We are in uncharted territories. The global spread of the coronavirus has halted life as we knew it as little as a few days ago. This is a highly contagious disease that has taken advantage of the impact of travel, commerce and global integration, thus creating a springboard for a pandemic. Every American has been impacted in ways that were unimaginable in our carefree lifestyle. Here in Massachusetts, which is not an outlier, schools are closed for three weeks, gatherings of more than 25 people are banned and restaurants can serve only takeout and delivery orders. Much of the workforce are operating out of their homes, and many public businesses have been shuttered. The idea is to create less density thereby reducing transmission. Just a week or two ago, who used terms such as “social distance” protocol and “distance or remote learning”? Up until two months ago, Corona to most of us was a beer!
In the Armenian community, the calendar for the next weeks has been virtually wiped clean. Our greatest behavioral attribute, our socialization, has been reduced to a dribble in one viral wave. Even communal worship has been impacted amid the fear of large gatherings, and some of our liturgical rituals have been on hold or significantly revised. Given the absence of approved antiviral medication, lack of a vaccine and the highly contagious nature with human interaction, the primary strategy for prevention is to maintain hygiene and limit interaction. The impact of the fear factor caused by the unknown cannot be underestimated. The prevention practices can ironically cause further stress and mental trauma. Isolation and anxiety about the possibility of infection are not good for anyone’s health. Managing the prevention protocols in a disciplined manner represents a new, but important challenge for all of us. This is the new reality. It is critically important that we take the recommended steps very seriously because our lack of discipline can impact others. Hoarding goods, for example, may limit the availability for someone in greater need. Acting in an irresponsible manner with social distancing or your personal health can put many vulnerable people unnecessarily at risk. We are in a state of emergency, but that does not mean martial law. Many actions are dependent on the self-discipline and strict adherence of each of us. Our ability to collectively and communally display adherence is a key element of defeating this disease. Fear takes over when our minds are not focused on what we can control. We must commit ourselves individually to take care of ourselves and others by adhering to the defined guidelines despite the rigors of conformance and inconvenience. For example, we need to pay particular attention to the elders in our families, especially those with compromised conditions. Young people who may show little symptoms may harm their loved elders unintentionally. This means a new way to show love and respect. It is difficult, but necessary. At a time when we need to be together to comfort and support each other, extended families and friends must find new long-distance ways to express their support. The government guidelines tell us what must be done but leave the relational and behavioral implications to each of us as individuals. That is where it belongs. This is what internalizing the challenge means. We all have to do our part.
In the Armenian community the most significant communal gathering vehicle is the church. Liturgical services, sacraments and social gathering create opportunities that we must regretfully forgo for our general health and for our communities. Thankfully, the church has taken some steps to address these concerns.
On March 16, His Holiness Karekin II issued a statement pertaining to services and communal worship: 1. To schedule regular open church hours, so believers can make individual visits, offer private prayers and receive Holy Communion. In Armenia, churches will be open from 9 am to 7 pm up to Holy Thursday on April 9. (Note: Other diocesan jurisdictions are asked to make provisions suitable to their own circumstances). 2. To conduct all celebrations of the Divine Liturgy behind closed doors without the participation of the faithful people and to broadcast online if possible.
These are certainly bold statements and do provide local dioceses the flexibility to go further. Despite the more traditional environment in Armenia, the virus is indiscriminate to cultural norms. With the churches open in Armenia, unnecessary risks are being taken. Armenia is in a state of emergency, and opening the churches everyday to the public seems inconsistent with that reality. Closer to home, Bishop Daniel of the Eastern Diocese issued updated guidance on the evening of March 17. Liturgical services will be conducted through Holy Thursday without the faithful, and only clergy will be allowed in the church. I interpret this at face value that “no one except clergy” means no deacons or other altar servers. This is very important. It is also critical that the clergy be limited to a single individual. I would further suggest that if the churches are closed to the public and streaming technology is available, that we limit the services to one central location (perhaps the Cathedral) to minimize the number of priests in the public. These are difficult times, and the definition of “necessary” should be narrowly-tailored. We must challenge ourselves.
Karekin II has also been in consultation with Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia; they are responding to the crisis together. However, the initial communication from the Prelacy reflected some differences. In a communication dated March 16, for example, the Eastern Prelacy announced a “modified service for Lent” that will eliminate the post-service activities, but oddly stated that “those who are unable to join us” could participate via live stream. In the absence of a public update, it seems that churches were still open to the public with health-related guidelines (The last full update was published on March 12). The Eastern Prelacy has since updated its position and canceled the Wednesday evening Compline service on the day of with an on-camera announcement by Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian. Nevertheless, this all illustrates the necessity of clear and frequent communication during these dynamic times.
Let’s address the issue of adjustments and sacrifices for a moment. Each of us is being asked to make immediate changes in our lifestyle. They are clearly significant but should be looked at in the context of real impact. The loss of any human life is tragic. Fortunately, it is expected that this will be contained to a small percentage. Another somewhat larger group will contract the virus, but their immune system will contain and eliminate the threat to them. A majority will deal with the prevention and containment measures that our society is employing. We must separate these items into hardships versus inconveniences. There is no doubt that financial losses either in business viability or employment are real. It is hoped that through assistance programs and shortening the duration of the crisis, that the losses will be minimized. For many, the social implications of self-imposed isolation, elimination of dining options and entertainment and other “convenience” items are challenging, but somewhat discretionary. We live in the greatest country in the world, where abundance is everywhere, and we confuse the words “need” versus “want.” It is a byproduct of sustained success. It also creates the possibility of being mentally unprepared for adversity. My grandparents’ generation didn’t have this downside being victims of genocide and living the rest of their lives thankful for survival. My parents were born into the Great Depression and went to a world war at an age when many of us partied in dorms. Adversity is a form of preparedness. My generation and the ones that followed have to learn how to ignore or absorb inconveniences and recognize them as such. Right now we need to jump into this challenge with a desire to be disciplined with the traditional American “can do” attitude.
We are about to learn of a new definition of “non-essential.” Thinking that it does not apply to oneself is selfish and irresponsible. Each of us must exercise unprecedented self-discipline. This is our contribution to the solution. We have no time for partisan bickering or inaction. We have been looking for something in this country to unify us for several years. Perhaps out of this tragedy, we can discover a silver lining of subordinating our egos and self-interest to discover sustainable commonality. Catastrophes can have that type of impact. Adversity has a way of opening new and enlightening doors.
One asset we all have attained more of in the last week is time. So how should we invest this newfound resource, or should we just hibernate for two to three months? We are quickly learning what is truly important. Let’s fill our days with productive activity that works within the constraints. Make that FaceTime or phone call to the elderly in your family. Those living alone are especially in need of our outreach. It will be helpful to them and to you. Use this time to establish alternative exercise routines either in the home or outside. Sedentary behavior is a risk of seclusion. We all have projects in our homes that have been waiting for our attention. I have identified two or three that I was “too busy” to attend to. Well funny how that changed. Spring is nearly here. Our yards await us for cleaning, pruning and planting. Most importantly, focus on those you live with. Moms and dads can spend precious time teaching and entertaining. All of us discover new ways to communicate that perhaps are not that “new.” Families will have dinner together again—a luxury lost in our hectic American life. We must view this as an opportunity to adjust and be better and stronger. When the virus is defeated (and it will), we must emerge stronger from what we have done and what we have learned. Prepare yourselves for that day by using this time we have been given to improve what is truly important in our lives.