A Russian Priest in New York Witnessed the 911 Terror Attacks and Is Now in the Pandemic Epicenter.
He Talks About His Experiences.
Protopriest Andrei Sommer, Dean of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in New York was a few miles away from the Twin Towers that were destroyed in a terror attack on September 11, 2001. Some 19 years later, he is in the epicenter of another tragedy—the coronavirus pandemic, which hit New York City worse than other American cities. The extremists of 2001 killed almost 3,000 people, the virus has not taken the lives of over twice as many Americans, and the number is growing. Fr Andrei talks to the “Foma” journal about then and now.
It’s Very Hard to Perform Divine Services Behind Closed Doors.
We are living in strange, even terrible, times. We observe the demands by authorities not to gather in large numbers, and so our churches are closed to parishioners. But divine services in our Synodal Cathedral continue on a daily basis, as they have since the 1950’s. We live-stream them on the internet so that people can at least pray along at home. Parishioners call us and ask to submit commemoration slips.
For me, it’s very hard to perform divine services behind closed doors. I hope that we can show the government that the Church is also a hospital, a spiritual one. Unfortunately, the non-Orthodox society cannot grasp that. Look at how many healers there are among the host of our saints, and we pray to them, ask their help, and receive it.
We must remember that church is not a place where sinners are punished for their sins. Here, people receive the grace of God, relief and healing—not just spiritual, but physical healing.
On September 11, the Enemy Was Apparent, Now We Fear the Unknown
If we compare today with September 11, 2001, our feelings are different. Then, New York was completely shut off, you couldn’t enter it. Now you still can.
But the main difference was that on September 11, the enemy was apparent, embodied in actual persons. Now we fear the unknown. We don’t know how long this will last, we don’t know if we can heal the sick. I think this uncertainty frightens people more than anything.
In 2001, everything was clear: after the acts of terror, the military came into the city and reconstruction began. Now we’re uncertain of the effects of the measures being taken. Of course, everyone is suffering, but New York is a special city. We have a large population and it is difficult to socially distance oneself. Hospitals are overfilled, people are panicking as they try to get tested for the coronavirus.
We try to console our parishioners, telling them to endure this situation. But if you just sit at home and watch TV, this will not be to the glory of God. Home prayer is important, maintaining peace in the family. We must strive towards prayer and mentally participate in divine services, and if possible, watch them on the internet, and maintain our piety.
Yes, many cannot physically attend church, but everyone can read the Psalter. Of course, it is difficult to make confession and partake of Holy Communion, but this, too, can be resolved. I think that everyone can turn to their spiritual father, who will either visit the person at his home, or invite him to a special window of time in the church. Of course, it is important that every person repent before God at home. This is part of our Christian life, a part we sometimes forget.
I would say that our main principle now is to await Holy Pascha and live by Great Lent. We must aim to concentrate on our spiritual lives, and ask ourselves: how have I been living throughout the year? Was I thankful for what the Lord gave me?
Unfortunately, the service that is least often requested by people is the moleben of gratitude. I think that now that we don’t have the opportunity to attend church, it is important for us to think of how often we forget to thank God for everything that we have in life.
Pascha is approaching, but we don’t know if churches will be open. We must remember how people celebrated Pascha during the days of persecution. For instance, Hieromartyr Ilarion (Troitsky) together with other imprisoned believers celebrated Pascha in the Solovki Prison, in an unfinished bakery, without vestments and with no Liturgy…
The Terrorist Acts Helped Develop True Empathy for My Neighbor
After the terrorist acts, people came to me who had lost their loved ones. Empathy with them was a very special and extremely important experience for me. I still remember how I performed three “absentee” funerals for Russians who died in the World Trade Center. It was horrible.
I recall how a woman parishioner approached me a few days later who had lost touch with her husband. They did not find his remains, but the woman knew that he was there. She asked that I perform a funeral without his body. I didn’t know then that a few months later, DNA testing was able to find certain of his remains, but it happened. We traveled to the cemetery, buried the urn, and I performed a pannikhida service again. How important it was to perform both the funeral and burial service, that is, to fulfill the Church’s bidding farewell to the reposed relative.
Naturally, the woman was grieving, but having found some remains of her loved one provided some consolation, since she was able to provide an Orthodox Christian burial for her husband. It even became easier for me. In some instances, remains were never found.
The spiritual and psychological consequences of that tragedy are still felt today. Every year, people remember the event, where they were during that moment, and they ask: could it happen again? I think that it was September 11, 2001, that helped me develop true empathy with my neighbor.
Today, thank God, none of our parishioners have succumbed to the virus. But they cannot attend services, and we sympathize with them.
Due to the pandemic, New York has prohibited open funerals, and only the closest family members can attend. I don’t doubt that I will have to bury someone in the coming months.
As I said, after September 11, the fear quickly faded—the military came to protect us. Now we face the unknown. Personally, I fear for my relatives, friends and parishioners. Yes, my older sons are adults, but two still live with us. We are quarantined in a small apartment, and try to spend time together.
People today need consolation more than ever before, and we try to support our parishioners. We say that everything will get better. Everything in our lives is temporary, but God is outside of time. In 2001, I became convinced as never before that the Lord is the Source of Love, He has mercy on us and He will not abandon us.
It Is Not the Dollar That Is Our Greatest Treasure
I think that we were unprepared for the fact that the coronavirus situation would develop so rapidly, and that hasty decisions would need to be made. In my opinion, we should think—even in an ecclesiastical sense—what is to come? Doctors will of course develop a vaccine, but what if another, more dangerous, virus appears in a year? How are we, and the Church, to deal with this?
We have an extraordinary situation that demands unusual measures, but I think that we need to learn a lesson, and realize that the dollar is not our greatest treasure, but love for one another.
I hope that we can establish a Church commission that in such situation would allow us to react immediately to help people. I think that clergymen, lawyers, and local authorities could participate. What if they close our churches again? Now in New York, you can go to a store and buy wine, but you can’t go to church… I think that a wise approach is required. Again, the Church is a spiritual hospital where people go for spiritual help. In moments of such tragedies such support is especially needed, and is in fact absolutely necessary.
We Are Experiencing the Podvig of Patience
There are various spiritual feats that lead to salvation: martyrdom, confession… We priests and flock can now perform the podvig of patience, and this also is our path towards salvation.
Many people have fallen ill, many have died, and we this reminds us of the frailty of our lives. The whole world changed in just two weeks. We lived our regular lives, concentrating on the material, and suddenly it turns out that the material has no meaning.
I think that we must ponder: what is the purpose of our lives? Let us concentrate on the eternal. Even if you live a hundred years, that is nothing in comparison with eternity.
I believe that the Lord will pour His mercy upon us for our patience, and that this situation will come to an end. But when it happens, we must never forget it.
I compare this with when someone is sleeping and someone turns the lights on. Startled, the person screws his eyes shut and turns away from the light. Now we must think about this and try to work on our soul, so that when the Lord takes it to Himself, it would receive the Divine Light and not turn away.