We easily become creatures of habit, turning habit into tradition and thinking such tradition must never be altered once it has been put in place. Reality, however, requires us to act in accordance to the way things are today, not the way they were in the past. We must deal with the problems of the present and not just assume the solutions of the past will work for us today. We should, of course, learn how people dealt with problems, discerning the wisdom of their solutions, and see if they can be adapted to our present circumstances, but we must not feel as if we are bound by them. For, as Jesus put it, we must not put new wine in old wineskins (cf. Mk. 2:22).
This is why liturgy changes. This is why discipline changes. This is why doctrine develops. This is why the church is a living faith. Time moves on. The church must is not bound to the disciplines of the past; it must continue to live and thrive with the Spirit of life. Trying to strangle that Spirit only hurts the church. The church must be practical.
If there is an emergency situation going on, such as a pandemic, the church and its leaders must direct the church to deal with that situation with wisdom and grace, instead of expecting the church and its members to act as if there was no ongoing problem which must be addressed. Thus, in a pandemic, if a bishop expects the faithful to act as if there were no pandemic, if they think that their liturgical obligations should not be dispensed, they demonstrate a lack of wisdom. Church history demonstrates that throughout time, such obligations have changed. They should continue to change to follow the needs of the day. Bishops should not act like the time during a pandemic is similar to a time without one; they should not think they are being good pastors if they tell the laity that they must continue to show up at Sunday liturgies as if there was no deadly disease spreading across the world (and in churches themselves). Making the faithful risk not only their lives, but everyone they come in contact with, by telling them they must continue to fulfill Sunday obligations, is putting an new wine in old wineskins; the only thing which will happen is the wineskin will burst. People will stop listening to the bishops (following their conscience), and the very bishops who thought they were being good shepherds will have found they have caused their flock to go away.
But it is not just bishops, it is not just clergy, who need to learn how to be practical. We all do. Our own private devotions can often get in the way of Christ’s expectations for us. Such devotions can be good, but we must remember, they are relative goods, and we must not absolutize them so as to ignore what is happening around us. Thus, St. John Cassian, in one of the sayings recorded of his in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, recounted how desert monks knew that various ascetical practices, such as fasting, should give way to charity and hospitality when they had visitors:
Abba Cassian related the following: ‘The holy Germanus and I went to Egypt, to visit an old man. Because he offered us hospitality we asked him, “Why do you not keep the rule of fasting, when you receive visiting brothers, as we have received it in Palestine?” He replied, “Fasting is always to hand but you I cannot have with me always. Furthermore, fasting is certainly a useful and necessary thing, but it depends on our choice while the law of God lays it upon us to do the works of charity. Thus receiving Christ in you, I ought to serve you will [sic. with] all diligence, but when I have taken leave of you, I can resume the rule of fasting again. For ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, but when the bridegroom is taken from them, then they will fast in that day.’”’ (Mark 2:19-20).
The desert monks normally engaged a strict fast throughout the year. It was a part of their nature, a part of their self-discipline. However, they realized fasting had a limit; it was not an absolute good, but a tool. Charity towards others was more important. Showing hospitality to guests was more important. When they had guests, they knew that they should not be so concerned about fasting, but when their guests had left, they could return to their normal fasting regiment.
We might not be bishops, or clergy, having to pastor the church. We might not be monks or nuns practicing asceticism. But we have our own habits, our own practices, which often do us good but which we might have to do without to meet the needs of a given day. We must realize that when we come face to face with a new situation, with new people who, in their own way, represent Christ to us, we must be willing to alter our habits and deal with them as we would deal with Christ. We might like to rest at night, but what would we do if we saw a starving person come to our door, a person we could easily help? Would we tell them to go away? If they came to our door when our favorite program was on, would we tell them to wait? We must remember, Christ said, what we do to the least among us, we do to him. Would we tell Christ to sit back and wait for us until we are done watching television? Would we tell Christ to not be worried, we will feed him, when we are ready in our own good time? Would we mistreat Christ in that manner, telling him we want to focus on our own wants and needs first? If we truly love Christ, if we follow after him, we would not. We must be willing to adapt to the times, to do good, to follow the good, instead of our own private desires. Once the situation changes, we can always return to our old ways.
This, of course, is also true in accordance to our own spiritual practices: if, for example, we prefer to receive communion on the tongue, but find it is dangerous due to a pandemic, we should bend our will and receive by the hand – an ancient way of receiving communion, or by separate spoons (in those traditions which use spoons). When the pandemic is over, things can return to the way they were. Likewise, we might not like social distancing, we might not like having to wear masks, and indeed, we might miss the sign of peace. However, when we go to church, we must make do with the situation. We must do what we can for our neighbor. If we care for them, if we want them to be at peace, it is better to separate from them and lessen the chance of harming them. If we care about our souls, we will consider our actions carefully and act in such a way to benefit our neighbor, for then, we are showing them hospitality, and in doing, we are welcoming Christ as well. If we do not, we risk the opposite, of casting Jesus aside, and suffering the consequence of our negligence and lack of concern for our neighbor. Is this not one of the lessons we should learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan? If we want to receive God’s blessings, we put others, and their needs first, even if it means we forgo our normal activities. The desert fathers understood this. The saints understood this. But do we?
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 113 [Cassian Saying 1].
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