Ever since the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown there has been a lot of talk about the normal and the new normal. People have been wondering when (if ever) we will return back to the normal. There are also those who warn that we need to be ready for and embrace the new normal.
These sentiments are understandable; we have, after all, gone through a rather challenging period as the nation, as the state, as the parish, as each family, and personally. And, as of this writing, the pandemic is not yet over. The virus is here to stay till (literally) Kingdom come. Even with a vaccine, it will not simply evaporate.
However, this notion of returning to the normal or getting used to the new normal is misguided at best, and misleading (leading in the wrong direction) at worst. Instead of staying in the present and dealing with what we have right here and right now, we yearn for the things that used to be or for the things that we wish to be. We want to normalize things as quickly as possible because that gives us a sense of comfort and security.
We covet the normal because, frankly, we romanticize the past. Whatever our age, our best memories are in the past (and the future best memories will also be in the past one day). As are the worst memories, but we tend to remember the best, not the worst. We tend to minimize the negative moments of the past experiences and highlight the positive ones.
That family vacation in Florida last year hit your wallet like nothing else, you got sunburnt the first day so bad you had to stay inside for three days, the kids were all over the place, you couldn’t watch your Yankees because the TV was broken. But all you remember is the clear and warm ocean water, swimming with dolphins, having a blast with your kids, and taking romantic sunset walks along the beach with your spouse.
It’s just human nature to look back at the good, old, normal days with nostalgia. At the same time, those calling to normalize the new situation, may or may not have sinister agenda, but the idea is simple – accept things as they are because we need that dose of normal. The current situation is disruptive, unsettling, exhausting, and frustrating, it would feel so good to just have a brain cramp and return to or invent the (new) normal.
Even with all the health risks removed (which at this point is either moderate or high or somewhere else, depending on which “news” channel happens to be on), going back to normal, or hoping for the new normal, only works if there was such a thing as normal pre-lockdown. There can be made a pretty good argument that normal is an illusion because we live in an ever-changing and ever-evolving world. The only normal was, is, and always will be change. What happened in March 2020 is like normal on steroids – mind-boggling change.
For the Orthodox Christians, likewise, normal is a foreign concept. Before I go any further, I just need to put in this disclaimer: I am talking about Orthodox Christians and not Christians in general. As much as we may believe in the same things, there are, sometimes significant, differences between different Christian denominations. As so, I cannot speak for others.
Thus, for the Orthodox Christians there is no such thing as normal, at least not yet, not in this world. “My Kingdom is not of this world,” we hear Jesus declare to Pilate (John 18:36). Through the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension Jesus Christ made His Kingdom not only accessible to us, but unequivocally proclaimed that we belong there with Him. Even though we strive for the life in His Kingdom, we have a job right now as well.
This life is not a throwaway, it’s not just a prologue into the eternal life. This life is part of the eternal life; in this life we already experience God’s Kingdom. “For where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). And where God is, there is His Kingdom. And more than that, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20). We are created in the image and likeness of God Himself (Genesis 1:26); His Kingdom is within us because He has blessed us with it. We bring this Kingdom wherever we go, wherever we witness to the Gospel of Christ with our everyday thoughts, words, and actions.
The Kingdom of God is made up of individuals, both here on earth and there in heaven. And these individuals are gathered together in worship with one mouth and one heart. It’s impossible to be a Christian on your own, in the same way you are not a loner in the Kingdom. Everyone is together in the presence of God. Hence, the Kingdom of God is characterized by our relationship with Him and each other. It’s not simply about our feelings for one another, but a real, down to earth relationships.
Therefore, any talk about normal for the Orthodox Christians, has to be done in the context of the Kingdom. How do we resemble it here and now? In the same way it is resembled there and always – together. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons having one Being, the Holy Trinity. We resemble God’s Trinitarian life in communion, both with Him and with each other.
Greek word for the church is ecclesia, which means “gathering or assembly of the people.” As in, physical gathering. As comfortable as live-streaming can be, some guys praying in church and a bunch of others watching at home is not church. When we are gathered in worship of the one, true God, we are in His Kingdom, He is with us, and we are one Church.
This is not the first pandemic that has shut down businesses, locked the people in their homes with masks on, and limited the church services. Something very similar happened just a hundred years ago with the Spanish flu. Yes, churches and businesses were closed, and people were ordered to wear masks, and there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. And Spanish flu was about 2.5 times deadlier than the current virus.
It’s perfectly understandable to feel anxiety and be very cautious right now. But is living in fear the new normal? Or maybe we should go back to the normal ways of February 2020? Both options are irrelevant because there is no normal. There is only now, and now we have sacrificed a lot more than some of us could handle, in order to help flatten the curve and prevent overpopulation of the hospitals. Now is still filled with uncertainty. But, that’s all we have.
We can’t continue living in fear because that would wreak havoc on our physical, spiritual, and mental health. We can’t throw all caution to the wind and pretend that the virus is gone. But we can keep making smart decisions, without pining for the non-existent (new) normal, while continuing to develop our relationship with God and one another in the only place God and we are – now.
Yours in the Lord,