From the other end of the line, the voice of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, as always, conveys serenity and wisdom. Either in person or from a distance, his presence is soothing in any tough situation, but especially now, during the current crisis sparked by the unprecedented global coronavirus pandemic. Like so many others, the head of the Orthodox Church of Albania is in self-confinement, his daily life drastically changed.
“Here in Albania, we too are adjusting to the government’s orders and the instructions of the medical authorities. After a discussion with the members of the Holy Synod, we promptly adopted the necessary decisions relating to the liturgical, educational, catechetical and charitable ministries of our Church. What I have learned over the course of a long lifetime is to ask for God’s help to look for new ways out of the abyss of hardship,” he tells Kathimerini.
Can the compulsory social distancing that has been imposed on citizens be compared in some ways to a temporary state of monasticism?
It is worth recalling that the Orthodox monasticism to which you refer is inspired by three basic principles: obedience, chastity and poverty. One element that could be drawn from this great tradition, for example, would be obedience: obedience to those responsible for dealing with the crisis, obedience to the experts working on treatments and research, obedience to the “stay at home” order. Let our home become our hermitage. It is not easy. The danger of conflict and strife from the restrictions is ever-present. As we remain at home, let us not become isolated. Let us support one another with words, with an affectionate silence, with a cheerful disposition.
We must take care, however, not to confine our interest to our own family. Many people face greater difficulties. Modern electronic media enable us to be near them. We need to engage in the struggle to banish the fear that hangs over us. Finally, let us become more moderate in our daily lives. Your mention of monasticism reminds me of an admirable definition from “The Philokalia”: “A monk is one who, having been separated from all, is also united to all.”
How can we fight the continuous state of fear that has come with the pandemic?
Fear is indeed a very dangerous counselor; it seeps into our thoughts and our volition in many different ways, sapping our endurance. I believe that the syndrome of fear can be countered by faith in the God of love and by practicing love in action. As St John said, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). As Christians, we believe that the sense of the presence of God frees us from all fear: “Yea, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me,” declares the Psalmist. And the poet Ioannis Polemis adds: “Fear not the one who based his hope on faith; in life I saw him do battle, but always I saw him invincible.”
Even if we are able to overcome our fear of the virus, how do we deal with the anxiety about the economy and the future, particularly as we were just beginning to feel hopeful about a recovery?
First of all, by not letting such gloomy thoughts take over entirely. The issue obviously exists. This pandemic is not only spreading disease, but it is also having broader economic impacts. It is particularly catastrophic for countries that have recently come through a financial crisis, like Greece, and countries with limited economies, like Albania. We hope that governments will make the right decisions. The richer countries ought to help the poorer, where economic and social problems that stem from the crisis will be more acute. The global wealth-holders – multinational corporations, groups, organizations, foundations, individuals – need to act with generosity.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to be asking us to take a fresh look at the values and the humanism we boast having. “Humans are a single family,” it seems to be telling us. With regard to treatments and dealing with a new outbreak of the pandemic, no country can succeed on its own. The same principle should apply to overcoming the economic crisis. This, of course, being undermined by various individual, social, and national interests. Personally, I believe that the truth has its own dynamic, both in science and in social life, and it will prevail.
What about the day after?
The two world wars brought about radical changes in mankind, upsetting alliances, ambitions, economic theories. I think that this new unprecedented global war will also play a role in the rethinking of our values and priorities. World War II was followed by a series of declarations of human rights, with an emphasis on the individual. It is obvious that what are needed now are declarations of human obligations regarding the huge responsibilities for the destruction of the environment and climate change.
Has this ordeal helped awaken a sense of solidarity? If so, will it endure?
Great disasters bring out amazing virtues that surge forth from the depths of the conscience of our people, qualities such as decency, solidarity and self-sacrifice. You see, the DNA of our people, influenced by the Christian faith, has concentrated unique values. I have repeatedly observed that the real enemy of any form of peace is not war but egocentrism – personal, racial, ethnic and religious. And the antidote to this is solidarity inspired by love – the fulfillment of which was revealed by Christ. The flowering of solidarity is a hopeful phenomenon. Now, how long it will endure I do not know. I am however persuaded that we all have a duty to strive to promote the universal Christian values.
Is faith an effective antidote to fear?
I ponder on how the pandemic caught the world’s biggest countries unawares. They had not foreseen this invisible, powerful enemy. I am convinced that only a universal mobilization of solidarity will defeat the pandemic and its side effects. The semantics of humanism needs to be re-examined. We need a form of humanism that respects the unity of the individual and of the whole human race, and that ensures justice for all, without exception. The ideal for the continuance of humankind cannot consist of the right of the strongest and the globalization of technology or the economy, but rather the globalization of solidarity. And I think that the contribution of religion is crucial in this regard.
In troubled times, the soul spontaneously seeks refuge from pain, seeks protection and consolation, in religious faith. Those of us who believe know that the human being is not the author of him or herself. There is a Supreme Reality. For Christians He is the inconceivable and yet truly existing Being, the Triune God of love. His relationship with humankind is unchanging, and He has given us the right to ask for His help at all times and especially in times of danger and sorrow.
Religious experience is innate in humankind. Just as water exists in all living organisms in different forms, so religion exists in all the civilizations of the world. It exists in its familiar form, or like water vapor in the atmosphere of indifferent or non-religious communities. The faith that seems to emerge from the depths of the Christian consciousness will certainly help people deal with the fear generated by the pandemic. Those of us who have the gift of faith should take care to nurture it, with humility, study and prayer, asking, like the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith.” Faith is the most effective antidote to any kind of fear. And let us not forget to pray for those who have difficulty in believing. That is a duty of love and respect towards their search.
As Easter approaches, let us try to live more profoundly the Christian experience that leads from the pain of the Cross and the anguish of the Passion to the jubilation of the Resurrection. Therefore, a Blessed Easter with the resurrectional light of peace and hope in our hearts.