God Knows There’s Need

by Michael Taylor

Susan Holman is a scholar of the social justice tradition in the early church. Her new book is God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (Oxford University Press). She also wrote The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia.

Holman, a research writer and editor at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, sets out on a formidable task: to put ancient Christian texts which address issues of social justice into the hands of modern practitioners. “These essays,” Holman writes, “occupy the space between two worlds, between historical textual studies and contemporary social action, between the life of the academic library and the life which strains toward effective prayer.” However, until recently, many of these early Christian texts about poverty, hunger, physical sickness and other social calamities were forgotten and unheard. It is these Holman helps resurrect.

The work at hand, therefore, is to engage in closing the gap between the aspects which Holman describes. However, this demands that we first become familiar with such texts. Engaging in the work of patristic studies is not always easy, and can seem a task for an elect few. However, I think of those such as Saint Maria of Paris, who often drew deeply on patristic texts while running the day to day operations of her house of hospitality.

How is it possible that such important material for framing Christian responses to social injustice as Holman draws upon are so little read and even now exist chiefly in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic? I think it is first to educate a wider public that such texts exist and that they are relevant for those who study medicine, national and international public health, policy issues, and social services. Beyond this, Holman offers a number of suggestions. One issue which Holman identifies is that existing patristic collections in English are far less complete than those interested in patristic literature may realize collections, though valuable, that were shaped by theological trends of the late nineteenth century. Those of us in the English-speaking world may be familiar with the compilation that grew out of the New Oxford Movement and the legacy of John Henry Newman.

“Most of Newman’s spiritual heirs,” Holman writes, “like Newman himself, display little passion for patristic texts on social welfare. Therefore, few such texts were translated into English in the series inspired by Newman’s legacy and vision.” It was only in nineteenth-century France that Jacques-Paul Migne produced his massive Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca. Migne, whose collections censored nothing, played a formidable role in the creation of modern French laws regarding human rights and matters of social justice.

Restoring these texts as an integrated part of current social practice is only part of the battle, however. The more difficult challenge is establishing a method from which to apply these texts to the work of our daily lives. We live in a world with vastly different socio-economic realities than existed in the fourth century.

While St. Gregory and others in fourth-century Cappadocia worked to establish great houses of hospitality, they lived in a world in which slavery was unquestioned. Some of the saints of our church owned slaves and spoke of the poor as the soil which “may be worked for our personal salvation.” Such examples help us to realize that, while there are jewels, these texts were developed in an era in which perceptions and responses to issues of poverty and justice were not necessarily similar to our own.

For us in the Orthodox Church, imagining slave-owning saints is not welcome news. There is a particular pride in our faith, but there is always a work of context that needs to be undertaken. Seeking to provide such a context, Holman offers three paradigms for us to use when approaching these texts: “sensing the poor, sharing the world, and embodying the sacred kingdom.” She sees these three concepts and pragmatic ideas as encompassing “particular categories which might be used to apply bits of the complex past to present issues while respecting ancient nuances and cultural differences. These paradigms are not fixed ideological systems but constructive tools for discussing and interpreting these texts in light of later or contemporary issues.”

In reference to the first paradigm, sensing the poor, Holman proposes first remembering one’s own story and the needs we have noticed in the communities in which we live.

She speaks of her work as a public health educator in an inner-city clinic: “I will never forget Luella Mae from Mississippi. Twenty-one years old and in her first pregnancy, Luella Mae was four feet seven inches tall, weighed 75 pounds, and could not read. Her mother’s perpetual drunkenness before Luella Mae was born had left her with the mild retardation of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as many congenital abnormalities that required surgery. One of her siblings, born without legs, died. Luella Mae came north to live with a foster ‘aunt,’ but she had been sexually active back home, her aunt said, ‘for food.’ Luella Mae had few choices about the situation life dealt her. People always told her she would die if she got pregnant, she told me, because she was so small.”

It was this kind illustrative sensing of need that the Cappadocian Fathers often used to encourage their listeners to be more sensitive of the issues of social justice within the world in which they lived.

One of the passages which Holman highlights is from a homily of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of Matthew.

If you wish to honor the body of our Savior, then do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in Church wearing the finest vestments while outside the doors the body of Christ is numb with cold. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” he demanded that we care for the body of others. Honor Christ, then, through sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices, but golden souls.

Holman encourages us to use such images, these icons, to form our lives as a point of reflection for entering into love and care for God’s creation.

This is a work that involves more than sympathy. As Holman writes, “The stories in this book are discussed using an approach that I have called empathetic remembering. The word ‘empathy’ is from the Greek en (in) and pathos (passions), meaning the capacity to participate in the visceral emotions or thinking of another. It differs from sympathy, which is a slightly more distanced feeling alongside the other person. To sympathize is to feel for, while to empathize is to feel in.”

In the second paradigm, “sharing the world,” Holman emphasizes the incarnational reality which flows from sensing the world. However, just as sensing is not the same as seeing, sharing is not the same as giving. Sharing is an act which implies both giving and receiving.

In the sixth chapter of her book, “Maria’s Choice,” Holman writes of the lives of Maria of Amida and her mother Euthemia, followers of Jacob of Sarug and a persecuted religious minority of Syrian Christians who lived in exile in what is now Turkey. In Lives of the Eastern Saints, St. John of Ephesus recounts their story. “Euphemia had been wed as a girl and she had a daughter to whom she had given religious instruction since she was quite small. When her husband died this Euphemia and her young daughter had arranged their life so that Euphemia came to move away altogether from a secular existence, turning to the inner world and the example of her sister [Mary]. Euphemia took up a regulated life of devotion and wore the garb of a religious, while learning the psalms and teaching them to her daughter, who had been thoroughly instructed since early youth in psalmody, the Scriptures, and writing. … Euphemia set herself fixed times for reciting the services and for prayers, both night and day. She served two orders together, asceticism and reception of the afflicted.”

Euphemia and Maria went on to become financially independent through the production of linen. They housed and supported a men’s monastic community and provided for the poor, whom Maria would often go out and meet in the streets.

This example reminds me of the stories of many in the Catholic Worker movement whom I know, and also of the house at 77 Rue de Lourmel in Paris established by St. Maria Skobtsova before the outbreak of the Second World War. This model of social justice in the Christian tradition is never one of simple giving. It requires the equitable sharing of all for a sustainable community. The example Holman provides of Euphemia and her daughter Maria suggests a context from which to develop similar models in our own living out of the Gospels.

For Holman, the work of “embodying the sacred kingdom” is the work of the eschaton: the great and final moment. Holman speaks of this work as “bringing the body and its brokenness into direct relation with that divine finale, the Kingdom of God.” This work, accomplished through the celebration of the liturgy, presents both an inward and outward reality.

As St. Maria of Paris wrote about the continuation of the liturgy in daily life:

The liturgy outside of the church is our sacrificial ministry in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our common ministry, an all human sacrificial offering of love, the great act of the man befriending God. The work of the united breath of our spirit … and it seems to me that this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity. … Who can differentiate the worldly from the heavenly in the human soul, who can tell where the image of God ends and the heaviness of the human flesh begins! In communing with the world in the person of each individual human being, we know that we are communing with the image of God, and, contemplating that image, we touch the Archetype, we commune with God. [Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp 75-83]

In the three paradigms that Holman offers to us, we can begin the work of developing a method and bridging the gap to bring a more complete understanding and application of the writings of the Fathers and Mothers within the context of our current lives and practice. They help us to ground the beliefs and actions of our daily lives more fully in the context of the life of the Church.

These paradigms are not independent of one another. They rely on our full presence and awareness of ourselves in each moment as they flow in relationship to one another. Like the work of the Holy Trinity, they point to some definite end which connects us with God.

Michael Taylor lives in Milwaukee’s inner-city, where he lives and works in solidarity with the poor. Previously, he has served base communities in Venezuela and Peru. He is a member of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, an urban parish dedicated to community outreach.

IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010