by Father Gregory and Matushka Ksenia Bruner
It has been repeatedly stated that we are in an unprecedented situation. While parallels have been drawn to the Spanish Flu Pandemic, there is no living memory of those days and we must use the historical record as a guide. Naturally, there has been debate on how to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Scientists. Politicians. Bishops. Every Tom, Dick, and Haralambos with an opinion/perspective on what must be done. Ultimately, directives were handed down on how we should conduct services and maintain safety in compliance with local governmental orders. For many, this meant staying at home except for necessary travel. Minimal personnel were authorized for services, and in many places those services were limited. Dig in and ride out the storm. For my family, things materialized differently.
One of the initial directives given prohibited anyone in contact with a healthcare employee working in a facility treating COVID-19 patients within 15 days, as well as the healthcare worker, from attending the services. This presented my wife, Ksenia, and I with a conundrum. She is a Hospitalist Nurse Practitioner in a hospital that had confirmed COVID-19 patients. If we spent any time together from that point, I would be prevented from serving in the church for two weeks, which would be just enough time for her to finish her next week of shifts and start the cycle again. In short, I could not serve the remainder of Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, and so on, to live stream the services to those at home until the restrictions were lifted. In the end, we made the only decision we could, as difficult as it was: until given a reprieve, Ksenia would retreat to our home in Indiana near where she works, while I would remain in Ohio with our three children.
Matushka Ksenia has never been one to shy away from a challenge. It is what drove her to apply to top-tier schools, to teach in Japan, to attend seminary, to open her own business, to begin a career as a nurse, and become a Board Certified Nurse Practitioner, and probably her greater challenge: marrying me. This separation has been a daunting challenge in that it is compounded with her responsibilities in the hospital caring for those who are gravely ill, an increasing number with COVID-19. What was the other option? Even if she had the opportunity, Ksenia would not turn her back on her co-workers or her patients. She is driven to service in helping those who cannot help themselves. This is the Way.
For my part, in addition to my duties as Dean of St. George Cathedral (Bulgarian Diocese), I am also a chaplain in the Indiana Air National Guard. The second of the Air Force Core Values is “Service before Self.” This notion was at the core of my upbringing. Service to Faith, Family, and Flag come before my own comforts and desires. As a priest, it is my duty and privilege to perform the Divine Services “on behalf of all and for all.” The knowledge that the Cathedral continues to function and that liturgical prayers are still offered up is a comfort to many, including myself. As a chaplain, I am continually under the possibility of activation in support of state emergency efforts, and indeed I have already spent a few days providing spiritual support to the Airmen under my charge as they navigate the new normal. This is the Way.
The day-to-day workload and routine have changed dramatically. Far more time is spent behind a computer or on the phone trying to stay connected. Balancing church and family has proven even more difficult; with additional attention to each child being necessary, as well as oversight of the parish community. The increased need for technology, especially to live stream, was, and remains, unnerving to this luddite. I could not do it without the help of Matushka Ksenia. Prior to her departure, she made a “me-proof” kit to use to set up and record the live streams. Any and all postings, extractions, and other items related to this are done by her remotely. This ministry has allowed us to reach many inquirers and unchurched. The current state of technology has also allowed Matushka to maintain some sort of connection with myself and the children during her COVID-19 exile. Whether establishing a game plan for live streaming or other church communication or just following up on household activities, daily communication is consistent. This is the Way.
We look forward to the time when our family can be reunited, and we can settle into a new, balanced routine. Regardless, there is still a need that must be met. Matushka still has patients, the physically suffering, that must be cared for. I have my own spiritual patients, both in the parish and at my base, who likewise find themselves in need of care. Throughout all of this, it is our hope that our children can learn from this experience, understanding that the needs of others come before our wants: to be selfless instead of selfish. To quote the movie, First Knight, “In serving one another, we become free.”
This is the Gospel.
This is the Way.
Priest Gregory Bruner is Dean of St. George Cathedral, Rossford, OH (Bulgarian Diocese). He is also a chaplain with the 122d Fighter Wing, Indiana Air National Guard, Ft. Wayne, IN.
Matushka Ksenia Bruner is a Board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner, currently serving as a Hospitalist at Parkview Hospital, Ft. Wayne, IN.
They have three children: Matthias, Thaddeus, and Ileana.