the Liturgy, although, of course, this cannot completely replace it, because the main thing is missing: the Holy Sacrifice. which can only be performed by a priest. Many faithful have at home the liturgical texts (more precisely, the Little Euchology, which is intended precisely for home service, in case there is no priest); if they do not have them, most of the texts can be found on the Internet. The practice of Jesus’ prayer can also be intensified: on Mount Athos, small communities or hermits living in the wilderness who do not have a priest replace the services with a number of prayers to Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints.

St. Ephraim of Katunakia said, referring to St. John Chrysostom: “People in the world who do not have the opportunity to go to church on either Saturday or Sunday can at the same time turn their souls into an altar by saying the Prayer.”

In Orthodox countries, it is also possible to watch the Liturgy live on television or on the Internet, as many elderly or sick people who are unable to move usually do. This does not replace actual participation with a physical presence in the community, but one can at least join the ministry and experience a sense of belonging and community action at the same time as the church community, which extends beyond the visible and beyond the people present. is called the “society of saints”).

In a recent interview, Metropolitan John Ziziulas of Pergamum, condemning the decision of some churches to close churches and suspend worship, argued that when the Liturgy is not celebrated, there is no Church. What do you think about that question?

His position is understandable, given his personalist theology, which gives precedence to relational theology and therefore identifies the Liturgy more with the synaxis (assembly of the faithful) than with the Eucharistic sacrifice itself.

In fact, the Liturgy continues to be celebrated in all Churches (in monasteries, but also in many churches with a small number of people). And that is what is important. The value of the Liturgy does not depend on the number of participants present, nor does the value and scope of the Holy Sacrifice depend on the number of Liturgies celebrated. When hundreds of thousands of churches celebrate the Liturgy at the same time, they update (this is the meaning of the word “anamnesis”, which means the heart of the Liturgy) one sacrifice of Christ.

If there is only one Liturgy celebrated, from only one of the local Churches, then this single Sacrifice will be performed with the same scope, because it extends over the whole universe. As for the faithful, it should be recalled that the Liturgy of St. Basil, which we celebrate in these weeks of Lent, provides for their possible absence, as it contains a prayer to God to remember “those who for good reasons are absent. “, Which in some way connects them with those present and with the grace given to them.

How to survive quarantine? This seems to create problems for our contemporaries.

We have the chance that the quarantine imposed by the state coincides in part with the “holy fortieth” [the French word quarantaine means “fortieth”] of Lent. According to tradition, we, the Orthodox, during this period limit our outings, entertainment and consumption; also, according to tradition, we take advantage of this time of calm and greater solitude to turn to ourselves, increase spiritual readings, and pray more. For all this we have the experience of previous years; we will only have to continue the effort for a few weeks.

In summary, quarantine is an appropriate occasion to exercise the hesychia dear to Orthodox spirituality, a state of loneliness and, above all, of external and internal peace, to rest in this way from the constant movement, from the noise and stress associated with normal living conditions, and to live again in our inner home, which the Hesychast fathers call the “dwelling place of the heart.”

Quarantine also allows the couple and children to be together more often than usual, and this is good for everyone. Undoubtedly, this does not always happen by itself, as some are not accustomed to a long life together, but this may be an opportunity to strengthen it in a positive direction.

However, this return to oneself and to married and family life must not turn into forgetting others. Almsgiving, which is part of the usual practices of fasting, can take the form of greater and regular help from acquaintances suffering from illness, loneliness or anxiety. Modern means of communication can help for this activity…

I will note that many of our fellow citizens are forced to invent sports activities in their apartment. During Lent we are used to making earthly bows. We can increase their number (the rule of the monks is to do at least 300 a day, and some of them do up to 3000!). Patriarch Pavel Srbski, who bowed every day until the age of 91 (only the knee wound managed to stop him), said, enlightened by his medical education and good health, that this was the best gymnastics one could take. does to keep fit…

Now, if you wish, let us return to more theological questions. First, to whom and to what can we attribute the current epidemic and diseases in general?

An epidemic is a contagious disease that spreads. Everything we say about the disease can be said about it, but its mass character, which is manifested in a given area, country or all over the world, as is the case now, raises additional questions. Not surprisingly, the theme of the Apocalypse, the end of the world, or the idea of ​​God’s punishment for human sins, with allusions to the flood (Gen. 19), to the plague that ravaged David’s camp after the census, reappeared in religious words. Kings 24:15) or the seven wounds of Egypt (Ex. 7:11). It is therefore necessary to make some clarifications.

Photo: Jean-Claude Larcher

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