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Help yourself to selfishness

It is amazing how many books the average book store advocate the very principle that brought total ruin to the pristine creation of the world. All the self-help books and pop-psychological propaganda continue to promote selfishness and pride as primary virtues. To love oneself, look out for oneself, care for the wounded inner self like a good mother caring for her baby, to coddle and pity oneself for all the bruises and scars we’ve accumulated through experience — all of this is rooted in the sin of pride. Lucifer was a glorious angel who became self-absorbed to the point of refusing to glorify God in humility, and fell to his low state, where he exists, like all self-absorbed beings, in an endless dynamic of unsatisfied hunger, malnourished by self-gratification.

Some Christians reason, “Christ told us to love one another as we love ourselves; my self is included in this equation, therefore, I have divine permission to love and coddle my self.”(A better reading of Christ’s words might imply that in the place of loving one’s self, we are to love our neighbor. In other words, take the energy we presently spend loving our selves, and direct it instead towards our neighbor.) Unspoken and unthought is the conclusion that this provides a rationale for self-pity and all its ramifying demons, without realizing that self-pity is the womb of the damned. The problem is that, ironically, this kind of “self love” does not include the actual self, but instead it is a despairing love for a false self, a shadow self, that we unwittingly construct as we seek the ever elusive state of “happiness.”

But as Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes, “Happiness is not an end in itself; it is the result of right living. If a life is correctly constructed, happiness will follow: and a correct life is a just life.”

— Eric Simpson

Selfishness and the true Self

It is true that much of “self-help”literature serves up, at best, a very simplified recipe for healing, but mostly a pathetic combination of narcissism and self-pity. However, there remains the reality of the people who seek help, many carrying trauma and wounds beyond “average.” For such people, it is difficult to find healing before they are helped out of the self-loathing and poisoned worldview that may have been conditioned into them.

When Christians, particularly, Orthodox, speak of love of self, the key is the definition of self. In Orthodox theology, self exists only in communion with others, primarily with the Trinitarian God. Moreover, if we think eucharistically and incarnationally, Christ dwells in us, He is our deepest and truest Self. I have no problem loving that Self, Who lives in me and heals my wounded, darkened and fragmented soul, so that “what is dead may be swallowed up by life.”

Before the word “depression” took on the clinical color it has today, the souls of saints and sinners alike have struggled with engulfing darkness. As in any suffering, therein is a temptation to despair. If one has a more physiologically-based vulnerability to depression or has had much loss and wounding (and, in an alternate perspective, if this is a temptation allowed by God), the energy for prayer and hope is undermined (even momentarily obscured).

In this situation, the saints teach us to expect war on our senses, emotions, reason and faith, yet to trust and remember that we shall not be left buried in it for long (Christ was in the tomb only three days), to prepare for the coming of grace afterward and to expect a life-long alternation of the two states, with varying degrees of intensity.

— Ioana Novac

People without a conscience

It is the case that psychotherapy has often not helped people behave in morally responsible ways and has invoked “self-esteem” as its justification. Psychotherapy is usually a far cry from the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who saw self-esteem as a developmental process in four steps: First, we love ourselves for our own sake; then we love God for what He can do for us; then we love God for who He is in Himself; and lastly we love ourselves for God’s sake, that is, we see ourselves as God sees us. The third of these steps is about as far as most of us go in this life, but saints reach the final step.

Psychotherapy offers some insight into this matter of the abuse of power. Nowadays people who are obcessed with power are said to have an Antisocial Personality Style. Not long ago they were called psychopaths or sociopaths, but both of those terms connote a level of criminality or deviany.

Many people who never break the law also have this kind of personality. They are to be found in schools at all levels, the church, the health care professions, every kind of business, the government, and the judicial and law enforcement systems. More men than women have it, but about one-third of people with this personality are women.

Such people are determined to allow no one to have real power over them. They cannot stand vulnerability. They often are obsessed with money, weapons, bodily strength or beauty, and intellectual superiority. They are the world’s best liars. They can instantly read what another person wants to hear and adjust their manner in a heartbeat.

They often take pleasure in hurting others, especially people they consider weak and inferior. They are often sexist, racist, and militarist. They have a fundamental and pervasive disregard for the rights of other people. They usually have no idea what other people are feeling, and in any event don’t care. It does not bother them in the slightest to fail to follow the rules at work, to declare bankruptcy, to ignore child support. They have a remarkable inability to articulate emotion. But they also feel only very powerful and primitive emotions, such as rage and lust. Their sexual lives are exploitative and demeaning at best. They are often secretly consumed with envy and bent on destroying what they do not or cannot have. In short, a person with Antisocial Personality lacks a functioning conscience.

Can such people change? Yes. Can other people help them change? Yes. But there is a great problem in this. The usual things that counselors and other do-gooders do to help people do not work well with these people. People with Antisocial Personality look upon normal compassion, the expression of emotion in general, and sharing of one’s fears and problems as signs of weakness. When a do-gooder thinks that he or she has given someone a “second chance,” a person with Antisocial Personality thinks that he or she has succeeded in fooling the system yet another time. What they respect, and what could really help, are tough-mindedness, uncompromising honesty, and exacting and incorruptible behavior. They need the people who hold authority over them (parents, teachers, principals, employers, police, judges, pastors) to quit being so nice. Much of what has been called “rehabilitation” has actually hurt these people.

People in authority must be sure that they deal out real justice, not just vengeance. When people in authority abuse their authority, they are simply indulging their own antisocial tendencies — and encouraging people with Antisocial Personality to continue to believe that the world is an evil place, full of evil people.

— David Holden

Iraq

We’re all agreed that a pre-emptive attack on Iraq would be a monstrous thing, so that, among ourselves, there’s not too much to say. September 11 raised challenging questions about defensive war, exposed many differences among OPF people, and thus sparked a lot of discussion. In this case, though, I suspect that we’re virtually all of a mind.

While it’s true that a large segment of the American public currently seems to favor an attack, my reading is that there’s vigorous discussion and lots of opposition. The New York Times is always being attacked by the pro-war lobby as not being on board, and I read excerpts on Yahoo every day that question the attack in various ways and make clear the lack of international support.

— John Brady

I’m not by any means politically liberal (I’m not conservative either), and there are cases when I think war is the least bad of available alternatives. However, I have seen no evidence that Saddam Hussein is doing anything different than he has for most of the past ten years. His threat to the outside world, such as it is, doesn’t appear to justify an aggressive war to stop him, even to people whose standards for a “just war” are less restrictive than mine.

An aggressive war against Iraq cannot be justified and would kill more innocent people while probably accomplishing very little good.

The question is how to communicate this to others.

— Catherine Hampton

One can defend military sanctions against Iraq, but not those tailored to increase the mortality rate of children, the aged, and the ill. More than half a million Iraqi children died in the past decade. This gradual destruction of an entire society finally led him to resign his post in protest.

Eradicating danger and evil requires tackling root causes, including the plight of the Palestinian people. Nelson Mandela says it is time to end the occupation and create a free Palestine. It is time to end this dispute that threatens the world.

An unprovoked sneak attack on Iraq would shame us all.

— John Oliver

Sleepless nights

Sleepless nights here in the USA for those of us who dread the coming war…

We struggle as Christians about “individual” responses to violence but the discipleship and purpose of the Eucharistic community is not an “individual” one. “We” are called to this life — and until the Church returns to that nonviolent realization of the Gospel our individual responses to violence will sound moralistic or ideological or both.

The Gospel reading from Matthew about the salt losing its savor and deserving to be tossed out may say more about this dilemma. It is always good to hear the lives of saints like Father Arseny who gave a witness of the kingdom of God for many years in the Gulag, but isn’t his response to violence a direct consequence of his understanding of what it means to be in the Body of Christ?

In our culture individualism is a god — and all Orthodox are affected by this. Rather than measuring our degree of nonviolence we need to embody the Gospel as worshiping Christians gathered to receive the Eucharist every week. We are not called to be in the armed forces or the police forces or the CIA, FBI or KGB. We can always pray for those who are.

By capitulating to the culture of nationalism, we lose our savor — we have no Gospel to preach. We depend on the sword and the sacrifice of innocents to maintain our own lives in our culturally accepted manner.

Heroic individual nonviolent behavior needs to be seen as normal behavior for Christians, not as exceptional. In the Church such saints reveal how far we have moved from Christ, not how heroic they are.

— Alice Carter

Systemic evil

In the last In Communion I was particularly struck by the phrase “systemic evil within human institutions” in Albert Raboteau’s essay. This is the phrase I have long been hunting: not simply personal evil but systemic evil. Can systemic evil be confessed, repented of? Who would confess it? Who would take on the responsibility? I feel this is a vital issue in the increasingly institution-ridden and manager-run modern world. We have become mechanized in our very hearts.

In the same essay I also liked the sentence, “By some amazing but vastly creative but spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” It is this creative insight we need in the Orthodox Church today.

He also stressed “the brutalizing effect of power upon those who hold it and upon those who suffer from its use.” This is something hierarchs also need to get to grips with and face, both the inevitability of it and addressing the need, the imperative, to do something about it.

I am interested also for more personal reasons because the institutions and people for whom I work suffer the effects of systemic evil and the brutalizing effects of power and we have subtle and serious problems with bullying those under them.

People are abused and their spirits broken through psychological processes of one kind and another and I am appalled at the way all too often psychotherapy results in the client learning to abuse others in order to keep self-esteem high and to maintain power and control over themselves and their own and others’ lives.

Systemic evil comes in every kind of form. The contemporary disease of “managerism” allows it to flourish well and people are silenced or they will lose their work. It is also a creeping disease so at first you think nothing much is happening in the sense of it would seem exaggerated to protest and in any case if you do it will be suggested that you are not up to speed or do not share the “vision” for heaven’s sake. There is now even a book about big business called Corporate Religion.

— Karin Greenhead

A child in the rain

Albert Raboteau’s words have thrust me into a journey of learning about racism and systemic institutional evil. I am becoming more and more disturbed. Like Karen, I have been thinking about how to atone for the sins of another generation as well as repent of the institutional evil I am involved in now.

An incident happened to me the other day. Although it was raining hard, I had an impulse to take my eight-year-old son to a local art school to sign him up for lessons. Along the way I saw a little black boy running in the rain, completely drenched. I asked him if he needed a ride. Not only was he soaked, big tears were running down his face. He eagerly got into the car with us. He told us that the bus had dropped him in the wrong spot and he needed to get home. I said I would take him there, but he told me he did not know where home was because they had recently moved here. Finally he was able to call his mom and she came and picked him up. It turned out he had been going in the wrong direction when we picked him up!

As I reflected on the incident later, I realized some things. This little boy was in a terribly vulnerable spot in many ways, including being a black child in primarily white suburbia. He could have been picked up by someone who might have been a danger to him. Second, what I did was a very small act, and yet it meant a lot to Roshon and his mother.

I cannot make anyone Albert Raboteau’s childhood less painful, and yet I can be the memory of a kind white face to a little black boy in my neighborhood.

One way to atone for institutional sins is a multitude of small and large kindnesses wherever the opportunity presents itself, while we work for institutional change on a much deeper and harder level.

My hope and prayer is that as a group we can learn more about these issues and discover what we can do. I deeply grateful for Al Raboteau and his vibrant wife Julia who works with wounded spirits in Harlem. We can learn much from them.

(By the way, I recommend Al’s new book, A Sorrowful Joy. It is very powerful.)

— Renee Zitzloff

Pacifism and Orthodoxy

As a recent convert to Orthodoxy I have been thinking a lot about how I should view war and pacifism. I have come to the following “conclusions” regarding the Orthodox view of these issues. I would be very interested to hear what other Orthodox Christians think about these “conclusions.”

1. Pacifism is normative for Orthodoxy. Because of this, priests and monks can never participate in war.

2. Military service for lay people is permitted as a concession to a fallen world. Similar to one marriage for life as normative and divorce reluctantly permitted as a concession. One marriage is normative for Orthodoxy and thus clergy are not allowed this concession.

3. No war is ever just. All war is sin even a so called “Just War.” Orthodox participation is by concession and requires specific penance on the part of the soldier who has taken life even in the defense of his neighbor.

4. Purposeful destruction of innocent life — of non-combatants — is always a grievous sin.

5. In an age of total warfare and nuclear weapons, in practicality, all Orthodox Christians must act as pacifists given our commitment not to ever purposefully take non-combatants lives.

6. All Orthodox everywhere and always are called to peace and works of reconciliation personally and corporately.

— Greg Storey

It seems to me that the position outlined by Greg is in step with the traditional views of the Church. They would be labeled by many as idyllic, but then again so are many of the basic tenets of the faith. This idyllic quality shouldn’t make them any less desirable goals. Clearly, Christian participation in war is a compromise position, foreign to the early church. My understanding is that penance can be severe for those who kill, even in the line of duty, including years of excommunication. The fact that there are Orthodox young people who are today quite willing and ready to go to war on behalf of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq is inexplicable to me. These actions do not even begin to fit a “just war” criteria. Yet there are young people within my parish who seem hell bent on doing just that, and I am frankly at a loss as to how to deal with it.

— Donald Eusebios

Early traditions? Or later? It has longed seemed to me that those whose identify themselves as “traditionalist” Orthodox in some ways regard the period from Constantine to the fall of the Byzantine Empire as a kind of Orthodox “Golden Age.” It also seems to me, based on my dialogues with some traditionalists, that they often, ironically, prefer later traditions to earlier ones — as in the case of embracing participation in war as being compatible with the essence of the oldest of Christian tradition, namely the words of the Lord of the Church in the Gospels in which He commands Peter to put away his sword. The Church began with no king but Christ the King.

— Timothy Beach

Haunted by Matthew 25

The great essayist, Montaigne, once wrote, “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness.” Well, that’s the problem with books; I read so many that I forget by February what I read in September. Experience is different; it leaves imprints that last. This is why, after not quite two years at a comfortable parish in Center City Philadelphia, I chose to leave parish work and get my hands dirty.

A few months ago, I was asked to fly to San Antonio (my home town) and take a look at the Catholic Worker House. Catholic Worker Houses exist in cities throughout America, and each is different. In San Antonio, their main task is to provide hospitality, housing, and food for families “in transition” (i.e. the homeless). They are equipped to take up to five families. The Catholic Worker House also runs a daily soup line for area homeless. This is, pretty much, the extent of this small ministry. The ministry is — at any given time — run by 4 or 5 volunteers; mostly young people from Germany working off their required year-long civic duty.

After my visit, I was asked to take over as the Program Director. After prayerful consideration — and the support of my wife, spiritual father, and bishop (in that order, of course) — I accepted. I sold my house, packed up bags and children, bid a sad good-bye to my graciously understanding parishioners, and headed back home for the first time in 15 years.

I have just finished my first week at the House. It is a week that will stay with me forever, and, gratefully, it is a week that will be remembered in positive light. I not only saw things — we have, most of us, seen such things — I experienced them. I spoke with people, heard stories, laughed, and, at times felt like crying. I served food, washed dishes, contacted the newspapers, made appointments with heads of various service organizations. The San Antonio Catholic Worker House is run down, a bit disorganized, and in dire need of revitalization. It needs me; but more importantly, I need it.

I’ve been asked more than once why an Orthodox priest would go to work for a Catholic Worker House. My pat answer has been because there isn’t an Orthodox Worker House. The real reason is that for the ten years I’ve been a full-time parish priest, I’ve been preaching Matthew 25. Now I have the opportunity to put it — personally — into action.

And no, I won’t forget in February what I experienced in September.

— Fr Brooks Ledford

Letter from the West Bank

Our family returned to in Taybeh on Monday. The situation is still very bad with most of the days under curfew. We hope to be able to have a regular school year. I hope to devote most of my time to the local housing project toward which a number of OPF members and their parishes sent donations. With the donations this summer and the OPF check you sent me, we are now a little over ten thousand dollars. I have decided to rewrite the proposal and start with twelve houses instead bringing the total money we need to about $350,000 so hopefully maybe this smaller amount might help to make it easier to achieve.

I thank everyone in OPF for your support.

— Maria Khoury