Archive for the ‘essay’ Category

Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross: Where do we stand?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

metropolitan anthony bloomThere is something we can learn from the story of the woman taken in adultery. This woman had been sinning, freely, light-mindedly, without understanding, in-deed as one of those who did not know what they were doing! And of a sudden she found herself face to face with the fact that sin means death. She was taken in the act, and the Old Testament pro-claimed death unto her. She realized then what sin was. And she was brought to Christ by the crowd who wanted to apply the harshness of the Old Testament law to her, without mercy. And Christ saw that at that moment she had understood everything. She knew that sin meant death, an ultimate destruction in the eyes of the people of the Old Testament who died in separation from God because only in Christ do we find our way back to Him. There was no other way than the descent into the Sheol, the place of the irremediable and eternal absence of God. She knew that everything was over, not only the things that happen in time, but all eternity had become darkness and death: if she only could return to temporary life, to have time to repent, to have time to live in a way that was worthy of God and of herself, she would do it!

And this is what Christ saw in her, this is why He turned to the judges, the sinful men and women who were prepared to kill this woman for her sins while they did not realize their own sinfulness and that they were carrying death upon their shoulders because of them. “Let those of you who are without sin cast the first stones”—and no one dared, because at that moment, these words so simple and so direct brought to their consciousness the fact, that, yes, not one of them was without sin—all had deserted God, renounced their dignity, had betrayed their vocation, and there was no other judgment about them than a death sentence: they could not pronounce it against this woman, because to pronounce it meant that they accepted it for themselves.

And Christ Who knew the hearts of those who were before Him, knew that this woman had gone through the gates of death, and could come back by a divine act that would resurrect her, yes, truly bring her back from an anticipated but certain death. And He told her: Where are those who were condemning thee? Has no one done so? No? Neither do I condemn thee, go in peace, but sin no more!

And these words she could indeed receive in her heart, those words indeed could become the law of her life, because now she knew in her body, in her soul, in her heart and mind, in all her being that sin was death. And she accepted forgiveness which meant life!

Where do we stand, each of us, when we come to confession, when we ask forgiveness from other people, when we are begged by others to forgive them—where do we stand? Are we aware that death is at work in us because of our Godlessness, our sinfulness, the fact that we have chosen? This woman did not know what she was doing, but we have the Gospel speaking to us, we have Christ speaking to us, we know all things: where do we stand?

Let us learn from her; and let us learn also from these men who came armed with stones to stone the sinner and realized that they were locked in the same tragedy of sin and death with her, and that they could not condemn her because to condemn her meant to condemn themselves to the same death.

Are we aware of this when we refuse forgiveness? I am not speaking of the light-minded words of forgiveness which we pronounce so easily—but do we forgive from the depth of our heart? Can we say to God: Forgive as I forgive?

Let us stay with this thought, but also with the victorious joy that God has sent His Son into the world not to judge it but to save it! That salvation is at hand! That it is for us to take—and it is given gratuitously, as love is gratuitous and redeeming.

(Copyright: Estate of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh)

Evil always slashes, plunges into human flesh, or into the human soul. There is always a person-to-person relationship where there is suffering, hate, greed, or cowardice. but the victory is decisive: evil falls into the hands of the good, so to speak, because the moment we become victims, we acquire a right which is properly divine, to forgive. And then, just as Christ said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” so can we in our turn say, as one of our bishops did before his death in the course of the Stalinist purges: “There will come a day when the martyr will be able to stand before the throne of God in defense of his persecutors and say, ‘Lord, I have forgiven in Thy Name and by Thy example: Thou hast no claim against them anymore.’”

—Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

We Must Refuse to Hate Each Other: Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Interview with Archpriest Alexey Uminsky

Archpriest Alexey Uminsky is dean of a Moscow parish, Holy Trinity Church in Khokhly. He is also a television presenter, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Alpha & Omega, and an author of various publications on Christian education. Formerly he served as director of the St. Vladimir Gymnasium and is now the school’s chaplain and confessor. Since October 2003 he has been the chief of the television program “Orthodox Encyclopedia.” In 2010 he was awarded the St. Seraphim of Sarov medal by the Moscow Patriarchate. A controversial figure at times, he was recently accused by a fellow priest of “confusing pacifism with Christianity.” The interview that follows was made by Mila Dubrovina, reporter for the Russian journal Arguments and Facts, and was originally published August 29, 2012.

Q: Let me start by asking about the Pussy Riot case. What was your first reaction to this event?

I hadn’t known about Pussy Riot’s performance until it stirred up a storm in the media. What do you think my reaction would be? How would you behave if strangers with such intentions burst into your house? What would be your first reaction? Shock, horror, pain. If it had happened in my church, I would try to stop them immediately, to kick them out, only to do so peacefully.

Q: Have you since changed your mind about this case? What do you think would be a proper punishment for these young women?

When the situation changes, your opinion changes too. When the shock is over, you begin to reflect. People start wondering: Will they get off without any punishment?

Q: That was the reaction of Fr. Andrey Kuraev  [a popular figure in Russian cultural life well known through the mass media]. At first he called for leniency, but then he changed his mind.

Fr. Andrey Kuraev is a very intelligent person. And he hasn’t changed his attitude toward the situation. At first perhaps he responded too kindly, but the main idea of his statements is that the Church should be merciful, not a punitive body.

Q: What do such actions show? What social problems do they reveal?

They do not reveal any particular problem. Their actions however, provoked the same reaction as exploding bombs.

Q: Maybe that the society is somehow out of order…

The society is certainly out of order. There’s no need saying again that it is seriously ill. And it is obvious that the punishment inflicted on the members of the punk-group is unnecessarily severe. But we do not understand the heart of the matter. The events became an excuse for people to hate each other. Hatred lashes out on both sides! On one side, there are ultra-conservative “banner carriers,” on the other people wearing colorful balaclavas with eye slots. You cannot discern human faces. On both sides, we see enmity. This is the most awful aspect.

Q: You’ve mentioned destructive actions. Recently it has been reported that the FEMEN group [from which the Pussy Riot group emerged] is planning to chop down wooden crosses around the country. Should we protect ourselves, recruit vigilante groups, and quickly change the laws?

Journalists take advantage of the situation with FEMEN without giving any moral assessment of it. For them it is just headlines. I was shocked when I saw a picture of an almost naked young woman chopping down a wooden cross [in Kiev]. That cross had been erected in memory of victims of the KGB, people who had been tortured and killed in the Soviet period. The journalists just stood shooting photos! Not one tried to stop the destruction. So on the one hand you have journalists taking pictures of the cross being chopped down and, on the other, Church leaders turning a blind eye toward “Orthodox activists” who are beating up women whom they regard as enemies of the Church. Both situations are similar.

The issue of chopping down the crosses concerns not only FEMEN. The media too is guilty when it portrays such actions as if they were spectacles or even “glamorous” events. They should be seen as acts of unmitigated savagery. I experience the same feeling when I see caricatures of Mohammed.

Now we see certain Russian Orthodox activists forming vigilante groups that are looking forward to incidents when malefactors chop down crosses or behave in an outrageous way. It will simply give them a chance to show off.

Q: When the Patriarch commented on the December events [prior to the Russian general election], he said that an Orthodox Christian would be better off staying at home and praying instead of attending a demonstration. People thought he was in effect opposing protests. 

Well, the Patriarch did not specify which meeting the believers should not attend. There were different meetings in Moscow. Some were pro-Putin and others were against him. The Patriarch opposed all the meetings.

Q: Did the Patriarch demand a harsh punishment for the members of Pussy Riot?

Not at all. He did not comment on this case at all out of principle. Do you remember when and what he said? The only statement was made by the Superior Church Council after the sentencing.…The Church is not guilty of private statements [made by individuals] that are constantly ascribed to it.

Q: Like those made by Fr. Chaplin, for instance? [Archpriest Chaplin is Chairman of the office of Interaction of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate.]

Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin is a notorious figure. I don’t know with whom to compare him. His only counterpart in politics is Zhirinovsky [the Russian politician who often speaks in a confrontational style bordering on farce]. How could Chaplin make statements that justify those who hit women in the face? He said, “I don’t approve of everything they do, but they are good guys.” How could a Church officer approve of such behavior? Instead he should have sharply criticized them, these so-called nationalists, many of whom are anti-Semites. How can a Christian be an anti-Semite if Jesus was a Jew?

Q: People often forget that.

To go back to you earlier question, the general public is disturbed about the harsh sentence given to the girls, and rightly so. But not many people seem worried about the consequences of the stunt on the young women who did it. How will it affect their lives? If hooligans come into my Church and desecrate it, I shall simply clean it up and continue to celebrate Liturgies there. The Church remains a holy place. But what will happen to their lives?

Q: And if they had come to you and repented, would you have accepted them?

Certainly I would take them in! I pray for it. I pray that we would help them, speak to them. We should speak a lot with them. They do not understand, it seems hardly anyone understands, what a huge gift they have given to Vladimir Putin, what a winning card they have presented to the authorities. At the same time they make themselves a target — people whom we should be united against. People are always willing to unite in hatred against a common enemy. The most horrible thing is now there is so much hatred on both sides. That’s much worse than leaving the Church.

Q: Don’t you think that intellectuals are moving away from the Church?

The main problem is not that anyone is leaving the Church* but rather that those who could have come, don’t. This is much more important. No one can leave the Church completely. The Church changes a person forever. Even if you leave it for a while, you return later. The real problem is that those who were almost ready, who need to come, do not.

As for conservatives, the so-called “banner carriers,” they don’t need the Church. They need a get-together, a kind of narrow circle. They pretend to be Christians, but

their belief has nothing to do with Christianity. If they had really come into the Church, it would have changed them, and they would be cured from nationalism. They would become Christians with a Russophile [a 19th century movement critical of westernization] bias, like Khomyakov and Aksakov, who outlined a particular path for Russia. And if modern oppositionists had come into the Church, they would have become Westernizers, like Chaadaev or Solovyev. Don’t forget that there have been similar disputes within Russian society in the past, but the climate of argument was quite different. It never degraded itself to the level we see today.

Q: What is the main lesson that we should take from these events?

As the proverb goes: “The devil is laughing at us.” People are happy when they can hate each other and this hatred increases every day. The antagonism is telling. We should struggle only to overcome enmity and nothing else. We should never ever lose our human dignity. We should refuse to wear masks and also refuse to merge with the hatred-infected crowd. Most of all, we should always remember Christ who suffered for every human being. The Church, first and foremost, recognizes not the crowd, but the person.  IC

*On the web site of Fr. Uminsky’s parish is this brief message: A word to those thinking about leaving the Church: We should be with the Church not only in the time of its glory.

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of the interview with Fr. Uminsky.

Quotes Related to Fr. Uminsky’s Interview:

If I were the keeper of the church’s key, I would treat them to pancakes and a cup of mead and would invite them to come again on the Sunday of Forgive-ness…. What the young women did was an outrage, but a “legal” outrage…after all, it’s Shrovetide, a season of clowning, buffoonery, and hoaxes.  —Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev (Shrovetide is a Bacchanalian festival season dating back centuries in Russian culture during which time all manner of foolery was overlooked by the Church and civil authorities).

The tragedy of the church is that it has always grown too close to the state, and then it pays for it. Now the church is trying to prove to the Kremlin it is a serious and useful player…. We are at a crossroads: either the church starts to stand up for conscience or it will get blamed for all the Kremlin’s faults. But for that we need to abandon our old illusions: the “Third Rome” dreams of an Orthodox superpower.  —Archpriest Alexei Uminsky

The enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere….We must protect holy places from liberals and their satanic ideology. —Ivan Ostrakovsky, leader of a group of Russian Orthodox vigilantes who patrol the streets of nighttime Moscow, dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses and the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death.” (A collective of such groups from across Russia is organized under the name the “Banner Bearers.”)

That’s the ironic thing. If they had made a sincere prayer—there’s a long history of Christians praying sincerely for the Lord to deliver them from rulers that they believed to be unjust—instead of a mocking prayer, they might have gotten people on their side. Sincerity is always better than mockery; mockery only has the aim of wounding and hurting people.  —Frederica Mathewes-Green

 

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

A Sermon From Moscow: A Parish Priest Speaks to His Flock

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Fr. Alexander Borisov

Dear friends, our short summer is over. It was, as our poet Alexander Pushkin put it, “a parody of southern winters.” On the whole, the weather wasn’t bad: we had it hot and we had it raining. Now it is getting cold. Fall and winter lie ahead with the liturgical year and the school year starting at the same time. During the summer not only our regular work, but also the church activities slowed down. Now we have to catch up and to get into the rhythm of the congregational and spiritual life.

In fact, the current situation offers us plenty of new—or rather recurring— challenges. The whole situation around the Pussy Riot affair, with all of its absurdity and shame, is telling. It reveals the moral state of our society, both of the church and the world. We are seeing a horrible polarity of viewpoints—from harsh, Soviet-Stalinist mythologies to extreme permissiveness. We have clearly seen who we are. We have seen that religiosity coexists with intolerance, reverencing church sanctuaries while hating those of unpopular views.

But didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say about Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)? Then in order to live like Christians don’t we need to reflect which of our Lord’s precepts applies to these particular challenges?

There are many relevant passages in the Gospel. Take the episode where Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem were not accepted in a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).

It seems even his closest disciples were ready to release their “righteous” wrath. They even found a precedent worthy of imitation: “even as Elias did.” But Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.’”

We Christians possess a great source of wisdom. Why guess how to act in this or that case if we have a clear word from the Gospel? Follow it, and you will never regret. The Gospel may not give a direct answer to every question important to us, but in this case, there is plenty of advice, more than we will ever need.

But when we yield to our sinful passions, especially when political factors get involved, our reaction becomes inadequate, resulting in absurd and tangled consequences.

It would have been enough to reprimand the girls and to let them go, as Deacon Andrey Kuraev suggested, or at most to sentence them to 15 days of imprisonment. Instead we have a grand trial. The scale of the prosecution and the sentence are clearly out of proportion to the persons and their mis-behavior, with the sentence turning stupid young hooligans into “heroines of our time.”

I recall an episode from the early years of Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize laureate in litera-ture. He was eating in a restaurant with some friends. Suddenly Vladimir Mayakovsky, then a young radical poet, appeared. He took Bunin’s glass, started drinking from it and then began eating from his plate. Bunin watched him without saying a word. Finally Mayakovsky asked “Why don’t you react?” Ivan Bunin quietly answered “It would do you too much honor.” This seems to be applicable to the current scandal.

Certainly, every Christian should have his or her own moral stand on these events and on personal moral standards. But obviously we should not be carried away by endless disputes and discussions on the Internet and in the media.

Soon after the Pussy Riot sentencing, there was a scandal in a Moscow café called Mu-Mu. A group of “Orthodox zealots” saw a girl with words from the Pussy Riot “punk prayer” on her T-shirt. They demanded that she remove the shirt. Apparently, the severe condemnation by the state court provided some people with a license to attack anyone who finds the sentence unjust or simply thinks differently.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a
commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

As a protest against the harsh sentence, some people—fortunately, not many— expressed their intention to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, in some difficult situations we may have a temptation to leave and “slam the door.” I think, though, that radical decisions such as “I’ll leave the Church” are the result of spiritual immaturity. In such cases, I strongly recommend that parishioners read the book The Church of the Faithful by Sergey Fudel. It has been recently published with an excellent preface by Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.

This book discusses the same issues as we face today, but it gives the answers based on the experience of the Russian Church history of the first half of the twentieth century, specifically of the “renovationist” schism that occurred within the Church in the twenties. Sergey Fudel was the son of Joseph Fudel, a famous Moscow priest who was dean of the Byturka prison church. The views of Sergey Fudel were born in suffering, in far harsher conditions than the present ones. He was arrested several times, exiled, and persecuted. In his book, he argued that even the errors made by the hierarchy cannot be an excuse for a split within a church.

Recently there was yet another reaction to the Pussy Riot trial. In some areas of Russia, some people have cut down Orthodox crosses erected in public places. (The three condemned girls, I must note, have publicly protested against these acts.) Some lawmakers immediately proposed severe punishment for such actions. However I doubt that these legislative proposals, if adopted, would add sympathy to the Church and to us Christians.

Something similar took place in Crimea in the early nineteen-nineties. The authorities in Crimea did not respond to this—Christians just erected new crosses. Soon the malefactors stopped cutting them down and Orthodoxy was only strengthened. Striving to severely punish offenders is completely opposite to St. Paul’s advice in his epistles. As he wrote:  “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (I Thess. 5:15), and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19–21).

I’d like to finish this long epistle on a lyrical note. Our wonderful poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava speaks about dignity as an important aspect of human spirit:

Human dignity is a mysterious instrument:

Created for ages but lost in a moment.

Attacked by the noise of bellows, bombing, or babbling

It’s easily dried out or blasted down at the root.

So don’t waste yourself, brother, damn the vain chase

Or you’ll lose your primeval beauty and forsake your divine face.

Why risk all for nothing? Have you no higher cares?

So get up and go, a servant, climbing only upstairs.  IC

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of Fr. Borisov’s sermon.

Fr. Borisov is the rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Shubino in Moscow. Fr. Borisov is in the spiritual lineage of Fr. Alexander Men. His church is active in youth work, social services, and ministries to the poor and homeless. He has instituted an encompassing catechetical ministry in the belief that the path out of despair—the chief sin responsible for 98% of Russia’s problems, according to Fr. Borisov—is a firm grounding in the truths of the Church and the Gospel, the only path that will lead the Russian Church away from ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, Nationalism, and fundamentalism.

  ❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

 

Orthodox Culture as the Cross in “Cross-Cultural”

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Steven Hayes

There are differences between Russian culture and Western culture, and differences within Russian and Western culture. There seems to be a huge gap in understanding these differences. But these differing views also have something in common: they share in the failure to understand cultural differences, and they share in the readiness to condemn those whose culture they do not understand.

But what about Orthodoxy? Is there an Orthodox culture, and does it have anything to say about this?

Yes, I believe there is an Orthodox culture, and it is well expressed in one of the hymns we sing repeatedly in the Paschal season:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered
Let those who hate him flee from before his face.

Does that apply to Pussy Riot?

Yes, I believe it does.

But you have to come to the end of the hymn to see how it applies:

This is the day of resurrection.
Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

So what do we call the members of Pussy Riot?

Sisters.

And what do we do with them?

Embrace them, forgive them by the resurrection and tell them that God loves them and we love them too.

That’s Orthodox culture.  IC

Borrowed from Khanya, the blog of Deacon Steven Hayes. Khanya means “shine” in Zulu. Deacon Hayes blogs prolifically on Orthodox subjects and matters of interest. His collective posts on the Pussy Riot affair present a thoughtful examination of the various important aspects and dimensions of the entire episode. Visit his blog at: http://khanya.wordpress.com

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

The Desert Finds Us

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Alexander Patico

The joint between the pelvic bone (the ilium) and the last bone of the spine (the sacrum) acts as the bridge between one’s core and one’s locomotive apparatus. Running, walking—even standing or sitting—don’t occur without this juncture being functional. Attached to those skeletal elements are ligaments and muscles; running alongside them are the spinal cord and long, fibrous nerve tissues branching out to every extremity. Structural anomalies, aging processes and daily stresses can, in combination, put your sacroiliac out of alignment, creating pain of various types and locations.

Desert

Once again, my back was acting up. Suddenly, the easy link to friends and family,  the members of our fellowship, and others was gone because sitting at my computer was not one of the positions that “worked” for me. If I went to church, neither standing nor sitting was an option. Eating dinner became a race between assuaging hunger and avoidance of discomfort. The trail and the gym would have to wait.

When I realized, after some long days of watching TV and playing solitaire on my iPod, that I was in danger of becoming depressed, I took up a book that I had been intending to read for some time: In the Heart of the Desert: the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by John Chryssavgis. The book concerns the wisdom found in the apothegmata or “sayings” compiled in various collections and found in commentaries on the early Christian ascetics.

My journey into that book was like a trip in a time-machine to ancient Scetis; it was so far from what had been occupying my mind that it was a complete change of scenery—intellectual, rather than physical—a venturing into solitary spiritual exploration. Fr. John’s writing, from which I had often benefited before, led the way into “the heart of the desert.”

What follows I have arranged much as he did, by themes, but with his own words taking the place of the patristic quotations he used to such good effect. They are cherry-picked, plucked out of context (much as the patristic writings themselves inevitably are)—each sentence is, to borrow a phrase from Fr. John himself, an “intense drop of wisdom.” But I hope that they are tantalizing enough to move the reader to go to the fuller text. Ideally, reading Fr. John’s book will lead to further forays into the precious legacy of the Fathers and Mothers themselves, which in turn leads to personal spiritual journeys into the depth of one’s own heart, where Our Lord awaits each of us.

The Sayings: Can the life of those hesychasts of long ago have relevance for our twenty-first century life? We each must decide what use to make of the wisdom that comes to us across a lacuna of nearly two thousand years, but Fr. John provides guidance in how to do that: “We should think of these sayings as myth. Read them as powerful stories, each with an inner meaning or secret, a message or mask.” (There is perhaps an obvious resonance with the role of Jesus’ parables in the New Testament.)

“My purpose,” he says, “will not be to make the Sayings relevant to our time and ways; that often proves a futile exercise, which only distorts the original text and is an injustice both to it and to us. Rather, it will be to make our time and ways relate to the Sayings…I believe that the words of these elders smash the structures of complexity and rationalization with which we often clutter and confuse our lives.”

Historical Context: Especially helpful was the way Fr. John provided a sketch of what surrounded the “desert era” and why its contribution is so important, especially after the Constantinian watershed: “…the spirit of martyrdom…had nurtured the Church for three centuries. It was around the year 300, no longer a risk to be a Christian…numbers of those baptized rose dramatically; standards dropped drastically…the voice of the desert’s heart replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood…the Desert Fathers and Mothers…reminded the rest of the Church that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14).” Therefore, a comfortable home in Maryland can be as fitting a place for encountering the infinite as a cave at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Universality of the Struggle: As I sat in my house, tempted to feel sorry for myself for having been sidelined by a relatively minor physical problem, I was pushed to reexamine my predicament from the perspective of what my soul most needed: “…if you do not have to go to the desert, you do have to go through the desert...you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another…if, however, we accept to undergo this experience voluntarily, then it can prove both constructive and liberating.”

The prospect of an indefinite period not being able to attend meetings or go shopping, having to cancel a visit with my daughter in Georgia, all seemed a “thorn in my side”—like the one described by St. Paul. Fr. John notes: “We do not want to face change, or pain, or passion, or death, [yet] our suffering and wounds have a remarkable way of unlocking the door to authenticity…. In order to be truly alive, we require the capacity to be wounded, to be vulnerable. It is only out of our ongoing woundedness and continual vulnerability that we can learn also to heal.”

“Our culture teaches us that the more we have, the better we are; Antony’s taught him that the less he had, the more he was!… Abba Antony said: ‘A time is coming when people will go insane. And when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person saying, “You are crazy; you are not like us.”’” Look at our economics: as we see ever-greater discrepancies of circumstance between those many who are literally starving and those few who have wealth beyond reckoning, we must wonder—am I crazy, or are they? Isn’t something wrong with this picture?

Silence: Why did I, after all, consider my precipitous isolation a burden? The fact is, I now had time to pray, and to ponder many things. Perhaps my condition was forcing me to acknowledge the difficulty I had paying attention to a “still, small voice”—or even my wife or my friends. Fr. John wrote: “Silence is…the first duty of love…the first requirement for survival within community…[according to] Abba Poemon, ‘Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening.’ Words are ways of affirming our existence, of justifying our actions. We speak in order to excuse ourselves, within ourselves and before others; whereas silence is a way of dying—within ourselves and in the presence of others…. When we refuse the challenge of silence, then we cannot know ourselves. It is not that we may be tempted to think that we are more than we actually are; it is, unfortunately, then that we tolerate being less than we truly are called to be. Pride is not the ultimate sin; forgetfulness of who we are is the ultimate tragedy.”

Dispassion: Boredom, frustration, somnolence, and irritation—the fruits of my imposed inactivity were not pretty. Would anger and misanthropy eventually follow, as I licked my psychic wounds and further inflamed them? I read, “…when the desert elders speak of apatheia or dispassion…dispassion is not the suppression of passions, it is the submission of all passions to the source and end of all desire, namely ‘the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness’ (Matt. 6:33). It is only then that we may truly know what it is to be com-passionate…When passions are distorted, then our soul is divided and we are no longer integrated, whole…. Knowing our passions becomes not a crushing but a healing experience. Then, fresh possibilities are discovered in our life and in our world.”

“It takes a long time to become a human being…. In the unnoticeable changes toward ever-growing perfection, it is the things that we love that reveal to us who we are. It is the things to which we are most attached that show us where our priorities lie. It is our very imperfections—what they like to call passions and what we invariably call our wounds—that lead us to the way of perfection.”

Monastic Rule: Something in me both enjoyed and chaffed against the lack of structure to my days. How would I fare in a desert fastness where ordinary society, with its routines, were left behind? “Alongside the more institutional lines of ‘apostolic succession’ there was also a complementary inspirational element of ‘spiritual succession.’ This is why they did not establish regulations or write down fixed rules. The only rule was that there were no hard rules. Flexibility was the sole rule of the desert.”

Community: Though alone much of the time, I was, through Chryssavgis’ writings, in very good company. “The desert elders were convinced that we cannot know our heart without the presence of at least one other person [as] giving and sharing are of the essence…. ‘Allowing or sharing space’ is the literal meaning of the Greek term syn-chore-sis as well as our English equivalent translation for-give-ness…. In general, the desert produced healers, not thinkers.”

Dualism: Was I merely occupying my thoughts, as I read about Egypt of the fourth century, or was I opening the door of my most intimate self to something vital and profound? “The Coptic monks of the desert knew only a single word and a single struggle for designating both the mind and the heart. We tend to separate the mind from the heart. We like to fill the mind; yet we forget the heart. Or else, we fill the heart with information that should fill the mind. Nevertheless, the two work differently: the mind learns; the heart knows. The mind is educated; the heart believes. The mind is intellectual, speculative—it reads and speaks; the heart is intuitive, mystical—it grows in silence. The two should be held together, and they should be brought together in the presence of God.”

Elitism: How privileged I was to have plenty to eat, a temperature-controlled environment and a pleasant view out our windows—not to mention the hundreds of books on our shelves—while I was contributing little to anything outside of myself. How did the hermit deal with his own extraneousness? “The simple answer to the question…concerning elitism is that the way of the desert is not a selfish way, so long as everyone else is also traveling the same journey…. If we remain outside of the desert process, then their way will surely appear selfish…[but] everyone is called to go through the desert. We must, [Abba Alonius] claimed, be totally alone with God and with ourselves in order to rebuild and reshape ourselves…. We must never use love and service as excuses to avoid the inner work of transformation. All of us—and especially those in the caring professions—should take time out for ourselves in retreat, for our friends in relaxation, and for God in prayer.”

Environment: As the days went on, I became more aware of the variety of bird- calls that could be heard outdoors, the noises of planes, traffic and road con-struction, the shouts of kids and their parents. I became more synced to the changes of sky and wind, sun and rain—a mild form of what the desert-dwellers must have experienced. “Detachment…implied a sense of becoming one with the environ-ment. Their holiness was part and parcel of a sense of wholeness. If at-one-ment with their neighbor was of the essence of desert spirituality, so too was at-tune-ment to their environment, to the world, and to God.”

“The desert elders were, in the most intense and intimate manner, ‘materialists.’ Everything—including simple matter—really mattered!… These elders may some-times appear eccentric; but eccentricity means moving the center, recentering the world on God.

“If you don’t go within, then you go without. When we neglect the world of the spirit, then we also end up neglecting the spirit of the world; and when we disregard the world of our soul, we in fact end up ignoring the soul of the world.”

Gender: Was I willing to have meals fixed for me because I was uncomfortable standing, or because they were being prepared by my wife, and that is part of her role? Had it been the same when she had surgery on her neck and I was pressed into caretaker service, or did I rely on carry-out? Women and men approach retreat, too, from slightly different perspectives. “Moving into the desert meant taking a step into the realm of freedom: freedom from slavery, freedom from obligatory subjection, freedom from exploitation, and especially freedom from possession. Generally, women in the early Christian centuries did not own themselves; they did not possess or control their lives or even their bodies. They were at the disposal of other people, normally men, who owned them; these might include their fathers (as children), their spouses (as wives), or their lords (as servants)…. In the desert, however, women were able to throw off these constraints and restrictions…[and] were able to remind the men (who might otherwise have been tempted to forget!) that their goal in the desert was not to fulfill particular social roles. By struggling to exclude and overcome the conventional forms, the Desert Mothers themselves became witnesses and martyrs of another reality.”

Miracles: With changes in my activity, came changes of perception, though not nearly as radical as that which would accompany long years of reclusiveness. “In the desert…reality acquired a different perspective. Somehow, the order of this world was infiltrated and influenced by the order of another world…. Explaining miracles rationally is like trying to explain the existence of God logically. It is not so much that trying to make sense of God is wrong; but trying to make sense of the world without God—at least in the mind of these early Desert Fathers and Mothers—is certainly insane.”

Prayer: Why, when I now had all the time in the world, was I not spending more time in prayer? “‘There is no greater labor [said Abba Agathon] than that of prayer to God. For every time a person wants to pray, one’s enemies, the demons, want to prevent one from praying, for they know that it is only by turning one away from prayer that they can hinder one’s journey. Whatever good works a person undertakes, if one perseveres in them, one will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’ Prayer is acceptance of frailty and failure—first within ourselves, and then in the world around us. When we are able to accept our brokenness, without any pretense and without any pretexts, then we are also able to embrace the brokenness of others, valuing everyone else without exception. Prayer is learning to live, without expecting to see results; it is learning to love, without hoping to see return; it learning to be, without demanding to have.”

“It must be remembered that the monastic way of life is merely the life according to the Gospel…. All people are called to respond to Christ’s call to salvation. The circumstances of the response may very externally, but the path is essentially one. In the spiritual life there is no sharp distinction between the monastic and the non-monastic; the monastic life is simply the Christian life, lived in a particular way.”

Finding God: In reading the book, I found that solitude no longer meant loneliness. “God is right there, in the middle of our struggles…. Our aim is to stay there…. Struggling…is a way of fully living life and not merely observing it…. In the struggle—in the very place where we meet God, and where we are loved by God—we too discover how to love others…. The desert experience was a love-based theology and a love-based spirituality. Fear denies the body and the world; love affirms every detail in our life and in the world…. The only and ultimate response to ourselves, to others and to God is love. Every other response is but a derivative dimension and secondary version of the primary reality of love.”

The Task: Perhaps something had begun that would not be—and should not be—set aside when my back was fully healed. “No one can lead us into the desert. Each one of us must find our own path. Each must look for the places where we are tempted, where we are lonely, thirsty for meaning, and hungry for depth. Each of us will discover the areas that need to be purified, where we can encounter God and where God speaks to us…. Those are the places and the moments of temptation; those are also the places and the moments of transformation…. We can learn…the beauty of eating and drinking, of sleeping and waking, of walking and talking, quite simply of breathing and living. Our heart will beat in unison with the heart of the world. For then we shall know that we are less than what we are called to be when we are without one another… [and] can be grateful to God for ‘making us truly alive.’”  IC

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Forgiving All in the Light of the Resurrection

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Elizabeth Gassin and Robert Enright

Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.

           —St. Seraphim of Sarov

This examination of forgiveness by Professors Gassin and Enright expands on the work of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s two part series (IC 62 and 63) by looking through an Orthodox Theological lens at the psychological dimensions of forgive-ness which is their area of professional and scholarly expertise. Having first intro-duced us to their work in Forgiveness Education (IC 62) and then to the scientific underpinnings of forgiveness (IC 64), they conclude our year-long look at forgiveness by first elaborating an understanding of the reasons for and process of being merciful to an offender from an Orthodox theological perspective before identifying forgiveness themes and practices in Orthodox life, both liturgical and personal.

Orthodox Theology and Forgiveness: Orthodox theology, of course, flows from an understanding of Who the Holy Trinity is. Eastern Christian theology, perhaps more so than Western, focuses on the re-lationship between the Persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is not surprising that the human individual, made in God’s image, is seen in more relational terms as well. Writings in the Eastern tradition often blur the boundaries between the triad of God, self, and other, and it is in this interconnection between persons and between persons and God that we find a unique foundation for forgiving. (Of course, God’s immanence emphatically does not prohibit God’s transcendence over His creation.)

Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Following St. Irenaeus and others, the Orthodox Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God in man. The image of God encompasses basic characteristics such as freedom, creativity, rationality, and the potential for God-likeness, which includes the capacity to love. While the image remains after the Fall, each person must struggle, fueled by God’s energies, to resurrect His likeness within herself.  This struggle is salvation, the process of theosis. This likeness that is being resurrected is a more authentic communion with God and others that is based on divine virtue (mercy, justice, etc.).

As we will see, the process of theosis involves transforming passions (energy, impulses) within us, but this cannot be done in isolation. One’s relationship with other persons is a foundation of the process. As the Confessor Nikon of Optina wrote:

Greet each person, no matter who he might be, with good feelings and a hope to find in him only good, seeing before yourself the image of God…. Your salvation and your demise are in your neighbor. Your salvation depends on how you relate to your neighbor.

If we are tempted to think such directives extend only to those who do not hurt us, Father Thomas Hopko reminds us otherwise:

Loving those who abuse us is perhaps the ultimate sign that we have opened ourselves up to the life-changing power of God, are becoming the person that we will be in the age to come, and are bringing God’s Kingdom to others.

We explore further this particularly meaningful idea below.

Orthodox teaching about the person, developed largely in the context of the monastic life, sheds light on the psychological aspects of offering interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the foundation of this process is when thumos, the power of our souls that when distorted is vengeful anger, and epithumia, the aspect that is unhealthy attachment when distorted, are submitted to our logos (reason, thought, or word: for our purposes here, we can define the  logos of each individual as God’s purpose or intention for that person). According to St. Maximus the Confessor, each entity in creation is endowed with its own logos, which in turn is related to the Divine Logos, Christ, through Whom all things were created. The Divine Logos, of course, is inherently humble, loving, self-sacrificing, and yet also firm in Truth. Therefore, in submitting our epithumia and thumos to our logos, they are transformed into an energy that strives outward, not to hurt another but to do well for and by him, yet without compromising a clear account of the offense and its effects on the forgiver.

Psychological research on anger and interpersonal attachment provides evidence that the Fathers were correct in calling the energies of thumos and epithumia unhealthy when distorted. For example, much work has been done on the effects of the Type A personality, which consists of rigidity, feeling pressured by schedules and deadlines, being easily angered, and letting hostility fester. Many studies have demonstrated a relationship between the Type A personality and health. It is not surprising to us, then, that the most consistent sub-factor to be related to poor health is hostility. Thumos run amok, without the logos as guiding principle, is indeed poison. Regarding epithumia, a large body of literature on interpersonal attachment demonstrates that those with a clingy, “preoccupied” style of emotional connection report more psychological and interpersonal problems than those with a warm but self-confident style. Similar negative results are found for those with a cold, “dismissing” style of emotional bonding. Letting one’s thoughts and feelings be dominated by an offender, or coldly cutting her out of one’s life, parallel these two unhealthy attachment styles. Mental and physical health seem intimately tied to a habit of having compassionate relations to others and yet respecting oneself, both of which may be crucial aspects of the logos of a person. In this, healthy attachment looks much like forgiveness.

A person hurt by another works synergistically with God to make forgiveness happen. Participation in the Mysteries, seeking counsel of a spiritual father or mother, fasting, confession, prayer (in general, and specifically for our offenders), and acts of charity—among other spiritual disciplines—constitute our portion of this work. They are woven into a fabric with God’s grace that enables us to do all this and more. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, the energies within us that were directed towards revenge and either obsessive attachment or cold detachment are purified to become the motivation to think and say positive things about the person who hurt us, to act in a manner that benefits that person (at the very least, continuing to pray for him), and to hope that all goes well for him in life.

How does this process represent some of the theological points we mentioned earlier in this article? Clearly, this take on forgiveness involves a dance between three persons: God, the forgiver, and the offender. The salvation of the forgiver is bound up in participating in this dance. A certain perichoresis* exists between God and forgiver as God’s grace, His divine presence, enables the forgiver to extend mercy and care to an offender, who also bears the image of God. In doing so, the forgiver incarnates the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” in the life of the offender and others touched by the hurtful situation. Paradoxically, in lifting one’s soul to God for help and directing one’s energy now for the good of the offender (rather than the “good” of self, at least as the world understands it), the forgiver has found his true self. Working with God in this endeavor, he has increased in himself that likeness of the loving, self-giving, relational Trinity that was lost in the Fall. And if the offender repents as a result of receiving forgiveness, the forgiver has also participated in the development of some of God’s likeness in that person, too.

In short, in the forgiveness process, the forgiver has traveled further along the path of salvation: God’s likeness is being resurrected in her as she grows in com-munion with Him and others. She participates in Christ’s Incarnation, allowing Divinity to infuse her human nature and extending mercy in the flesh. She joins in His Transfiguration, revealing the purity of the logos God has given her by the power of the Logos of God. She shares in Christ’s death on the Cross, in suffering submit-ting her own will to the will of the One who is Love, for the sake of others’ (and paradoxically, her own) salvation. She communes with the Resurrected Christ, being raised from her hell of anger and a desire for revenge, now bearing the promise of new life to the offender. She shares in His Ascension, taking fallen human nature—her own as well as her offender’s, via her prayers—into the realm of Divine Love and Truth. She participates in Pentecost, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit to convey the Truth of love to the offender. And, as noted above, she helps in the advent of “the second and glorious coming” of the Lord, bringing a bit of God’s Kingdom into the fallen history of humanity. If, from an Orthodox perspective, salvation is union with the Triune God, forgiving one who has hurt us provides an opportunity like few others for this union.

Having set the theological context for forgiveness, we now turn to the forgive-ness journey itself. First, we look at how forgiveness is woven through communal Orthodox worship, providing ample encouragement towards and opportunity for forgiveness in the Church community. We then look at other aspects of an Orthodox Christian lifestyle that may be of help as one walks the path of a life of mercy.

Forgiving all ResurrectionOrthodox Worship and Forgiveness: A variety of liturgical practices in Orthodoxy illumine the process and importance of interpersonal forgiveness. Perhaps the most commonly celebrated one is the Divine Liturgy, at which the faithful receive Holy Communion. Forgiveness permeates this service, as the celebrants ask for forgiveness before beginning the celebration, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon, and right before Holy Communion itself. In some parishes, the celebrants request this forgiveness aloud, while in others the request is symbolically made by their silent prostration before the worshipers. In our experience, parishioners typically bow in response, honoring the request and symbolically entreating forgiveness as well. Likely this emphasis on mutual forgiveness is linked to Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:23-24), directing reconciliation with adversaries before one brings his or her offering to the altar. And although not all Orthodox Christians practice a pre-communion prayer rule, it is worth noting that the standard rule directs the one wishing to commune to “first be reconciled with all who have grieved” him before even beginning the actual pre-communion prayers. Regarding this, we note two things. First, the directive in the prayer rule is to reach out not to those we have grieved, but to those who have grieved us (i.e., our offenders). In addition, we should think carefully about what “be reconciled” means in this context. It is hard to imagine Christ and the Fathers asking us to force ourselves on another person if that person does not wish to be in a functional relationship with us. Perhaps it is best to interpret the emphasis on reconciliation in the context of St. Paul’s directive to “live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18). In such a case, the pre-communion directive to be reconciled may be understood as an instruction to root out anger and foster benevolence in ourselves towards an offender, and to reach out to him in love, but not to force him to repent and/or enter back into a relationship that is hurtful to both parties. In other words, the pre-communion directive is to forgive. This directive is not meant to be a grim obligation, but instead wise and joyful preparation for entering into communion with the Holy Trinity, who is Love.

Before leaving the topic of the Divine Liturgy, we visit the zenith of the liturgical year: Great Lent and Pascha. As most Orthodox know, during Great Lent the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is served. This service is distinguished in part by the relatively long prayers during the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the lengthy prayer read after the consecration of the gifts, the celebrant entreats the Lord to remember and bless many categories of people, including “those who hate us.” While on the surface, this is a prayer intended to benefit an offender, we submit that it is also much more than that. We must recognize that it is chanted in the context of preparing and receiving Holy Communion. In this, we again encounter the idea that our salvation is heavily dependent not only on how we commune with God, but also with each other. The Body and Blood I receive have been consecrated not only for my salvation, but also for the salvation of those who hurt me. My destiny and theirs are intertwined at the deepest level when even I alone partake of the Holy Mysteries. I and my offenders are in some way united to one another in Christ via Holy Communion, and whether this is unto my salvation or judgment depends on the degree to which I have allowed God to love them through me.

Although the Resurrection is stressed at every Sunday liturgy, the Paschal ser-vice is, of course, unique in its content. One of the distinctive texts of the service is the Paschal Verses, in which we hear:

This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us em-brace each other. Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection.

There are probably various ways to understand the meaning of these verses, but in the context of this paper, we see Christ’s Resurrection being the motivator and the means by which we forgive. The power that raised the Lord from death is more than strong enough to raise us from our grave of anger and bitterness. In addition, Christ’s Resurrection was the event that lay the foundation for Ascension and Pentecost. All three of these feasts stress the intermingling of humanity and divinity. In forgiving an offender, that intermingling continues: our limited and fallen humanity becomes the expression of God’s powerful Kingdom of Love here on earth. Not only can we forgive all by the Resurrection, but in forgiving we bring the Resurrection to fruition again and again.

Metropolitan Kallistos has presented a beautiful and thorough exposition of another key Orthodox liturgical event related to forgiveness: Forgiveness Sunday. This capstone of the season of Lenten preparation provides a unique opportunity to usher more of God’s Kingdom into this world. His Eminence has described the process and background of this service. Therefore, here we will add only a few notes on some research that substantiates parishioners’ experience of Forgiveness Sunday, demonstrating the helpfulness of this ritual in the struggle to forgive. Gassin and Sawchak surveyed 178 persons online about the meaning and effect of the Vespers service that contains the forgiveness ritual. Most persons responded positively about the ritual. The most common themes included bringing one’s own psychological experience into conformity with the ritual and other Lenten practices, further development of identity as an Orthodox Christian, and sensing stronger ties to the parish community. A follow-up study involving more detailed interviews with six other Orthodox Christians confirmed many of the themes mentioned by the larger sample. These interviews revealed new emphases as well, such as using the ritual as a moral and spiritual learning experience for the younger generation. As Metropolitan Kallistos noted, however, not all react positively to the ritual. The occasional respondent in both studies noted the forgiveness ritual seemed empty, frustrating, or even scary, suggesting that clergy and other religious educators may need to incorporate more education about forgiveness and the ritual into pre-Lenten preparation, so that all parishioners may come to understand the beauty of offering and receiving mercy. Despite the occasional negative comment, the large majority of responses in the study were positive and theologically astute. This suggests that most people derive some sense of progressing on the path of salvation via the ritual, which in turn provides some evidence from psychological research that forgiveness can be a pathway through which God’s Kingdom comes “here on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Other Helps Within and Beyond Orthodoxy: Aside from participating in the sacraments and praying the liturgical texts during services, other aspects of the Orthodox tradition can also assist in one’s forgiveness journey. For example, reading the lives of saints can inspire with their rich examples of persons who were treated unfairly and yet forgave. The life of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia serves as an example. Soon after her husband was murdered, St. Elizabeth visited the assassin to offer her forgiveness. Many, many other holy people followed Christ’s example of forgiving His persecutors, and their stories are abundantly available to us, urging us on in running the race of mercy.

Prayer can also be a key part of the struggle to forgive. Aside from the liturgical prayers mentioned above, prayer at home can be crucial. Some prayers books, such as St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, include prayers for enemies and prayers for the eradication of anger. Because humility appears to foster forgiveness of others, prayers that entreat God to grant us humility may also be useful in helping us to forgive. These include, but are not limited to, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Both are read during Great Lent, but they may be read at other times as well. Asking the inter-cessions of saints who have been models of forgiveness, and entreating the help of one’s guardian angel in warding off angry thoughts, also can be of benefit. The one striving to forgive may also read prayers for the health of an offender, or for their repose, if the offender is already dead. In doing so, one seeks to extend God’s mercy towards the offender, creating that “trinity” of God, self, and other, united in love.

The Orthodox individual striving to forgive may also find it helpful to attend to the persons and events portrayed in the iconography around him at home and church, realizing that just as he stands before these icons as a sinful person, so might the offender. For example, if one has an icon of Christ Pantocrator in the icon corner at home, she stands before that icon with a wounded soul, just as her offender might. If, at church, there is an icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell, it is worth considering that not only would Christ be there to rescue her, but also to rescue the offender. Such meditations before the icons may help to view the offender from a divine perspective and, paradoxically, promote a sense of kinship with the offender as a fellow human being. This, in turn, can stimulate compassion for the other.

Orthodox Christians may also make use of books on forgiveness written by psychologists. The most recent example of such material is The Forgiving Life, written by Robert Enright and published by the American Psychological Association. While we can recommend The Forgiving Life, the Orthodox Christian should be aware that authors of some books about forgiveness distort the concept and/or suggest thoughts and behaviors that do not dovetail with a Christian perspective. It is wise, then, to use these materials under the guidance of a spiritual father or with a trusted and mature spiritual friend.

Conclusion: The Christian tradition as a whole places a special emphasis on forgiving offenders as a way of living a Christ-like life. Within that general tradition, specific churches offer their own slant on the particulars of the forgiveness process. Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s emphases on the relationships within the Holy Trinity and on theosis of the faithful creates a perspective on forgiveness that may differ somewhat from other theological models. In addition, the monastic tradition, with its close attention to the development of the Christian’s soul, adds to our understanding of how one travels the path of interpersonal mercy. Finally, some aspects of the Orthodox liturgical tradition offer unique insights into forgiveness and opportunities to practice it on the deepest level. To draw on another key Biblical idea for Orthodox Christians, few endeavors can help us become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) like the salvific path of extending God’s forgiveness to one who has hurt us.   IC

(We thank Archimandrite Vladimir (Wendling) for reviewing this article. Any errors remain ours. –Authors)

Professor Gassin teaches at Olivet Nazarene University. Professor Enright teaches at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both are part of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. In Madison. Wi. A copy of this article with footnotes and references may be requested by writing to [email protected].

* Ed. note: perichoresis is a term that means “to move around” or “to dance” and is developed by several Fathers in describing the “in and around and through” relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and sometimes to us in our relationship to God, as in “we are in Christ.” The English theological terms are “interpenetration” and “circumincession.” This has been referred to as the “Divine Dance.” This is most fully developed by St. John of Damascus.

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Erasmus of Rotterdam & The Church Fathers

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Ron Dart

Last June I was fortunate to spend time in Freiburg, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, the cities where Erasmus spent the final years of his life. From the 1520s to 1530s, the Roman Catholic and Protestant wars had heated up to such an extent that, when Protestants took control of Basel in 1529, Erasmus had to flee to Freiburg, returning to Basel in 1535 where he died a year later. Erasmus had a special affection for Basel—among other projects, it was here that he published many of his books on the Fathers of the Patristic era. While in Basel, I spent many an hour near Erasmus’s burial site in the cathedral pondering the relevance of Erasmus for today.

While Erasmus is best known as the author of The Praise of Folly and The Complaint of Peace, many of his other works are still widely read—his Adages and Colloquies and collections of his correspondence, especially those letters that document his clash with Luther. He also produced new translations of the Bible. Perhaps less well known today are his annotated editions of the Church Fathers.

Erasmus stood for a Christian humanist vision that was critical of the church as it existed in his lifetime and painfully aware of its urgent need of reform, yet refused to take part in or justify schism. Erasmus turned to both the Bible and Church Fathers in search of a fuller vision of church unity and as a call to peacemaking in the midst of conflict. In the war-ridden 16th century, with Christians slaughtering fellow Christians, Erasmus’s peace writings made him a voice crying in the wilderness.

Erasmus stood at a precarious place in history. Long before Luther and the protestant reformers came on the scene, he was one of the most rigorous critics of the Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, despite his loyalty, the Roman Catholic Church was profoundly suspicious of Erasmus. His writings were censured by the Sorbonne in 1526, the Spanish Inquisitor General held a conference to examine his writings in 1527, the theology faculty at Paris condemned some of his books in 1531, and in 1552, after his death, theologians at Louvain and the Sorbonne condemned Erasmus’s writings as “erroneous, scandalous, and heretical.” Finally, many of his books were placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books and remained there until the 20th Century.

Convinced that the Roman Catholic Church would only be fully renewed and reformed by turning again to the Bible as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church, Erasmus used all his learning and training to facilitate a phoenix-like resurrection of the Classical Christian tradition of the Patristic era. Only by returning to the Patristic tradition, Erasmus was convinced, would the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” find its firm and solid footing again. There was pure water in the Fathers for the simple reason that they were closer to the source and fount of the early church.

In turning to the Bible as the north star of theology and ethics, Erasmus was in the vanguard. Yet the fact that he dared to correct errors in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, meant he had to face the ire of Rome. For the Catholic Church, the Vulgate was the scriptural gold-standard. Erasmus’s 1516 translation of parts of the Bible (original Greek text and revised Latin text making clear Jerome’s errors) was seen by Catholic traditionalists as sending a fox into the henhouse. Erasmus was accused of “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” or, as was said in those days, “Erasmus Lutheranizes and Luther Erasmianizes.”

When Erasmus visited Johann Froben in Basel in 1514, a new era was about to unfold. It has been said that the combination of Erasmus and Johann Froben “brought together the greatest scholar and the greatest printer in Transalpine Europe.”

The Froben Press was originally the joint venture of Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben. Both men were deeply committed to publishing updated editions the works of the Western Fathers. Before Amerbach died in 1513, they had put out editions of St. Ambrose in 1492 and St. Augustine in 1506, first fruits in the work of putting solidly in place the intellectual foundation stones for the renewal and application of Classical learning and its role in the reform of the church. The teaming together of Erasmus and Froben greatly furthered this enterprise.

St. Jerome was the Church Father Erasmus concentrated on in his early years of scholarship, and by 1516, Froben had published his nine folio volumes of St. Jerome. But this was only a beginning for Erasmus. (Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists were not yet in the reformation drama.) Froben wanted a better edition of St. Augustine than the 1506 edition and asked Erasmus to produce it. Erasmus faced a threefold task in dealing with St. Augustine: he had to separate the genuine from the spurious books that were attributed to St. Augustine, present different perspectives on and interpretations of St. Augustine, and treat critical concerns about aspects of St. Augustine’s theology at a variety of significant levels. Interspersing the task with other projects, Erasmus did not finish his work on St. Augustine until 1529.

While Froben’s special interest was the Church Fathers of the Latin West, Erasmus was convinced that renewed attention to the Church Fathers of the Greek East was equally important. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 meant that many were the Orthodox theological refugees coming into Europe via Italy and other gateways to the West. “I have turned my entire attention to Greek,” he said in a letter to his fried, Jacob Batt. “The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”

Erasmus immersed himself in the richness and the fullness of the Greek language and the work of the Eastern Fathers, and convinced Johann Froben to collaborate in the project. Greek learning and language (long held in suspicion by many in the West as the language of the schismatic Orthodox) again began to challenge the Latin world and to influence the “New Learning” of the Renaissance.

Professor Ron Dart

Professor Ron Dart

Froben published Erasmus’s work on St. Cyprian in 1520 followed by his commentary on St. Hilary of Poitiers in 1523, by which time Erasmus had become a target for both Luther and the Vatican. The Vatican was one with Erasmus on his commitment to the Biblical-Patristic tradition, but clashed with him over his perspectives, interpretations, and applications of the sources. The Reformers, claiming to be true to the authority of the Bible, opposed both Erasmus’s peace theology and his commitment to the unity of the historic church that was foundational to the New Testament and the Fathers of the Patristic Era. Erasmus was, in many ways, an exile in an age of ideologues. Yet this did not deter Erasmus from continuing his work.

The first of Erasmus’ volumes on St. John Chrysostom appeared in 1525. Though divided by many centuries, Erasmus and Chrysostom could not have been better companions. They each knew the price to be paid for speaking with an authentic prophetic voice to both church and society. Erasmus completed his five volumes on Chrysostom in 1530 and the homilies of St. Gregory of Nazianzen by 1531. Erasmus’s work on Irenaeus came out in 1526, and in 1527 Erasmus completed and updated St. Ambrose, a bishop, like Chrysostom, who dared to challenge the ecclesial and political establishments when they became enemies of justice and peace.

Erasmus also was drawn to the writings of Origen. Despite his controversial ideas, with the eventual condemnation of some of them, Origen was the most important theologian and biblical exegete of the early church, writing at a period when much was unclear and unsure. Erasmus had been a thoughtful reader of Origen throughout much of his adult life. In 1536, the final year of his earthly journey, Erasmus’s volume on Origen left the press. Again, Erasmus offered a thoughtful, nuanced, and measured reading of Origen’s contributions to the life of the church.

Thanks to Erasmus, Christians in the West were getting much-needed exposure to the Eastern Fathers—and thus to Eastern Orthodoxy, hitherto almost totally hidden behind the wall created by the Great Schism.  Erasmus sought to articulate a theological position that the Fathers held but had been abandoned in the West.

Erasmus often made the distinction between what is of the essence (esse) of the faith in areas of doctrine and discipline and what are matters of indifference (adiaphora). Erasmus believed that the post-apostolic tradition had at times equated esse with adiaphora, harming areas of doctrine and discipline in the process.

Again and again Erasmus returned to the esse-adiaphora distinction in areas of doctrine and discipline. He argued that in the early Creeds much was intentionally omitted that, centuries later, became central to creedal and confessional texts. Erasmus, like the Church Fathers, was wary of being too sure footed when attempting to clarify the essence or energies of God. The West, Erasmus argued, often tended to go too far when silence was a wiser position to take. By the addition of the filioque clause in the Creed, which Erasmus regarded as a grave error, the West played a significant role in bringing on the Great Schism.

Erasmus steadfastly refused to simplify or domesticate the Church Fathers to serve ecclesial agendas—he walked readers into the unresolved moments of their times. Such an approach annoyed those who sought to present the Fathers as rigidly agreeing on most issues and rarely struggling with the contents of the Creeds.

Relevant once more: Let me conclude with two points connecting Erasmus with our contemporary reality. First, the trauma of 9/11 brought home to North Americans the dangers of certain movements within Islam. However, circumstances were similar for Europeans in Erasmus’ time. In 1529, the Muslim Ottomans were poised to attack Venice. In 1530 Erasmus responded to the threat with a widely circulated essay On the War against the Turks (De Bello Turcico). In it, we can see the probing mind of Erasmus cautioning Europe not to overreact in a hawkish manner to the 16th century’s own version of a “Clash of Civilizations” scenario. Erasmus declared that the Turks had established an immense empire not because of their own merits but due to the sin of Christians. “We have angered God and caused him to send the Turks against us, just as he sent frogs, lice, and locusts upon the Egyptians long ago…. The Turks are men and, what is more important, half-Christian” and therefore deserve to be treated the same as any other people. Much could be drawn from Erasmus’ article to inform contemporary attitudes toward Islam.

Second, we can affirm the important parallel between the 16th century and the growing interest these days in reclaiming “the Great Tradition.” The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant traditions, from a variety of perspec-tives, are all part of this renewal of interest. Erasmus was very much part of bringing the Great Tradition to center stage in the 16th century, but he did it in a way that, in the daggers-drawn climate of the time, failed to please either Roman Catholic or Protestant ideologues. Might Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—who seek common ground in today’s world find in Erasmus a guide and mentor?

a selection of quotations from Erasmus:

“Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.”

“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome [than war]…. Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?”

Erasmus excoriated theologians who tried to justify war on the ground that Christ said “Let him who has no sword sell his mantel and buy one.” “As if Christ, who taught nothing but patience and meekness, meant the sword used by bandits and murderers rather than the sword of the Spirit. Our exegete thinks that Christ equipped the apostles with lances, crossbows, slings, and muskets.”

“I would be glad to be a martyr for Christ, but I cannot be a martyr for Luther.”

“It is no great feat to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.”

“How can you say Our Father if you plunge steel into the guts of your brother? Christ compared himself to a hen: Christians behave like hawks. Christ was a shepherd of sheep: Christians tear each other like wolves.”

“I see you, while the standard of salvation is in one hand, rushing on with a sword in the other, to the murder of your brother; and, under the banner of the cross, destroying the life of one who owes his salvation to the cross. Even from the Holy Sacrament itself, (for it is sometimes, at the same hour, administered in opposite camps) in which is signified the complete union of all Christians, the warriors, who have just received it, run instantly to arms, and endeavor to plunge the dreadful steel into each other’s vitals. Of a scene thus infernal, and fit only for the eyes of accursed spirits, who delight in mischief and misery, the pious warriors would make Christ the spectator.”

Erasmus was disgusted by the incivility and humorlessness of militant Protestants: “I have seen them return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

In The Complaint of Peace, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable, while war is a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.”

“We must look for peace by purging the very sources of war—false ambitions and evil desires. As long as individuals serve their own personal interests, the common good will suffer. Let them examine the self-evident fact that this world of ours is the fatherland of the entire human race.”  IC

This essay is an abridged version of a lecture given by Professor Ron Dart at the 2012 Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference held at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia where Ron teaches courses on the interface between political science, philosophy, and religion. The conference was cosponsored by the OPF and the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an organization bringing together Anglicans and Orthodox to discuss their mutual affinities in a spirit of unity (sobornost).

 

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

Peace and Peacemaking as an Interfaith and Ecumenical Vocation: An Orthodox View

Friday, September 28th, 2012

 

Peace and Peacemaking as an Interfaith and Ecumenical Vocation: An Orthodox View 

Mar 9, 2011

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis 

 

Abstract[1]

For Orthodoxy, peace is inextricably related to the notion of justice and freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as a gift and vocation. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment. She won’t prevent wars. Peace requires much more than a military action or passive pacifism. The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle and public actions that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace.

General Remarks

In an increasingly complex and violent world, Christian churches have come to recognize, along with other communities of living faiths, that working for peace constitutes a primary expression of their responsibility for the life of the world. This responsibility is grounded on the essential goodness of all human beings and of all that God has created, continues to sustain, and is leading towards unity and a greater future. For Orthodoxy, peace is inextricably related to the notion of justice and freedom that God has granted to all human beings through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as a gift and vocation.[2] Peace and peacemaking as a gift and vocation provide opportunities to connect theology with ethical witness, faith with social transformation. The dynamic nature of peace as gift and vocation does not allow its identification with stagnation, passivity and the acceptance of injustice.

While the Orthodox churches affirm that peace is an integral and indispensable element of the Christian gospel, they have not sufficiently reflected – in a morally consistent manner – on the nature of peace and peacemaking and how peace affects in practical terms, their life and witness to the world.[3] Orthodox theologians have noted that offering simply a theoretical presentation of the Orthodox understanding of peace is not a sufficient expression and witness:

It is not enough for us (Orthodox) simply to theologize, to describe and to prescribe regarding the Orthodox vision of justice and peace. We must also mobilize and work together for God’s purpose to defeat injustices and to establish justice wherever possible, as well as to overcome the forces, which threaten peace on earth.[4]

The contextualization of peace and peacemaking and the critical appreciation of the ecclesial actions or inactions for the advancement of peace compel the Orthodox Church to explore different but complementary ways to relate their liturgical and spiritual experience and faith with the complex and conflictual issues of the world. Such a move evokes accusations that the Church moves from the spiritual realm to politics, an “activism” that is alien to Orthodoxy. Commenting on the reluctance of the Orthodox churches to address issues of public life, Metropolitan John Zizioulas believes that they are right to give preeminence to those elements of their tradition that refer to the centrality of eschatology but they are wrong to disconnect eschatology from history, theology from ethics, and generally to be indifferent in finding and witnessing God in the historical realm.[5]

Orthodox theologians because of close association of many Orthodox Churches with the State and their long oppression by totalitarian regimes have not adequately and critically reflected on the reflexive relationship of “self and society,” and the Christian imperative of the simultaneous transformation by God’s grace as well as of Christian discipleship of both. Oppressive, unjust, and violent social structures jeopardized the humanity of the oppressed and a just society is at risk of being corrupted by unjust and greedy self-centered individuals. Fr. Stanley S. Harakas regretfully notes the undeveloped status of social ethics in Eastern Orthodoxy most especially on peace studies:

There are few Orthodox writers and thinkers who have dealt deeply and thoughtfully with these issues. Still fewer, if any, have provided theoretical underpinning for a consisted and authentic Orthodox Christian Social Ethic. Because of this there is the danger that our social concern will become subject to mere sloganeering and worse yet, become the tool of alien forces. For example, Peace as an ideal for the Christian Church is almost self-evident. Yet there is no such thing as a coherent body of Orthodox peace studies. Few, if any, Orthodox theologians have concerned themselves with the problems of pacificism, disarmament, nuclear war, just war theory, peace movements, etc. There is a danger on this issue that we will allow ourselves simply to be used as a propaganda outlet.[6]

This lamentable situation in the words of another Orthodox Scholar, Grant White, “must not become an excuse for inaction in the face of suffering of incomprehensible proportions.”[7]

The World Council of Churches since the early 90s has provided opportunities for Orthodox theologians to reflect on the issues of justice and peace.[8] The military invasion of Iraq by the United States has generated among Orthodox theologians in the USA an interesting debate on whether Just War, judged by the standards of the Orthodox Church, is a “lesser good” or a “lesser evil.”[9] Violence is neither fully legitimized from the perspective of the Church when it is viewed as a “lesser good” nor is unconditionally renounced when it is considered as a “lesser evil.” Most Orthodox theologians have defended the peaceable nature of the Orthodox Church and at the same time have conceded that the use of force is sometimes an inevitable tool of good statecraft provided that it is guided by a set of strict and yet meaningful moral restrains in its practical application.[10] The theological assessment of violence however seems to remain an issue of contestation.

Does the eschatological nature of the Christian faith allow us to give a conditional theological legitimacy to violence? The eschatological orientation of the gospel while it teaches us that a fully reachable earthly shalom is unattainable in history, it places the world in a dynamic process of transformation by the grace of the Holy Spirit that moves the world closer to the peaceable reign of God. Eschatology is a subversive principle that questions every necessity that legitimates violence. As Gregory Baum states:

Replying to the question ‘can society exist without violence?’ in the negative gives permission for societies to reconcile themselves with the violence they practice. Replying Yes to the question, in the name of divine promises, challenges every society to review its practices and reduce its reliance on violence.[11]

Peace, of course, is more than the absence of war. It does not deny conflict, an intrinsic element of human relationships, but neither does it identify conflict with violence. Violence is not the only way to resolve conflicts. Peacemakers are constantly groping to find ways in which people and communities can resolve their differences without physical violence. Peace is a dynamic process not an absolute end point. Genuine peace means progress toward a freer and more just world.

Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon, living in a Muslim country and having personally experienced the cruelties of religion-sanctioned wars and strife, addressing this issue of religious sanctioned violence has argued that that the Church cannot exercise its vocation of peace and peacemaking in a plausible manner if it cannot exorcise war. He notes:

In the church a vision of inwardness where peace becomes our vocation is plausible only if war can be exorcised. How can it have come about that pure and pious men like the inquisitors had such a bad theology? This constitutes one of the tragedies of our past. Nothing can be accomplished until the biblical foundations of violence are shattered. For us the error lies not in history but in theology. Violence is justified, fed by the belief that God of the Bible led Israel from victory to victory and that he willed all nations to submit to it…

Alongside this bloodthirsty God, there arises the image of a merciful God whose voice speaks in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea and in the Song of the Servant in Isaiah. We are confronted here with two irreconcilably opposed faces of the Lord in the same Scripture.[12]

He argues that for Christians these incompatibles image of God must be read and interpreted through a “kenotic” reading of the Scripture and suggests that the “The Cross alone is the locus of divine victory, and the source of the meaning of faith. Anything in the Scripture that does not conform to the mystery of Love is a veil over the Word. Love is the true locus of the Word, because it alone is a divine epiphany.”[13] Other Orthodox scholars risking the accusation of being Marcionites tend to bypass the violent texts of the Scripture especially of the Old Testament as early stages of understanding God’s revelation that the New Testament has surpassed. In the Patristic tradition the violent texts of the Scripture have been interpreted through the “allegorical method” to describe “Spiritual personal struggles against evil and sin.”[14]

The renunciation of the violence, war, and terrorism as destructive of human lives, unjust and oppressive becomes a credible expression of the Church’s faith only when it is complemented with ethical practices that point to their prevention. The peaceable witness of the Church in situations of conflict and war cannot be limited only to its ethical judgment about the legitimacy and rules of conduct of war or even its unconditional renunciation. Peace requires much more than a military action or passive pacifism. If our ethics focus only on when a military action is right or wrong it limits our concern to a military action and does not encompass preventive actions. A remedy to this limitation is for the churches to develop just peacemaking practices that move their ethical discourse from theories that justify or regulate the use of violence to preventive actions that contribute to the building up of a culture of peace.[15]

The peaceable witness of the churches won’t always prevent wars and Christians may continue to disagree on when, if ever, war and military force are justified. But it is possible for them to work together and even reach consensus on the question: “what practices of violence prevention and peacemaking should they support?” Even if they believe in the justification of some wars, they still need an ethic that enables them to think clearly about initiatives of peacemaking. Pacifists, also, have the moral obligation in situations of aggression, injustice and violent conflicts not simply to renounce violence and war but to invent peaceful means and actions by which justice, peace and reconciliation is served.[16] Depending on local situations and cultural or theological sensitivities, peacemaking efforts may be crafted differently. However, what is important is that the Churches complement their ethical judgments with peacemaking and peace-building actions.

The Church, as the sacrament of God’s peace to the world, actively supports all human efforts that aim to identify more effective ways of resolving disputes without resorting to violent conflicts. The concern of the Church for peace and its active participation in movements of peace and social justice is a testing ground of its faith about the origins, essential goodness and future of the world. It is Her vocation to be a peacemaker through prayer and action that transform the conditions that cause violence. The Church enables those human beings whom violence and war have put asunder to find their unity in God’s peace and justice through reconciliation, reparation and forgiveness.[17]

The Peaceable Vocation of the Church in a Global World

Peace and justice are notions that call the churches to contextualize their message. Christian churches cannot ignore that the world today is highly complex, interdependent, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and irreversibly pluralistic. In such a context, in order to be agents of reconciliation and peace they must find ways to communicate and to collaborate with people and communities of other living faiths, ideologies, cultures and beliefs. Such collaboration cannot be just an exchange of ideas and a comparing of different theologies nor a matter of political expediency. It requires religious communities not to abandon their particular unique claims about the origins of peace and how it can be fully established in the life of the world but to develop a theology of involvement and cooperation with other religious communities. Religious communities need to reflect on how the fullness of the world in all its irreducible diversities reflects the dynamic presence of God’s transforming grace. Religious and cultural plurality is a fact and communities of living faiths should teach and convince their followers to accept this fact.

An interfaith collaboration in peacemaking and peace building efforts presupposes that the communities of living faiths have acquired and developed the necessary theology and conversational skills that enable them to recognize and respect the integrity of other people’s beliefs, practices and communal life. The Third Pan Orthodox Preconciliar Conference (1986) encourages the Orthodox churches to move towards this wider collaboration:

The local Orthodox churches in close collaboration with the peace-loving faithful of other world religions consider it their duty to work for peace on earth and the establishment of fraternal relations between peoples. The Orthodox churches are called upon to contribute to joint effort and collaboration between religions, and thereby combat fanaticism anywhere; in this way work for reconciliation between peoples, the triumph of the values represented by freedom and peace in the world, service to humanity today regardless of race or religion…[18]

Peace has no religious frontiers. Religious communities through interfaith dialogue and collaboration must strive to overcome misunderstandings, stereotypes, caricatures and other prejudices, inherited or acquired. Their voices in favor of peace must be heard in the public realm (political life, media, and marketplace) and together must take initiative that promotes justice and peace in the world. The universal message of peace, that each religious faith community espouses, should enable their followers and other people to see one another, not as enemies, but as brothers and sisters across religious, national, racial and cultural frontiers.

Religious communities along with other movements of social transformation become credible agents of peace after they have examined and assessed critically their past and present performance in situations of conflict. Such a critical approach would humble them and help them to recognize that their declarations about peace are not always commensurate with their passivity, indifference or actions in situations of conflict and injustice. A critical assessment of their present and past performances could free them from multiple ideologies (nationalistic, political, racial, and economic) that have used the passion that religious faith evokes for the purpose to advance their own goals, values and interests.

The complicity of religious believers and communities in acts of violence is also greatly influenced by collective and personal insecurities and fears that guide their interpretation of religious texts and traditions. It is not uncommon for people in violent situations and conflicts to profess faith in God’s peace and at the same time to give legitimacy to their violent acts as their contribution to God’s cause for the world. In all these situations such people and their religious communities have forgotten that wars and divisions between people are the most immediate and visible expressions of sin and evil.

Orthodox ascetical tradition insists that violence and war begins primarily in people’s hearts with pride, rancor, hatred and desire for revenge, before it is translated into armaments, open violence and wanton destruction. Thus, peace starts with the formation of consciousness, with conversion of hearts. Consequently, an indispensable aspect of interfaith dialogue and cooperation for advancing a culture of peace is for communities of living faiths to join hands and educate the human heart in honesty, love, benevolence, compassion, solidarity, self control and especially respect for the rights of others. Violence is not overcome by further violence. Neither the politics of fear or of terror can bring peace and justice in the world. Hatred must be overcome by love, by conversion of heart, and by removal of the causes of war, which are injustice, selfishness, envy and indifference to human suffering and oppression.

Those who have studied the role of religion in violent conflicts throughout the world urge religious leaders and theologians to become more proactive in addressing the sources of violence that emanate from within their communities.

They can no longer disown their coreligionist extremists by simply dismissing their actions as being unreflective of the real values of their faith tradition. Religious extremists justify the atrocities that they pursue in the name of their God by taking advantage the ambivalence towards violence that is found in each of the different traditions. There is a need for a strong, unambiguous and clear articulation of those elements of religious faith that advance peace and justice for all human beings, repudiating those coreligionists who use their faith to incite communal strife and global terror. Such a declaration must necessarily affirm the dignity and the sacredness of human life and embrace religious freedom and diversity as an indispensable social right.[19]

Theological Foundations for a Culture of Peace

The Orthodox churches understand peace and peacemaking as an indispensable aspect of their faith and of their mission to the world. They ground this faith conviction upon the wholeness of the Biblical tradition as it is properly interpreted through the Church’s liturgical experience and practice. The Eucharist provides the space and the hermeneutical perspective by which one discerns and experiences the fullness of the Christian faith. It provides the norm for the witness of the Church in the life of the world. Robert F. Taft, reviewing the history of the formation of the Byzantine liturgy, concludes that since its formation peace had assumed a central importance as a greeting and prayer that expresses the Church’s understanding of God’s Kingdom.[20] Peace in Scripture as well as in the liturgy is a greeting and a dynamic grace-giving word (Jn. 20.19-21). God Himself is Peace (Jgs. 6:24) and peace is His gift. Peace is a sign of communion with God, who gives peace to those who serve him (Ps. 85.8-13). It grants freedom from fear and threat by enemies and it is inseparable from righteousness without which there is no real peace. In short, “peace” is practically synonymous with salvation (Rom 16.20; 1 Thes5.23). Peace is communion with God and Jesus Christ is our peace, since He is the bond of communion (Eph 2.14-17): “We live in peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom5.1). The peace of God in the Liturgy is referred as “peace from on high, “as in the angelic greeting of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men”. It is granted to the world and to the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God within the world that guides all into unity: “in one place with one accord” (Acts 2:1 and grants to all peace, justice, love, and joy (Rom. 14:14). In the Liturgy, people receive peace of God in their unity with Christ through the work of the Holy once they enter, through the Holy Spirit, into unity with God.[21] Peace once sealed the liturgy of world[22] and at the end of the liturgy the people are sent away in peace.

Christians, as it is reflected in the liturgy, give primary emphasis on the eschatological peace that God grants to them as a gift of communion with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, they do not ignore the conflicts, the power struggles and the violence that one experiences in the world. Although the early Christian church of the first three centuries was primarily pacifist, grounding its attitudes on the Sermon of the Mount (Mt. 5-7; Mt 26/52), the Fathers of the church later in situations of conflict without abandoning the pacifist attitude of the early Church, had justified defensive wars without developing theories of just war or giving theological legitimacy to violence.

The Orthodox Church gives far more attention to the question of how to establish and maintain peaceful and just societies than it does to justify, or even tolerate, any instance of war. It has rather a dynamic commitment to the praxis of peace.

In every dimension of life, the Church invites us to embody the way of Christ as fully as we can in the circumstances that we face: to forgive enemies; to work for the reconciliation of those who have become estranged; to overcome the divisions of race, nationality, and class; to care for the poor; to live in harmony with others; to protect creation and to use the created goods of the world for the benefit of all. Advocacy for peace must not stop with praying the litanies of the Liturgy. We can pray these petitions with integrity only if we offer ourselves as instruments for God’s peace in the world, only if we live them out in relation to the challenges to peace that exist among peoples and nations.

Placing the tradition of the Orthodox Church on peace in the context of the development in peace studies, Orthodoxy has never developed elaborate theories of just war nor it has embraced absolute pacifism. As such it is radically different in orientation from the quietist tradition of some religious sects, whose members tended to withdraw from public life and cede to the State the realm of practical politics. The absolute or “purist” pacifism is distinct from the more widely accepted tradition of pragmatic or conditional pacifism, which opposes war in principle but accepts the possibility of using force for self-defense or the protection of the vulnerable.[23] Pacifism is not just a philosophy, a set of abstract ideas and beliefs, but a passionate commitment and political program for social change. A Pacifist is someone who is personally committed to take action, to work for peace and reduce the level of violence. The ethos of Orthodoxy is much more related with pragmatic or conditional pacificism. The Orthodox people do not only pray for peace and believe that God has destined the world to live in justice, peace and unity, but as a result of their faith they are called to be active peacemakers as St. Nicholas Cabasilas states: “Christians, as disciples of Christ who made all things for peace, are to be ‘craftsmen of peace – τεχνίτες ειρήνης.”[24] They are called a peaceable race (εἰρηνικόν γέννος) since “nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace.”[25] The Third Preconciliar Pan Orthodox Conference (1986) exhorts Orthodox Christians to be active peace makers grounded in their faith:

We, Orthodox Christians, have – by reason of the fact that we have had access to the meaning of salvation – a duty to fight against disease, misfortune, fear; because we have had access to the experience of peace we cannot remain indifferent to its absence from society today; because we have benefited from God’s justice, we are fighting for further justice in the world and for the elimination of all oppression; because we daily experience God’s mercy, we are fighting all fanaticism and intolerance between persons and nations; because we continually proclaim the incarnation of God and the divinization of man we defend human rights for all individuals and all peoples; because we live God’s gift of liberty, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, we can announce more completely its universal value for all individuals and peoples; because, nourished by the body and blood of our Lord in the holy Eucharist, we experience the need to share God’s gifts with our brothers and sisters, we have a better understanding of hunger and privation and fight for their abolition; because we expect a new earth and new heaven where absolute justice will reign, we fight here and now for the rebirth and renewal of the human being and society.[26]

The Third Pre-conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference provided a theological manifesto that should guide the public witness and involvement of the Orthodox people. But still there is a need to develop and learn practical ways, pastoral projects and opportunities that allow Orthodox people and the churches to participate in movements of social transformation and contribute to a culture of peace.

The peace that God bestows to the world is given not only to humanity but also to the whole created world. Nature and history are, for the Christian faith, ontological realities bearing the marks of sinfulness as separation, division, opposition, ethical and natural evil, as well as the realm, the space, in which the drama of the salvation of the whole world is unfolding through the dynamic presence of God’s Spirit in them. Christians participate in the process of salvation as they embrace, in love, all human beings, who constitute an indivisible unity by virtue of their common origins, partaking of God’s breath, and living in His love. Hatred and divisions are not simply moral mistakes, resulting from the wrong ethical choice of a person, but they reveal the abyss of being-without-God.

Thus the Christian understanding of peace and how it is advanced in the life of the world is guided by the eschatological peace that God grants to the world, the reality of being with God and participating in the glory of His reign. It is primarily a gift and a vocation, a pattern of life. It discloses the life of those who have been reconciled and united with God. It is primarily this unity that enables Christians to embrace in love all human beings because of the active presence of God’s spirit in them. Since peace is constitutive of the Christian Gospel, Christian believers are involved in a permanent process of becoming more conscious of their responsibility to incarnate the message of peace and justice in the world as a witness of the authenticity of their faith. This is clearly stated by St. Basil: “Christ is our peace,” and hence “he who seeks peace seeks Christ…without love for others, without an attitude of peace towards all men, no one can be called a true servant of Christ.”[27]

The Christian Church insists that the root cause for violence, injustice and oppression in the world reflects the pervasive presence and impact of the still active operation of the “principalities and powers” of the fallen world. Evil, violence, injustice and oppression reflects the disruptive communion of human beings with God, the fallible nature of our human actions, and the failure to discern and do the will of God in the midst of the ambiguities of history. Violence has multiple manifestations: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless and innumerable acts of inhumanity. In the midst of violence and injustice, Christian faith recognizes the active presence of God’s Spirit: the subversive reality that enables the world, and in particular the suffering victims of injustice, aggression and oppression, to begin a process of liberation and movement towards a culture of peace and justice. A tension between the already given reality of peace and its not-yet-fulfilled reality characterizes the key theological stance of Christians involved in the struggle for peace. The awareness that peace is an eschatological gift of God and of the active presence of God’s Spirit in history makes it impossible for the churches to accept a historical fatalism of wars and clashes as unshaken reality or that it is possible to have a permanent peace in this world by relying simply on human-centered ideologies.

Communicating the Christian Notion of Peace in the Public Space.

The Christian gospel invites the faithful to a continuous spiritual struggle that leads, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, towards greater justice and peace. Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker and a worker for justice. This calling is primarily nourished through prayers and repentance; allowing Scripture to form our human consciousness; participating in the Eucharist; and recognizing the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed to be the living icons of Christ.

This calling is noble and Christians, through the above mentioned devotional practices receive, the gift of God’s peace as the basis of their involvement in the life of the world. They are peacemakers because of their participation in God’s mission. Here it is important to differentiate between the gift of God’s peace and how this gift is received, acknowledged and communicated by the Church and the faithful. While the gift of God’s peace is given through the Church to all by virtue of their identification with Christ, it is not equally true that the faithful are always the vehicles of God’s grace and peace to the world. Christian responses to situations of violence are always subject to God’s judgment that compels the churches and the faithful to repentance, asking God’s forgiveness for all their failures to be active agents of His peace to the world.

Orthodox theologians have recognized that there is a need to “lift up in the consciousness of the church, the peace-making character of Christianity and the Christian duty to serve the cause of peace and Justice.”[28] Articulating only abstract theological truths, which nevertheless are normative for the Church’s identity and mission, cannot raise the consciousness of the Church. There is a need to enhance and concretize these theological ideals with insights about social injustice, oppression and violence that social science provides. As the report of the Orthodox Perspectives on Justice and Peace states:

It is important that we not only speak about justice and peace, but also develop projects and contribute practically in programmes and sustained organized activity on behalf of the concrete realization of the values of justice and peace in our ecclesial life. In this regard the church must learn to dialogue especially with non-church bodies to find the most suitable common ways for the implementation of justice and peace.[29]

On the basis of the theological understanding of peace, the Orthodox churches are encouraged to participate in movements of peace and justice. However their involvement in movements of social change will not be credible unless they first liberate themselves from “ethno-nationalism,” which reflects the history of the long identification of church-nation-state relationship in most Orthodox countries where the churches had been considered as national institutions. Ethno-nationalism has reduced in some instances the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to a “national” church restricted geographically and unduly influenced by civilizations, language, idiosyncrasy and serving political purposes, dictated by nationalism, racism and chauvinism of people and states.[30] The suggested liberation of the Orthodox churches from “ethno-nationalism” does not mean that their members cannot be patriotic, or love their nation. What is objectionable is the exclusive identification of God with a particular nation. The partiality of Ethno-nationalism does not only hinder the Orthodox contribution to peace movements, but it debases basic tenets of the Orthodox faith.[31]

The Orthodox churches should exercise their peace-making mission through their active participation in all peace dialogues between states which are at war, between ideologies and political trends fighting each other for the sake of justice and freedom in their respective countries, between the political status quo and liberation movements, as well as in all dialogues intending to defeat racism, sex discrimination and any kind of exploitation of the weak and the poor. It is the mission of the church in its participation and dialogue with the others to witness God’s love for all humanity and affirm the dignity of all human beings.

For this the church has to express its deep-rooted commitment to justice in concrete and relevant ways in our time. We must affirm, loudly and clearly, the truth that God’s image is present in every human being. We need to seek out and actively cooperate with all forces of good working for the eradication from God’s creation of all forms of prejudice and discrimination. We ourselves must teach our people to respect the integrity and dignity of all peoples of every nation, economic condition, race, sex, political affiliation, so that reconciliation and tolerance may replace coercion and violence in our relationships. Our goal is nothing less than the reign of God’s love among all peoples.[32]

Dialogue between opposing sides is not simply a means to reach/achieve agreement. The dialogue itself is part of a reconciliation process. The Orthodox should defend not only the dialogue on peace as such but also the inclusion in it of people who are very often neglected in crucial deliberations. Those who become partners in true dialogue with open and sincere minds, and are ready to listen and not only to speak are already on the way to peace.

Christians in the public realm join their efforts and contribute their resources to all efforts that intend to stop or minimize violence, loss of life, human suffering and deprivation. All actions that aim to save human lives and/or uphold the dignity of all human beings in the midst of violent conflict are acts that promote peace in a provisional but necessary manner. They are actions taken to avoid the immediate threat of armed conflict, massive bloodshed and cruelty but they do not address or eliminate the deeper issues and causes that generate violence and war.

Is it possible for Orthodoxy to justify wars in defending the dignity, the rights, the freedom and the liberation of oppressed people? As the report on Orthodox Perspective on Justice and Peace states:

The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defense of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed, a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for Peace. [33]

Christians can never admit that resorting to violence or to any kind of war could resolve conflicts and bring peace and harmony to the world. But as long as we live in this world this principle is not unshakeable and cannot –unfortunately – be absolutized. The “pacifist” option, although it is closer to the ethos of the Orthodox Church, cannot become an absolute principle for solutions to conflicts without condoning the world’s conditions and human sin, as well as the predicament of history. It is not possible to adopt one position only and apply it in all situations, at all times and in all places. There is always a need for careful discernment of the signs of the times. One may argue that whenever people or communities resort to violent to resolve their conflicts, they are putting at risk their unity with God and they are in danger of losing their humanity. Violence reflects realities and means of the world and not of God’s kingdom and as such cannot receive theological legitimacy.[34] All kinds of tortures, the holding of innocent persons as hostages, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians harm the life of the victims and dehumanize the victimizers.

It is important to differentiate “pacifism” from “non-violent” resistance to situations of injustice and oppression. Non-violence especially when it is organized as a pressure movement against power centers should not be identified with an entirely passive attitude to evil.[35] Non-violence provides a pragmatic alternative to absolute pacifism, a way of overcoming injustice and realizing political objectives while remaining true to moral principles. In all armed conflicts, there are possibilities of non-violent actions for reaching a solution or an agreement. A Christian always seeks and suggests such means instead of adopting an absolute, unilateral position.[36]

The Christian churches, while they support all human efforts that repudiate the logic of violence and war, must not forget their greater mission to lead the world to address the deeper issues. Peace is not a moral good in and of itself; it is linked with the most basic human values and practices as a permanent improvement of the human condition on all levels. Defending the dignity of every human person and the sanctity of life cannot be disengaged from the quest for greater justice and freedom as the foundation, source and origin of real and permanent peace. “No society can live in peace with itself, or with the world, without the full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person, and of the sacredness of all human life (Jas. 4.1-2).”[37] The Christian churches would be hesitant to fully support those peace movements that disregard fundamental human values like justice and freedom for the sake of merely avoiding the last explicit negation of peace, i.e. massive armed war and the application of violence. Certainly, a Christian would always share in the efforts to avoid bloodshed because life is the most precious God-given gift, but he would try to remind people that when attempting to avoid war and keep peace they should critically examined what kind of peace they represent.

One has to speak of the Christian peace concept and its contribution to the general peace movement not as an absolute one in a general religious, self-sufficcient sense but as a radical particularity which is unique in that it goes dynamically deep into the primary causes of war and violence and calls for thorough study and actions for peace. Particularity here refers to a uniqueness relating to Christ as our Peace, presenting God’s Peace as a paramount gift to the whole of humanity. There are good attempts in the secular realm regarding peace, and a Christian should affirm them as a first point of contact with God’s peace: “Whenever we see harmony, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity, generosity, and care for the weak in the common life of humanity, we witness a blessing of the Lord and catch a glimpse –no matter how dim and imperfect – of the peace of Christ.”[38] Then the uniqueness of Christian peace could definitely become a necessary and positive counter-balance against all kinds of unilateral, human centered and godless peace making.

Finally, the contribution of the Orthodox churches in advancing peace with justice and freedom depends upon their total commitment to the Gospel of love and reconciliation and on their courage to speak and act accordingly beyond any kind of temporary affiliations in the socio-political realm. Their contribution will, however, be truly Christian, if it is offered in all humanity and in that spirit of repentance and forbearance which is the key prerequisite of all true peacemakers.

How’s this for a mission statement? –Epistle to Diognetus

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

–Epistle to Diognetus (Ch. 5 and 6), 2nd century AD

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

by Fr. John D. Jones

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life to be theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

 

“Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

But why, someone might ask, this stress on good works? Aren’t we saved by faith alone? Are good works really necessary for salvation? In the Orthodox tradition, salvation is a process of being healed from everything that estranges us from God and from one another. It is a process of growing in the communion and fellowship with the Trinity and one another for which God created us. It culminates in the gift of eternal life with God. None of us, individually or collectively, can save ourselves. Only Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost can save us. Indeed, just as we sing near the end of the Divine Liturgy: “We have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us.”

While Christ’s victory “over death and sin…is indeed complete and definitive…. [Our] personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete” (Metropolitan Kallistos). Created with free will, God cannot compel us to love Him. God won’t drag us into eternal life with Him. We have to freely consent to the gift of life which he offers us. Our faith in Christ, and thus the Trinity, is our consent to and acceptance of the gift of Christ Himself. But faith by itself does not save us.

Certainly, we only know and experience the Trinity through faith. But “faith by itself is dead if it does not have works” (James 2:17). When faith is active with works, it is perfected by those works (James 2:22). Indeed, St. James writes that we are justified or made righteous by works and not just by faith (James 2:24), that is, a faith that is not active with works. Blessed Theophylact develops this idea:

Many are God–fearing, but fail to do the will of God. One must fear God and do His will. Both faith and works are necessary…or, to express it in the most exalted terms, divine vision (theoria) and active virtue (praxis). Faith truly comes alive only when accompanied by God–pleasing deeds.… Likewise, works are enlivened by faith. Apart from one another, both are dead.

But what sort of works? In one sense, any action that conforms to God’s will is a good work: e.g., telling the truth to someone, worshipping God with reverence, etc. In a narrower sense, good works are often identified with giving alms or money to someone in need or to some charity. But alms in this sense narrowly translates a Greek word that literally means “a work of mercy.” God, after all, does not give alms of money to people but God “performs works of mercy and executes judgment for those who are treated unjustly” (Ps. 102:6). These works include giving food to the hungry, setting the prisoners free, giving wisdom to the blind, lifting up those who are bowed down, watching over the sojourners, and upholding the widow and the fatherless (Ps. 145:7–9).

Works of mercy comprise all our actions to assist those who are in need and distress, whether spiritual, mental, or physical. They include counseling people in spiritual distress; comforting people who are grieving; feeding, clothing, and providing medical help to people in physical need or illness; even simply providing a cup of water if we don’t have money or other resources. Works of mercy can and should extend to efforts to change social structures and policies on behalf of, as well as to advocate for, those who are poor, vulnerable, or treated unjustly. Our works of mercy should express the holistic view of the Orthodox ideal that, as Archbishop Anastasios writes, “embraces everything, life in its entirety, in all its dimensions and meanings…[and seeks] to change all things for the better,” that is, the transformation of all things in a life in Christ. Works of mercy also can be performed by the collective actions of Christian communities: cathedrals, parishes, monasteries, lay associations, etc. Christian communities have been performing such works since the very beginning of the Church.

The Holy Martyrs of Paris: SS. Maria, Priest Dimitri, Ilya, and Yuri

The Holy Martyrs of Paris:
SS. Maria, Priest Dimitri, Ilya, and Yuri

Opening the Doors of Compassion: We Christians should consciously perform works of mercy to imitate Christ and reflect His presence within us. Our intentions and our moral character—the kind of person we are—make all the difference in doing good works for the sake of Christ. It’s a great thing to work at a homeless shelter. But if I do so simply to gain praise or recognition from others or to get someone off my back about helping at the shelter, then I am acting out of selfishness and not out of a love for Christ or for my neighbor. What sort of character should we have? What kind of person should we be or become so that our good works imitate Christ and reflect His presence within us?

“God is love” (I John 4:8). Time and again in Scripture, in our hymns, and in the writings of the church fathers and mothers, God’s love means that God is merciful and compassionate. Recall from St. Gregory that “nothing else is more proper to God” than being merciful and, we can add, being moved with compassion. Compassion is not simply a feeling. Compassion is quite different from pity, from feeling sorry for others, or even feeling empathy for others. We can have all of these feelings and remain unmoved to connect with others or do anything for them. We can feel pity for people and feel quite superior to them.

The Greek verb splanchnizomai, found in the New Testament only in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is all too often translated as if it indicates the kinds of feelings I just mentioned rather than compassion. Sometimes it describes Jesus’ response to others, and at other times, Jesus uses the term in certain parables. But it is best translated in English as “being moved with compassion.” Compassion means “to suffer with another,” “to share the suffering of the other, to take it upon oneself” (Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy). Compassion moves us away from ourselves towards others. It expresses itself in actions for others and on their behalf. In the gospels, being moved with compassion always expresses itself in action.

Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20–22): When the father sees his returning prodigal son at a distance, he is moved with compassion and rushes out to him (v.20). He embraces him and welcomes him back home as his son and not merely his servant. This father is one of Jesus’ images of Our Heavenly Father, “who so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). “The Father,” writes Boris Bobrinskoy, “[is] not insensitive in the face of the passion, the suffering, and the decay of humanity,” but moved with compassion, “He sends His Son into the world He so loved.”

Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37): Moved with compassion, the Good Samaritan comes to the place where a Jew, typically despised by Samaritans, has been beaten and left. And he acts: “beholding him,” the Samaritan “came to him and bandaged up his wounds … and he put him on his own animal…” (v.34). Jesus tells this parable to a lawyer who tested him with the question “Who is my neighbor?” At the end of the parable Jesus does not tell him who his neighbor is. Rather, Jesus asks the lawyer a question: “Which of these three men”—the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—“was a neighbor to the man fell among the robbers?” The lawyer gets the point of the parable, for he says the Samaritan “who showed mercy” is the one who was a neighbor. Jesus’ point is that if you know how to be a neighbor, you won’t wonder who your neighbor is. True neighbors draw near to others with a God–like compassion and mercy that extends to everyone.

Our icons for this parable always represent the Good Samaritan by Christ. Origen identifies Christ, the Good Samaritan, as our neighbor. St. Clement of Alexandria elsewhere adds: “We call the savior our neighbor because he drew near to us in saving us.” And Blessed Theophlyact develops this idea: “Our Lord and God…journeyed to us…. He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds.”

Being moved with compassion involves being attuned to others. The compassionate person, like our compassionate God, takes notice of others and is attuned to whether they are in distress from whatever cause and regardless of who they are. For St. John Chrysostom, compassionate attunement “is most especially characteristic of the saints. Not glory, nor honor, nor anything else is more precious to them than their neighbor’s welfare and salvation.” Compassionate people, in imitating God Himself, are moved to interact with others, to bear their burdens and sufferings with them, and to alleviate them as possible.

Several texts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that Jesus was moved by compassion. In every case, Jesus’ compassion leads Him to act or do a good work, a work of mercy. Here are some examples:

Moved with compassion, our Lord takes note that the crowds who have listened to Him are hungry and that it is late in the day. Our Lord then takes action to feed them (Mark 8:1–8, cf. Matt. 14:14ff.).

Moved with compassion, Jesus acts to heal two blind men by touching their eyes and restoring their sight (Matt. 20:33–34).

Moved with compassion for the widowed mother who has just lost her only son, Jesus stops the funeral procession and restores the son to life (Luke 7:11–16).

Moved with compassion for the multitude “because they were … like sheep having no shepherd,” He then acts by commissioning the disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel: “And as you go,” Jesus tells them, “preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt 9:34–37, 10:7–8, cf. Mark 6:34–44).

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23–35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like: Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of “economy” found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit–for–tat or you–scratch–my– back–and–I’ll–scratch–your–back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us.

The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven. As Blessed Theophlyact writes:

The person who lacks compassion is not the one who remains in God, but the one who departs from God and is a stranger to Him…The master in His love for humankind takes issue with the [unmerciful] servant in order to show that it is not the master, but the savagery and the ingratitude of the servant, that has revoked the gift.

The fundamental economic principle, if you will, in the kingdom of heaven is “freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). We freely receive the great gift of Christ Himself and His love for us in and through the Holy Spirit. What are we to do with this love? As Christ tells us, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In passing Christ’s love for us to others, we return that love to Christ. That is what it means to do good works for the sake of Christ.

St. Herman of Alaska

St. Herman of Alaska

God’s love for the world is an ecstatic, energetic outpouring of Himself to the world. If we freely accept this gift, e.g., the Eucharistic gifts of the Body and Blood of our Lord, in true faith, what else should we do but join our love to Him and transmit His love to others? This is why faith in God, the Trinity, must express itself in actions. “Faith without works is dead” since such faith amounts to refusing the gift of love, who is Christ, and the Trinity. Faith without compassionate and merciful good works amounts to saying “Thanks, but no thanks” to God Himself and His love and mercy.

TrinityCultivating a Merciful Heart: St. Gregory the Theologian delivered his Oration On the Love of the Poor at a time when leprosy was a major illness. He hammers away at the utterly inhumane neglect and rejection that many Christians of his day showed to lepers. Lepers were often driven from cities, abandoned, denigrated as sub–human, and left to suffer in poverty and terrible pain because many people simply could not stand to be around them and thought they were cursed by God. In our modern societies, people with mental illnesses, serious physical deformities, people with AIDS, prisoners, the poor, immigrants, indigenous people, unborn children and others all too often have been treated like lepers.

If we are moved with a Christ–like compassion for others, then we will be moved to serve all others without any exception—even our enemies—because we affirm and experience all others as brothers and sisters in Christ who bear the image of Christ within them. Our Lord, after all, associated with all of the despised people of his time: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the poor, Samaritans, etc. The Good Samaritan exemplified a Christ–like compassion when he rendered assistance to a Jew, for he broke down all of the common psychological and social barriers between Samaritans and Jews.

Serving and praying for others with compassion is not always easy, and not just because we may be unclear about how to respond to others with compassion.For instead of opening our hearts to others, we often close and harden our hearts, and push others away from us. Think of a time when you’ve been very angry with someone. Think of how your chest tightens, how your mind is filled with animosity towards that person, and how you push him or her away from you. So too, there are many homeless people in our cities. It’s not always pleasant to draw near to them (that is, be neighborly to them) especially if their behavior reflects a significant mental illness such as schizophrenia. They are, however, rarely if ever a danger to anyone. And yet when we see homeless persons, it’s very easy physically and psychologically to recoil from them and avoid them. If we harden our hearts to others in these ways, how can we be moved by compassion to serve them as our brothers and sisters in Christ? What are we to do with our hearts when they all too often become hardened to others and, at the same time, to Christ?

In the Orthodox Christian spiritual life, our hearts are the spiritual center of our existence. Our heart is not a place filled with mere sentimental emotions. It is the place in which each of us—body, soul, mind, and spirit—is able to stand in God’s presence. The heart, as Metropolitan Kallistos writes, is “the center of the person, the seat of wisdom…the meeting place between the Divine and the human…the place of divine indwelling, where…God is at work within me.” But the heart is also the place of all kinds of passions and thoughts that will close off this meeting place between ourselves and God if we yield to them.

We engage in prayer, fasting, repentance, and confession, and we participate in the mysteries or sacramental life of the Church to clear away the thoughts and passions that shut us up within ourselves. To nurture and protect the love and compassion which God bestows upon us, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to cultivate a merciful and pure heart, a heart overflowing with the love of God the Father in and through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14, which is used as the blessing at the beginning of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy).

One traditional way of cultivating a merciful heart is through the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” We do not repeat this prayer to lull ourselves into a meditative state. We do not repeat this prayer primarily for relief from some particular struggle which we are enduring. We repeat this prayer—which is based on the prayer of the Publican—to stand before God fully attentive to all of the ways in which we betray our love for Him and others, thereby pushing Him and them away from us.

The martyrs and saints were extremely conscious of how often their love and faith faltered. They knew—they experienced—that while God’s love for us never fails (Matt. 28:20, Rom 8:39), our love for God and for each other all too often does fail. They knew with great honesty and humility that we are too easily led astray by the passions and selfish desires that harden our hearts and close us off to God and to one another. The saints and martyrs constantly sought Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. If I am honest with myself—“No matter how often I repent, I appear a liar before God, and repent with trembling” (Compline Prayer to the Theotokos)—as the first among sinners, I become aware of my constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We do not, however, repeat the Jesus prayer to beat ourselves up with guilt and get stuck in our past. Rather, the deep awareness of our sinfulness should make us aware of our utter dependence upon God’s life and healing love. Our repetition of the Jesus prayer can make us aware that God’s healing love and forgiveness are an utterly merciful gift. Nothing we do, say, or believe merits this mercy. The message of Christ’s forgiveness is always a message of encouragement and healing: You’ve stumbled and faltered; ok, pick yourself up. “Arise, take up your bed and walk” (Mark 2:9, John 5:8), and get back to the business of forging a life grounded in faith, love, and mercy.

If our experience of God’s mercy penetrates our hearts and minds, if we become utterly humble before God, then the grace of the Holy Spirit can cultivate a merciful heart within us. The person with such a heart is enabled to become—better: is moved to be—merciful and compassionate to others. She bears their suffering and distress, and prays and acts for the relief of that suffering and distress. The person with a merciful heart bears the crosses that come with loving others. Here is St. Isaac the Syrian’s wonderful description of the person with a merciful heart:

And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for humans, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing….From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.

We can only cultivate a merciful heart and open the doors of compassion to others through the uncreated grace, life, and energy of the Holy Spirit. The great gift we receive from living with a merciful heart is that we are enabled to radiate the love of the Trinity to the world and to bring Christ to others. In doing so, we participate in the process of our salvation, of sharing in the life, love, and energy of the Holy Trinity. Our life in Christ is inseparable from our communion and fellowship with the Trinity and with one another. We cannot, after all, say we love God if we don’t love our neighbor (I John 4:20).

theotokosPut simply, in manifesting Christ’s love in the world, we grow in likeness to Christ, and, thus, the Trinity for which we were created. This is what it means to be a living icon of God. The icon of the Theotokos of the Sign often graces the apse in many ortho-dox churches. In her purity of heart at the Annunciation, she freely consents to the incarnation of our Lord within her. She bears the Son of God in the flesh. That’s why we call her “Theotokos.” Consider too the wonderful way in which we refer to the martyrs and saints: “our ven-erable and god–bearing (theophoros) fathers and mothers.”

A living icon of God is a bit like a wind spinner. The wind blows; the spinner turns and passes the wind on. A well–made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. While wind spinners blow in response to any sort of breeze, we have to be far more vigilant about the breezes to which we respond. There is the breeze of the Holy Spirit which blows us into the gift–economy of the kingdom of heaven. It enables us to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There are, however, the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts as well as the seductive influences of our society. These breezes blow us away from God and our neighbors into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self–interest above everything else. The breeze of the Holy Spirit blows us in the direction of life; the other breezes, in the direction of death.

 

 

The Liturgy after the Liturgy: During the Divine Liturgy, setting “aside all earthly cares,” and drawing “near in faith and love and in the fear of God,” “we…receive the King of all invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.” Immediately after the Divine Liturgy, we pray with St. Symeon Metaphrastes:

Freely You have given me Your Body for my food, You who are a fire consuming the unworthy. Consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart.… Cleanse me, purify me, and adorn me…. Give me understanding and illumination… Show me to be a temple of Your One Spirit and not the home of many sins.

When we return to all of our earthly cares, how can we bear the gift of the Divine Liturgy in the world? What should our liturgy after the Liturgy involve?

The Liturgy has to be continued in personal, everyday situations. Each of the faithful is called upon to continue a personal liturgy on the secret altar of his own heart, to realize a living proclamation of the good news “for the sake of the whole world.” Without this continuation, the Liturgy remains incomplete…. The sacrifice of the Eucharist must be extended in personal sacrifices for the people in need, the brothers [and sisters] for whom Christ died…. the continuation of Liturgy in life means a continuous liberation from the powers of the evil that are working inside us, a continual reorientation and openness to insights and efforts aimed at liberating human persons from all demonic structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness, and at creating real communion of persons in love (Archbishop Anastasios).

St. John Chryostom also emphasizes the Eucharistic character of our works of mercy on the altar that “is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. That altar is more venerable even than the one [in the sanctuary] which we now use. For it is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body [which] you may see lying everywhere [among the poor], in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime.”

St Theodosius the Cenobiarch

St Theodosius the Cenobiarch

Indeed, for St. Maximus the Confessor, “the person, who can do good and does it, is truly God by grace and participation, because he has taken on a proper imitation of the energy…of His own kindness.” This is exactly what St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: “Nothing is more Godly in humans than to do good works” since the more literal translation of that text is: “There is no better way for a person to possess God than to do what is good.”

All Christians are called to preach the Gospel, the Word of God, to the world. But we should never underestimate the powerful ways in which our works of mercy can proclaim the Word of God and bring Him, Christ, to others. As a young man and a pagan, St. Pachomius was a conscript in the Roman army. Confined to a prison while awaiting service, groups of Christians came and ministered to him and the other conscripts. Wondering why they did this, he was told that Christians are “merciful to everyone including strangers.” “Pachomius, the pagan, was moved by the charity of these Christians. It remained with him all his life; for him, a Christian does good to everyone.”

Lamenting the low level of social ministry by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, Patriarch Alexis II wrote:

We all know that the Church is built not only by faith and by the preaching of the Word of God, but also by concrete works, without which faith is dead (James 2:18)…. An Athonite elder recently said that the world is tired of speeches. We now need not words but actions that bear witness to faith and mercy. These actions must be a sermon without words that are much more effective and convincing.

St Theodosius the CenobiarchFinally: St. Theodosius the Cenobiarch was well known for his great mercy and compassion to the poor, to those who were ill and dying, and many others. St. Symeon Metaphrastes commended St. Theodosius as “the eyes of the blind, the feet of the lame, the clothes of the naked, the roof of the homeless, the physician of the sick…” And so it can be for each of us—as individuals and as Christian communities— according to the grace and unique gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit; our strengths, weakness, and circumstances; and, above all, our willingness freely to accept and to pass on to others the gift of Christ’s love for us.

We offer prayers to the Theotokos to open the doors of her compassion to us. Let us also fervently pray that she helps us open the doors of our compassion to others and animate our lives with the good works that flow from a merciful heart. Let us be moved with compassion to serve Christ by serving others. Let us be especially attuned to the poor and to all of those in distress whoever they are and for whatever reason. Let us, then, work with the grace of the Holy Spirit to be perfected as living icons of Christ and to join “the cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1)—“our venerable and God–bearing fathers and mothers”—who through their faith, love, and good works bore Christ’s love—the Trinity’s love—in the world.

Priest John D. Jones is Professor{Anchor:_GoBack}, Department of Philosophy, Marquette University and Associate Priest at Saints Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church (OCA) in Milwaukee. This paper is a revised version of a lecture presented at the Orthodox Christian Women’s Association Conference, Doing Good Deeds, in October 2011. A copy of the paper with notes can be obtained by emailing Fr. John at [email protected]

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012