“How often have we asked the ageless questions: ‘What have we done to deserve this? What do we have to do to make amends, to make ourselves right with God?’”
Bishop Daniel Findikyan posed those questions in a lecture on November 16, 2021. The Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America raised them in the context of the ongoing pandemic crisis, and the disruption it has brought to every human life.
The occasion was the Economos Orthodoxy in America Lecture: the prestigious annual event sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center. Bishop Daniel joined a roster of distinguished scholars and churchmen who have been featured in that forum, when he delivered the 2021 lecture under the title, “Returning to Normalcy and the Sacrament of Penance.”
Speaking before a live audience at University Church on Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus, Bishop Daniel’s wide-ranging talk wove together strands from Scripture and liturgical practice, from contemporary social observation and the writings of Armenian Church fathers, in order to recover an ancient view of the sacrament of penance that could address the anxieties of the present day.
“The time is right for a critical reassessment of the healing mystery, the healing power of penance in its fullest sense,” Bishop Findikyan said, addressing the audience. The sacrament of penance is more than a periodic attempt to “make ourselves right before God,” he said.
“The Armenian Church’s explicit understanding of penance as a return from sorrow resonates with a sort of hopeful expectation that is in very short supply in these COVID times.”
The annual Economos lecture series has featured a variety of speakers, including archbishops, reverends, and professors. Last year, Fordham welcomed His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America to the Rose Hill campus. Bishop Findikyan is the first Armenian lecturer in the series.
In his speech Bishop Findikyan analyzed the three key parts of this title—normalcy, sacraments, and penance—through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past 21 months, people across the world have yearned for normalcy, said the bishop. But the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to reconsider what normalcy means.
“No one denies the pain, grief, death, and economic uncertainty, political polarization, and other afflictions that COVID has wrought. Yet … We would do well to question the instinctive assumption that pre-COVID, everything was jolly and that the challenge of our age is to return to that previous condition,” said Bishop Findikyan.
A large problem with our pre-pandemic lifestyle is “lust for contentment sought apart from God,” said the bishop. He compared this with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who surrendered to their desire to eat fruit from a forbidden tree. They gained great knowledge, but lost their innocence.
“The normalcy that many of us desire nowadays is actually the illusion of good food, of delight to the eyes, of desire, and of wisdom. Consciously or unconsciously, I fear that many of us are looking for personal fulfillment apart from God … The pursuit of such a normal is sinful in the fullest, proper sense of the word, and that path is naked,” said Bishop Findikyan. “The only true path toward those blessed ideals is to be found in Jesus Christ, by means of the mystery of penance.”
We are taught that penance is one of the seven sacraments, said the bishop, but the sacraments are more than a finite number of ceremonies.
“Our incorporation as the body of Christ occurs in every sacramental encounter, in every liturgical celebration,” said Bishop Findikyan. “And so with every one of those celebrations, those sacraments, when we dedicate ourselves to the Church’s liturgical life, we gradually come to an evermore intimate knowledge of God.”
The role of sacramental penance in the pandemic is important, said the bishop—and it should be much more than a “periodic” spiritual encounter.
“Repentance, penance, is that life-giving reconciling action by which we sinners regularly and continuously turn away from grief and come back to God,” said Bishop Findikyan. “Penance should not be an exceptional, occasional intervention, but a continuous journey of realigning one’s thoughts, actions, and commitment to Jesus Christ … It should be as regular and intrinsic to our spiritual lives as breathing is to one’s physical life.”
Bishop Findikyan described true penance as the “living, throbbing heart of Christian faith and life”—something that is lacking in many parts of American Christianity today.
“The sacrament of penance itself is the norm and the normal to which we aspire,” said Bishop Findikyan, “and to which we really should return, breath by breath, moment by moment.”
The Economos Orthodoxy in America Lecture series has explored how the Orthodox tradition intersects with the American religious experience since its first lecture in 2004. Funding for the lecture is made possible by a landmark endowment from Christ and Anastasia Economos and a generous grant from the Nicholas J. and Anna K. Bouras Foundation, Inc. The lecture series is hosted by Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center.