The Value of Nothing: Lessons from COVID-19 on Silence and Stillness
I’ve always admired the early monks and nuns of the desert literature. Not because they discovered ways of escaping the reality of paying taxes. Not only because their words were inspirational and their prayer transformative. And not primarily because they withstood the power of the empire and the test of time. But because they prevail as symbols of an alternative course of action. While their ideal is often mythologized or romanticized, even manipulated and exploited in many church circles, it nevertheless remains an image of the value of silence. Of doing less or doing nothing. Of wordlessness and inconspicuousness. Of praying instead of producing. Quite simply: of being.
In contrast, the global pandemic of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has exposed a great deal about priorities and weaknesses as a society—an extraordinarily complex community, a tangle of political, financial, health, educational, and religious institutions that affect every person worldwide. Each of these institutions is today desperately trying to come up with answers on how to restore life and save the world as we knew these. No one is immune, even the “asymptomatic”—even the most powerful nations, the most secure economies, and the most righteous believers.
Here in America, our Orthodox hierarchs have largely demonstrated solemn leadership. They have heeded the scientific research, adhered to state regulations, and advocated compassion for their parishes and congregations. On the level of the Assembly of Bishops, they have manifested and articulated an unusual and exceptional solidarity, displaying an admirable sense of unity and urgency conspicuously absent in these times of discord and division.
But what if our bishops said nothing “religious” but only focused on serving their people? What if our priests did nothing “liturgical” but only revealed absolute oneness with their parishioners? What if I didn’t write these lines? Why are we so afraid not simply of not having the right answers, but of not having any answers at all? Why are we so obstinate in mandating that our faithful stay home and watch a live-stream—with all the experts explaining how this cannot possibly replace worship—when we clergy feel somehow compelled by our clerical uniqueness or otherness to observe the letter of the law? Why do we spend so much effort and time defining the incorruptibility of the Body and Blood of Christ instead of defending the safety and well-being of the church as the Body and Blood of Christ? Would the entire structure collapse if clergy, too, were obliged to share in the sacrifice, while their bishop assigned the services to one (or different) churches?
Why are we so allergic to the value of silence and stillness, to the power of prayer and inactivity? Perhaps because they are uncomfortable and inconvenient. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers recognized that silence and stillness can feel like death. I spend my daily exercise walking through my neighborhood cemetery. Remembrance of death is a vital technique, a daily and tangible reminder of imperfection. Living life to the full comes only when we face the ultimate questions, namely meaninglessness and death. If we want to come out of life seasoned and polished, we need simply think of death. There is hardly an outwardly sense of perfection in nursing homes and hospitals filled with those stricken by COVID-19. Still, most of us tend to deny the relationship between death and stillness by entering a whirl of activity—of frantic purchasing or panic commotion—that ostensibly renders death either improbable or else impossible, or at the very least controllable. This is why I was surprised when the monks of Mount Athos announced they were holding vigils in light of the coronavirus. Wasn’t this what they are supposed to do?
The early desert taught its inhabitants what to let go of and what to hold on to—ultimately, how to share instead of being separate. “Sitting in the cell” was their equivalent to “self-isolation” and “social distancing.” It was there that they learned what mattered on earth, but also what mattered for heaven. It was there that they recognized how even alleged religious and ritual priorities could become a pretext for avoiding the inner work of the heart. It was there that they discovered how intimacy and communion are grounded in silence and stillness. It was there that they understood and embraced their spiritual temptations and tensions—that they had to stop defending or justifying themselves and stop judging or blaming others.
People have been wondering what sort of an Easter we can possibly celebrate this year. In the Sinaite desert, one hermit spoke of “a small resurrection before the final resurrection.” Perhaps our battle with the novel coronavirus corresponds to “a small death” before the final curtain falls. Silence and stillness resemble the moment when the scene from a film freezes, and we ask ourselves: Whom did we feed, whom did we clothe, whom did we visit? When I had the chance, how did I respond, react, or reciprocate? Silence and stillness represent a singular opportunity for reckoning with our self, with external obligation, and with power. And at any given moment of reckoning, will our greatest regret be that we didn’t make it to church? The power of the resurrection is not the word of a jubilant victory, but the icon of an empty tomb. Silence and stillness reflect the value of nothing, revealing that nothing matters more than the way we attend to and tend to “the least of these.” They are the skills whereby we acknowledge that what is going on in the world (and in the world of others) matters. And that’s something.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.