Peacemaking in the Parish: Seeking the Peace from Above

by Fr. Stephen Headley

Most of us, as Orthodox Christians, have experienced the pain of waiting for members of the parish, a parish priest or a bishop to cease to behave in ways that are decidedly not Christian. Their behavior, their actions, strike us as failing to praise God as he deserves through humility, gentleness and mercy. The possibility that they have some good reason to behave as they do helps us to be patient until such time as we better understand their motives. When, as sometimes is the case, we imagine that their behavior is best explained by their weaknesses, the problem becomes more difficult. Shouldn’t we, as St. Paul suggests in his writings about teachers of false doctrine, correct them fraternally by prayer and supplication, and later, if need be, exclude them from our midst? So far as common sense is concerned, we feel justified. Nevertheless, a nagging voice of conscience should tell us that to take this course is to wander from the higher road to peace, aggravating the difficulties others have in dealing with us.

We have many strategies by which we fail to bring a genuinely Christian perspective to the problem of anger and enmity within both parish and family life. All these strategies seem to exclude the Cross. The faith with which Christ bears all that is unbearable leads finally to his death on the Cross. This Cross-centered perspective is the horizon we need to make our own. Unless we do, we will be deprived of our hope in Christian freedom and fall into a self-induced cynicism. Sooner or later we will conclude that the Beatitudes are fine ideals but do not apply to our daily lives.

Until such time as our sense of self-vindicating outrage subsides, in reality it is we, not they, who are ceasing to be Christian. This loss of sincerity, of openness to the destiny that God has offered us, occurs because of our refusal to be vulnerable to the other, even if the other seems to be persecuting us. In fact it is then that we are in great spiritual danger. In these moments we may not realize that our actual Christian dignity in fact resides in the patient suffering described in the seventh and eight Beatitudes:

Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake … for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you. Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

The problem is that we don’t recognize that the thoughts that are passing through our minds and hearts fail to reflect the revelation of Christ to us in his Sermon on the Mount. The superiority of values in the Beatitudes as a personal, ascetic path to Christ is only clear to those who actually enter the path. St. Dionysios, a Syrian monk of the sixth century, gave us the term hierarchy, meaning a sacred order, a progressive bestowing of God’s grace upon us in our ascent to heaven. If we bear our lot, we discover that the elevating effect of such a gracious hierarchy raises us to a higher level of vision and brings us into proximity with Christ. We are able to see the difficulties that hem us in as constituting our very own cross. We begin to carry that cross as a free choice.

The aspiration to patience helps us see the supposed “evil” of the other in a new light. We are no longer obliged to correct the other. I don’t say this moralistically. It has come to me after numerous mistakes and injustices committed by me in parishes in which I served, always because I had come to the point of feeling justified in saying “enough is enough.”

But what was I feeling? What had I had enough of? Enough of the other? Enough of being a Christian? Were my parishioners unworthy of my dedication? Why should I define their behavior by the limits of my comprehension? If a Christian way of life has any meaning, if it is in fact a witness of Christ’s passion, it is because my relations with others are not defined by my needs. Do I want to live a truly Christian life? If so it requires that I constantly seek to do to others as I would have them do to me.

Several times in my life my closest friends in the Church, persons toward whom I had great respect and with whom I shared an intimacy created by their qualities, since they lifted me to a higher plane of vision regarding my own life – these important friends have done things I would never have thought they were capable of. I was crushed. I grieved for months over what I thought was the destruction of our friendship, a brotherly bond which I felt had been destroyed by my friend’s misdeeds. I had needed him in order to be myself. The person I was sure he was gave me a stronger faith. He had offered me a hand up to a purer plane of existence.

At each Vespers we read Psalm 103 in which we hear that the Lord makes of his servants “flames of fire.” I had previously found that flame of the holy Spirit in my friend, but now where was it? I retreated and turned my back on him and denied him. It was as if I was a better judge of his soul than God, in whom he had put his trust, who was clearly in a position to pardon him, if pardon was needed, in His own time. I let the confidence I had placed in him slip through my fingers and in so doing, I lost confidence not only in him, but also in God.

Suffering misfortune with patience is perhaps the highest expression of confidence in the Lord. This is not because it punishes and purifies us from our sins in a sadistic manner, but because it gives us the opportunity to participate in the same fortitude that Christ manifested in responding to the constant and unrelenting adversity that he experienced. While being hounded from Galilee to Judea, Christ never wavered in proclaiming the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God in our midst. The horizon of his Father’s calling was never closer than when, on his knees in the garden of Gethsemane, he was enveloped in anguish and prayed to fulfill his Father’s will. As St. Maximos the Confessor showed, because of the Fall, our “gnomic will” (ƃɃŃʃ), as opposed to out natural will, no longer permits us to spontaneously choose the good which God offers us. The human-divine person of Christ presents us with the model of the redemption of our fallen will; henceforth human will is free to commune fully with God’s will for us.

If complaining makes cowards of us, long-suffering makes us clear-headed about how a fallen world operates. Much of human communication takes place on the level of provocation, usually over inconsequential matters. This is tiring. But if this is so, it is because the other cannot yet see us as a dependable friend. By testing our patience, he or she is trying to see how long we are willing to put up with him. Are we ready to “share spaces” with him, as Jessica Rose puts it in her book Sharing Spaces: Prayer and the Counseling Relationship? And what can we say inside ourselves while this is going on? Psalm 142, which is prayed every morning at Matins, shows us a path forward:

Deliver me, O Lord, from mine enemies: I flee unto thee to hide me. Teach me to do thy will, for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.

In the course of several decades I have served under five or six bishops, and I must admit that only one of them met my expectations – and finally even the failings of this exception were hard for me to accept. Why were “worthy bishops” so hard for me to find? I have of course obeyed them all, but I could have collaborated more fruitfully if I had been able to give them my confidence. Why was I withholding my confidence? I believe now that I had not realized that the confidence I failed to place in them would have emerged if I had gone ahead and collaborated whole-heartedly with these bishops rather than standing back and waiting until they proved their qualities to me. After all, they must have seen my own limitations, yet even so that did not prevent them from placing their trust in God when they ordained me deacon and later priest.

This was despite the fact that I had already learned some basic lessons when seeking out a “good” confessor. Early on, when my own confessor was far away, I had adopted the habit of going to confession with the priest for whom I had the least esteem. This exercise proved fruitful, for these men never failed to give me good advice and to sincerely pray for me. The need to respect a person, or to judge him as worthy of my admiration, had found a fitting limit, since even I had to confess that such judgment of others was incompatible with asking for forgiveness from God.

All this is formulated in the final exhortation of the Apostle James’s epistle, if one cares to read it with a open, undefended heart:

Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation. Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

The Greek word ʃȃσ̓ƃ҃ʃ, often translated weakly as “patience,” might better be rendered as “long-suffering.” This has to do with forging the future by waiting on the Lord. As we read in Proverbs: “Do not lose heart, because the Lord will be coming soon. Do not make complaints against one another, brothers, so as not to be brought to judgment yourselves… You have heard of the patience of Job, and understood the Lord’s purpose, realizing that the Lord is kind and compassionate.” (Proverbs 3:34)

The Apostle James exhorts us not to swear by heaven or by earth, which I understand to mean not to finalize our judgments. Rather he proposes that we should sing psalms with the joyful, and pray for those in trouble. So like Elijah, who prayed for rain until it did rain, we are encouraged to pray with our faith for the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again (whatever that “up” may be), and he will be forgiven. Saving a soul from death due to his or her sins, says St. James, covers a multitude of sins, presumably including our own. So here is the “reason” not to judge: so that we will not be judged and so that our sins will be forgiven.

To sum up, we have been in a critical situation ever since we were old enough to blame others for our own limitations. The fact that others have their own limitations does not change anything. We are constantly in danger of being hemmed in by the way we view others, by the ways we (and they) become disappointed and aggressive.

For a Christian, daily life is best compared with that of the Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh’s armies across the Red Sea. The only thing that could save them was their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their ability to follow Moses across this sea and into the desert was what kept the walls of water from drowning them. If they had believed that the waters of that passage were more dangerous to them than Pharaoh’s charioteers, if they had harbored their own fears rather than trusting in the call of Moses to escape Egypt, they would have had no prospect of salvation.

Peter had the same experience as he attempted to walk towards Christ on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The moment he turned his gaze away from Christ, he began to sink. The security of our own expectation was decried by Jesus:

It is the pagans of this world who set their hearts on these things. Your Father well knows you need them. No, set your hearts on his kingdom, and these thing will be given you as well. There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:22)

Each time we put the cross around our neck, it is recommended that we say the words of Christ: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)

This self-giving loss of life is the way to the deep self-knowledge that Christ has promised us: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.” (Luke 6:47-48)

The rock is God’s divine law. Not the civil law, which is often little more than a screen hiding our collective sins that are the ruin of society, what the French call a cache-misre, but a law that, for those who follow it, makes us free and thankful to God for revealing his justice to us.

The whole of the Psalm 118 (119) describes how the Christian “treasures your promises in my heart … be good to your servant and I shall live … exile though I am on earth … my soul is overcome with an incessant longing for your rulings … I am sleepless with grief, raise me up as your word has guaranteed … I run the way of your commandments since you have set me free…”

The long-suffering patience of the psalmist derives its strength from waiting for the Lord to save him, an offer of loving intervention that gives him life. That life is God’s justice. God is just in all his works and does justice to his servant. We ask God to teach us his statutes. What does that mean? The Greek word for justice (ǃȃʃ) means both acts of justice towards man, justification of his creature, and God’s judgment regarding our acts.

In this sense the whole set of contemporary political proposals of universal human rights glosses over the more fundamental fact that it is God who has rights over man. It is this that makes the Beatitudes a realistic program for daily life. It is possible to be long-suffering since the Lord of great goodness is long-suffering with us. Herein lies the peace from above we have been thirsting after! Here is the peace that the life-giving Cross brings us, “for the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

Fr. Stephen Headley is rector of the parish of St. Etienne the Proto-martyr and St. Herman of Auxerre (Moscow Patriarchate) in Vzelay, France. He is a researcher in social anthropology in the French National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, and a member of the board of advisors of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The author of several books on religion in Indonesia, Fr. Stephen is currently involved in research on “The Transmission of the Orthodox Faith in contemporary Moscow.”

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006