E-mail Conversations Summer 2001

The Kyoto treaty

One member of the List expressed his view that Bush was right in rejecting the Kyoto treaty because it is unfair to the United States. He pointed out that not only must we protect the environment but need to take care of people and their needs and take care not to sacrifice the legitimate needs of humans for the sake of an ideology.

Is the Kyoto Protocol unfair to America, or has America been unfair to much of the world? The US has severely mistreated many of the world’s ecosystems and the villages and towns that stake their health and future on those ecosystems. Texaco and Exxon, to name just two American conglomerates, have a long history of waging quiet war on Central and South American peoples to forcefully take the land for drilling.

If America is pressed more rigorously than other countries to reduce our CO2 output, it is because America is the number one CO2 polluter in the world. Other large developed nations — China, Russia — have targets of one or two percentage points lower than the US because it was determined that these countries don’t have the economic ability at this time to lower their emissions further.

Bush’s home state, Texas, is home to a stretch of land along the Gulf Coast that has a population with rates of cancer, birth defects, asthma, and other lung- and blood-related diseases higher than anywhere else in the country. “Cancer Alley” also has the highest concentration of oil and petroleum refineries anywhere in the country. I think the studies prove what we as Christians already know: God sustains humans through His non-human creation. To help keep the air clean, the water pure, the food healthful, is an act of love toward God Who created the world and toward my neighbor who cannot live apart from the world.

John Oliver III

Suicide

When I came into the library children’s room last Monday, a mother, whose children I had recently signed up for the summer reading club came up to me and said in a whisper, “Please can you help me? A boy in my daughter’s class hanged himself yesterday. My daughter has been crying all day. Could you please tell me what to tell her and recommend some books?”

I was so stunned I forgot the cart full of books I was supposed to be emptying. “This is a wonderful opportunity,” I said to her, “for you to tell your daughter how much you love her and how devastated you would be if she were not with you.” The mother gulped and said, “Thank you.”

I’ve now done some reading and learned that suicide takes the lives of more than 30,000 Americans every year — more people than are killed by homicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24.

“Just talking to another person can offer a temporary reprieve from the pain and tilt your perspective,” says Melody Clark, host of a suicide support Web site and survivor of her own attempted suicide.

Using the key word “suicide” on any web search engine will help you find sites dedicated to suicide prevention.

Mary Taylor

I’m unclear on how the Church deals with those who have committed suicide. I heard that priests cannot pray at the altar for those who have committed suicide. Is this true? My dearest friend in graduate school ended his own life after a breakdown.

Nilus Stryker

I agree with the traditional Church teaching that suicide is among the gravest sins, not only an act of murder but one that often does even more harm to others than the more common forms of homicide.

I’ve recently learned that Slobodan Milosevic’s father was an Orthodox priest who committed suicide. It made me wonder how different the history of the Balkans might have been had that suicide never happened.

A Dutch artist/musician, Herman Brood, recently committed suicide, jumping from the roof of the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam — a final act of theater in a very theatrical life. It was not just a news item but the news item for days afterward. He comes from a staunch Calvinist family in the Dutch heartland but later became the sixties personified. He was heavily addicted to drugs until the last year of his life, then stopped talking them but fell into a black depression. It was so sad to see his wife and daughter weeping at the funeral. The wound of suicide can linger in a family for generations.

Jim Forest

Fr. John Breck, in his excellent book The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics , notes that recent studies show that “in the majority of cases there are psychosocial and neuropsychological correlates of suicide which lead to the kind of cognitive distortion usually associated with clinical depression. Suicide, in other words, is more often a medical problem than a (uniquely) spiritual one.”

Ioana Novac

Obviously demented people who kill themselves are much less responsible for their actions, and therefore in death would be treated no differently from the rest of us sinners.

But people who commit suicide after having consistently espoused a “right to die” ethic have already placed themselves outside the Orthodox Tradition. This is not to say that we shouldn’t pray for even such misguided people who rationalize killing themselves. We should pray even for heretics and for such enemies as we have. Maybe it’s even our fault that some people have wrong ideas about the faith, or maybe we’ve done something to provoke someone’s hatred.

Fr. James Silver

Who may be prayed for and who may not in the services of the Church is a matter of ongoing debate. There is no authoritative consensus on the issue. We must pray as individuals for everyone we know, that is everyone that is a conscious part of our life, that we know to be in need of prayer. This includes the living and dead. Since we can pray for pagan emperors and even heads of state that persecute the Church, it would seem we can pray for anyone else living or departed.

In the case of a more public situation where praying for someone that is a suicide may imply that the Church sees this as a legitimate course of action, prayer might have to be private. Each bishop must decide on a case by case basis.

Fr. David Tillman

One often hears that depression is a biochemical imbalance in the brain.

The problem with this viewpoint is its superficial conception of the relationship between psychological and organic conditions. Psychiatry is going through a heavily “biological” phase, driven not only by medical findings but by other factors: the intimate relationship between psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry, the structure of insurance reimbursement, and the desire of any guild to drive out competition.

In this atmosphere, whenever someone demonstrates, or claims to demonstrate, a relationship between a behavioral problem and chemical or structural changes in the brain, the finding is taken to show that the disorder is “really” a brain disorder.

I shouldn’t have to spell out the inanity of the reasoning here. As bio/psycho/social beings, we shouldn’t be surprised to find biological correlates to any psychological condition. How could it be otherwise? As brain imaging and other technologies advance, we can expect to find neural correlates to every mental/behavioral condition, including desirable ones.

If the logic “showing” depression to be “really” a brain disease is pursued, nothing of human freedom will be left.

John Brady

Our present practice is to presume that suicide is a product of the will acting in freedom. In many if not most cases, as clinical evidence demonstrates, this is not true. The will is impaired by sin; but it is also impaired by disease and various forms of abuse that mark a person from childhood to the grave. Christian charity will recognize this fact in the light of modern medical research and make its judgments accordingly.

All suffering obviously has a bio-chemical component factor to it. There is a complex and intimate interaction between our spirit and material selves. In fact, they are distinct but also one. We are a body/spirit unity. When can we truly say we have lost our free will, if ever? Also, which comes first (as it were), the bio-chemical or the spirit? In the past people tended to treat depression as if it was simply a lack of will, poor character, etc. If nothing else, modern medical science has demonstrated that psychological disease very often has a bio-chemical source, not a purely psychological or environmental source. I don’t think Christians can dispute that. But we still have to affirm the primacy of the spiritual as the ultimate source for all disease, both physical and psychological.

Any psychiatrist would say that I would be predisposed to mental illness from both my father’s and mother’s side. I don’t come from a family of faith. I’ve lost two family members to suicide. I’m sure both my father and sister believed in the “right to die.” A sound Christian faith on their part could have prevented their suicides. My faith has kept me alive. I’m a person who can say to others, “Believe in Jesus, folks, because I’m not dead!”

Paul del Junco

My uncle Dan committed suicide on Mother’s Day, 1968. He was 24. I was only six, but I remember it. What put him over the edge was probably his time in Vietnam. Later on I learned some of the things my uncle experienced, like racial violence between blacks and whites, and his accidentally killing a Vietnamese boy who was the platoon “mascot.”

For years I suffered from depression, and I know the black grip it can have on a person. At times I felt not so much actively suicidal, but would willingly have gone to sleep and never woken up. At the time, I wrote a poem which my friend made into a song, in which I wished I could “dissolve.”

I rarely feel that way now, and can thank God for that. I take a balanced view about chemical vs. spiritual vs. anything else. For me, I never wanted to go the medication route for alleviating the problems, but I am not completely opposed to that.

Even today, Dan’s suicide casts a shadow over our family. I will continue to pray for Dan. I was at his grave today.

Greg Cook

In my experience, it is useful to learn to distinguish/integrate the realities of biological affliction and free choice/responsibility. This is ideally done in some form of psychotherapy or pastoral guidance with an experienced “elder.” However, the grace of God may show other ways for some souls and guide them individually through books, direct revelation and periodic encounters with helpful teachers.

The “nous” includes the incarnate brain (with its inherited afflictions and inherent vulnerability to frequently sinful choices) but also holds the path to the “heart” — the seat of the incarnate soul and the spirit in God’s image, which remains untouched even in the severest of mental illness, always limited to the body/incarnate brain. The “nous” (through what psychology calls vaguely the “unconscious”) is also the gateway to the spirits, the “arena” of spiritual warfare with principalities and powers, but also where the Holy Spirit comes if “the house is swept clean.”

In the case of a teenager dead after a drug overdose, even if he left a suicide note, discernment is called for as with any other instance of tragic death. Only prayer will reveal to a priest and/or grieving family members what the state of that soul was before death. Most priests will decide in favor of a funeral service, for reasons too numerous to mention.

In the case of a person who may have struggled for a long time with suicidal impulses and severe depression, even if this person has been going to confession and received whatever pastoral counsel was available to him/her, it is possible the impulse to self-destruct would override the honest effort to “fight the good fight.” The choice of the afflicted will may be rooted more in the body than in the spirit. Who but God will know for sure? Oikonomia and charity, with prayer and discernment, may be the only way through each difficult decision regarding services.

Ioana Novac

The Canton OPF conference

Recently I had the joy of spending four days in Ohio at the first North American Conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, which I am happy to report was very peaceful, at least no guns were confiscated that I know of! We had wonderful fellowship, great speakers, and with the help of the Holy Spirit set some important goals.

I often think of the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov quoted, “Acquire peace within your soul, and a thousand around you will be saved.” These are startling and profound words, and yet I sometimes wonder how are we to acquire peace?

At the conference, we were focusing on this very question in very practical ways. We formed five focus groups around five topics: 1. Peace within its Liturgical context. 2. Peace within the family. 3. Peace within the churches of God. 4. Peace in the world. 5. Peace with the environment.

Within the next year we hope to study these very broad issues and in some areas publish booklets addressing them. We hope these will be useful tools for anyone interested in these issues, perhaps those who are looking for guidance and support or a place to start. The booklets will not be comprehensive by any means, nor do I feel that any of us believes ourselves to be experts.

I felt that the atmosphere of the conference was to seek knowledge and then share it with those around us who are interested, as we seek salvation together.

A high point of the conference for me was when Fr. David Tillman told us that if we are rooted and grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ and struggling to do his will, we have His blessing to do the work we are given. I can’t say it any better than that. In peace let us pray to the Lord.

Renee Zitzloff

I came away the OPF conference more aware that peace cannot co-exist with judgement and anger — any symptom of pride. Rather peace is a process, a state of the soul, beginning from within and then radiating out to manifest itself in the world. To think that peace can begin externally is to think backwards.

At Canton we were constantly reminded of St. Seraphim’s words, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

And, really, should I have been surprised that this beginning with my own spiritual struggle would be the point driven home for me that weekend? When in my journey within the Orthodox Church has anyone ever said, “It’s not you, it’s your circumstances. Judge something/ someone and find fault there, then pray to God for a magical solution that does not require any personal struggle.”

Being politely civil is not enough. We need to be gracious to one another on a day to day basis. We must be open, warm and concerned for the well-being of those we meet personally.

I have become aware of how truly cold and hard-hearted I can be to anyone who wanders into my world. Until my smile can originate from the heart, I will try to practice by using my mouth and eyes and hope that it will eventually reach and melt those glaciers within.

It’s much easier to desire peace when one is saturated by the love and warm-heartedness of a community of Orthodox Christians. It suddenly becomes a very difficult feat to acquire a spirit of peace once one walks through the office doors on Monday morning.

It all boils down to loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors, doesn’t it? But it’s wonderful to have some means to guide you to the end, some specific words from wise, thoughtful people to help one grasp the general principal.

So Yung Wilson

Reflections on the OPF

The OPF is an important Church organization right now. In its mission it speaks of another way in life for people, a way desperately needed.

You see the need both in individuals and in society in general.

From the regular reports of all sorts of atrocious violence committed to the seemingly “normal” everyday occurrences of a “me first/god-is-money capitalism” culture, the need for God — “who sits on the throne of glory and beholds the abyss” but who nevertheless loves us so much as to reveal his Son to us on earth and who gave us his Holy Spirit and called us to the true and authentic life — becomes more and more apparent.

The OPF proclaims some measure of this way in a manner that does not simply fall back on proclamations of the Church triumphant, or some sort of airy-fairy theology without roots in authentic tradition or even reality.

There is also a refreshing lack of polemic in the journal, sadly present in so many other Orthodox media.

The peace of Christ — the proclamation of which is your mission — is a difficult peace for us rooted on this earth.

The acquisition of this peace is only acquired by the journey on narrow paths. It is acquired through prayer, fasting, the giving of alms, and above all the giving of oneself. Only when we give way to Christ and humble ourselves in all aspects of our lives, do we acquire Christ and all that he is.

What is humbled is revealed as truly glorious. Only then, when we have given ourselves over to Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me, can we fulfill the most basic command of this Christ and his apostles, and even his prophets to love our neighbor and so incarnate Christ again into this world.

We as Christians have a mission in this world to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection, and we only do this most effectively by the lives we lead. And it is this way of life that needs to be spoken of. People need to be encouraged in it. Discussions on this subject by learned people have to be arranged. Retreats should be held. OPF in many ways provides a forum for this.

Fr. Alexander Rentel