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Orthodox-Muslim Relations: The Search for Truth

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Hilary Kilpatrick

The Way, the Truth and the Life”: if we believe that Christ is all these things, we must seek to avoid falsehoods, in personal but also in public life. To lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not just politically misguided or un-ethical, it was un-Christian.

Many of the antagonisms which lead to war in our world feed on lies or half-truths about “the other.” This is especially true when two communities have a history both of coexistence and conflict. It is easy then to find justifications for fearing, hating and even attacking “the other.”

Thanks to geography, Orthodox Christians and Muslims have had a shared history since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Sometimes Muslims dominated Orthodox, as in the various Near Eastern Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire, sometimes Orthodox dominated Muslims, as in Tsarist Russia. Any community living under the domination of others suffers injustice, and both Orthodox and Muslims can point to wrongs they have endured as minorities ruled by adherents of the other faith.

Since before modern times the two communities identified themselves first and foremost by religion. They remembered wrongs – even when they had nothing to do with religion – as inflicted by Muslims on Orthodox (or the reverse), rather than as, for instance, by tax-collectors against peasants or soldiers against civilians.

As time passed, these memories became simplified, creating a picture of oppression remaining at a constant level over four or five centuries. In some cases the oppressor was then held responsible for everything that had gone wrong, although quite other factors might have been involved. Unscrupulous politicians could, and can, easily turn such a sense of injustice suffered into a desire for revenge, as the break-up of Yugoslavia has shown.

If we leave aside our collective memories and what we imagine the past to have been and look instead at contemporary records, we find a much more complicated picture. This corresponds to our own experience of life. Few situations we encounter are entirely black or white.

To take a concrete example: the book of memoirs and advice written by Synadinos, a priest who lived in the town of Serres in Macedonia in the first half of the 17th century, mentions violent attacks by Turkish (Muslim) fellow-citizens on the (Greek) Christians but also recognizes the just decisions handed down by high Turkish officials. He describes a combined attack by inhabitants of the town from all the different communities on a Muslim merchant who was selling grain abroad during a famine. And he feels loyalty towards the Ottoman Sultan, for whom he uses the Byzantine title “basileus,” rejoicing sincerely at the victories in Iraq of Sultan Murad IV, whom he admires for his good governance.

Judging by the space they take up in his memoirs, Synadinos suffered most of all from the conflicts and envy of members of his own community; these outweigh both oppression by the Turks and his grief at losing six of his children in early childhood. And indeed some of the worst Turkish outrages, such as their desecration of a church and turning it into a mosque, came about because quarreling Christians appealed to them to intervene.

What Synadinos writes about 17th century Serres does not necessarily hold good for the town a hundred years later or for elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire in the same century. The assumption that the same conditions obtained everywhere in this vast area is mistaken. For instance, the devshirme (the levying of Christian boys for the Janissaries) inflicted on Balkan Christians, was seldom carried out in Anatolia and never in the Arab provinces after they were conquered in 1516-1570.

Another example is the contrast between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch in the Ottoman period. Until the mid-18th century the Patriarchate of Antioch was independent of Constantinople, with Patriarchs residing in Damascus. As is well known, Patriarchs of Constantinople were frequently deposed and re-elected; very few of them remained in office continuously for more than ten years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw 40 clerics occupy the throne of Constantinople following some 70 elections or re-elections. During the same period there were seventeen Patriarchs of Antioch, a figure which includes rival claimants for the office, and no re-elections.

This last contrast raises the question: why was the turnover of Patriarchs of Constantinople so much quicker than that of their brothers of Antioch? Since in both cases the authorities were Muslims, causes other than a generalized oppression of Christians must be found.

One was the tremendous competition for office among the higher Greek clergy in the capital, with rival claimants buying the support of viziers and other officials. At times, too, Western European envoys intervened for or against a candidate. The Arabs, by contrast, often presented a united front, and European diplomats were not active in Damascus as they were in Constantinople. Moreover, there was less at stake, the Patriarch of Antioch’s sphere of influence being much more limited. No doubt other reasons exist too, waiting for researchers to uncover them.

One of the focuses of myth-making which has led to much bloodshed and misery recently is Kosovo. During the long years of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia, the battle of Kosovo in 1389 came to be represented in folk epics as a mythical struggle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, freedom and slavery. The Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, is regarded as a martyr who sacrificed himself for his faith and his people. The Serbs, characterized by the spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice, were a people in bondage, like the Israelites in Babylon, to whom God would one day give back their freedom. These folk epics were well known both among Serbs and among some other Balkan peoples, notably the Bulgarians.

Serious historians tell us a different story. The army led by Lazar in 1389 contained contingents of different origins, including Albanians; some Serbs fought on the Ottoman side. After the defeat Serbian vassal princes took part in Ottoman campaigns in Anatolia. Only in the mid-15th century were the Serbian vassal princedoms gradually eliminated; Belgrade was not captured till 1521.

The next three centuries saw a series of wars between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, often in lands populated by Serbs. The population shift from Serbs to Albanians in Kosovo set in at the end of the 17th century in this context. The Habsburg armies which had conquered Belgrade and entered Kosovo were forced to withdraw after the Ottomans reoccupied the area, and the Ottomans took reprisals against the local Christians, who had given support to the Habsburgs. To avoid Ottoman atrocities, Christians from Kosovo and surrounding areas, led by the Patriarch of Pec, followed the retreating Habsburgs and settled in what is now Voivodina. Similar emigrations followed in the early 18th century. Kosovo, now deserted, was appropriated by Albanian stock breeders who settled there permanently. This was a spontaneous movement, not government policy; the Ottomans mistrusted Albanians as undisciplined mercenaries and irregulars who committed outrages against the local population.

When in the 19th century intellectuals began to elaborate nationalist ideologies for the Serbian and other peoples of what was to become Yugoslavia, they first considered a shared language, Serbo-Croat, as the foundation of a country of liberated south Slavs. The myth of Kosovo, while alive in the folk memory, was not a source of inspiration then or for many years. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia established after the First World War, by its name implicitly excluded Albanians and other non-Slavs, and the government of Belgrade pursued a policy of settling Orthodox Serb peasants in Kosovo and forcing Albanians to emigrate or assimilate; the Serbs, moreover, received privileged treatment.

During the Second World War the Albanians reacted by collaborating with the Italian occupiers, killing and expelling Serbs and Montenegrins. After the war, to ensure Serbian support, Tito retained Kosovo within Serbia as an autonomous region, and Serbian dominance was strong until the late 1960s and 1970s, when constitutional changes enabled an Albanian leadership to emerge, enjoying many of the powers of a republic in the federal system. As a poor region Kosovo had the highest rate of unemployment in Yugoslavia, and emigration was widespread, especially among the Serbs, who were destabilized by their loss of dominance and sometimes subjected to Albanian violence.

After Tito’s death Yugoslavia entered a period of profound political, social and economic crisis, with the dominance of the Communist party being questioned and religion becoming a vital part of resurgent nationalism in all the Yugoslav nations. Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje on the 600th anniversary of the battle with the Ottomans skillfully exploited the myth of Kosovo to save the party (and his own position as its leader) by reconverting it into a Serbian nationalist movement. It also heralded the imposition of direct rule by Belgrade, followed by years of killings, destruction and expulsions perpetrated by both Serbs and Albanians.

Had the history of Kosovo, as distinct from the myths about it, been widely known to its people, the real problems of the region – social and economic backwardness and the absence of the rule of law, as well as relations between the Albanian majority and the minorities of Rom, Turks and above all Serbs, many of whose finest mediaeval monuments are in Kosovo – might have been recognized and addressed and the subsequent bloodshed and misery avoided.

Can any historically valid generalizations be made, then, about the Orthodox experience under the Ottomans? I would tentatively suggest three points – though any generalization is unsatisfactory.

First, Muslims usually regarded Christians as inferior and did not hide the fact. Second, Christians were taxed more heavily than Muslims.

Against these two negative points there is a positive one: since Christians had a recognized, if inferior, place in the Islamic political system, they were not subjected to systematic attempts at conversion.

Some Serbs who migrated from Ottoman territory to Habsburg lands later moved back to escape Catholic missionary campaigns. And when Paul of Aleppo, traveling through the Ukraine in the mid-17th century, sees the Polish Catholic drive to convert Orthodox, he is thankful that such things do not happen in the Ottoman Empire.

How different is the history of Orthodox under the Ottomans from the history of Tatars and Caucasian and Central Asian Muslims in Tsarist Russia? Comparative study of these two subjects might show similarities, bringing out parallels in relations between religious majority and minority communities which are independent of the specific religions concerned.

A commitment to discovering historical truth also allows justice to be done to individuals who go against the dominant opinion in their community and act with wisdom or according to principles of common humanity. For instance, if the Turkish authorities were to recognize the Armenian genocide, they would not only help to heal the trauma of its survivors and their descendants, but they would also be able to celebrate the courage and humanity of the handful of Turkish officials who refused to carry out the policy and even cooperated with foreign institutions to save Armenians.

In the shared history of Orthodox and Muslims such individuals exist, too. One example is the Algerian emir Abd al-Kader, an exile in Damascus after the French crushed his resistance to their colonization of Algeria; he was instrumental in saving many Syrian Christians from death in the riots of 1860.

On the Orthodox side, a memorable role has been played recently by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, welcoming all refugees from former Yugoslavia, whatever their religion.

In the search for truth and in Christ’s service, we need to be open to these individual acts of humanity and to admit that they may come from quarters we do not expect. For in the end, it is people created in the image of God with whom we deal. There is a temptation to forget this and to see only faceless masses whom it is easy to demonize in situations of tension or conflict. By trying to discover the truth about their history, we can give them back their faces and start to recognize them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hilary Kilpatrick, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an independent scholar in Lausanne (Switzerland). Her current research is on Arabic literature of the Ottoman period.

A Brief Guide for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Fr. Theodore Pulcini

Christianity and Islam share much common ground. Both trace their roots to Abraham. Both believe in prophecy, God’s messengers (apostles), revelation, scripture, the resurrection of dead, and the centrality of religious community. Despite these similarities, however, these two religions have significant differences which we need to be aware of, as true dialogue can be built only on nuanced understanding.

The Understanding of God: Muslims and Christians worship the same God (Allah, the Arabic word for God, is also used by Arab Christians). The basic testimony of Islam states “There is no god but God,” a statement Christians can also affirm. But how Christians and Muslims conceptualize God in their respective theologies is quite different. The emphasis in the Islamic theology of God is on “absolute unity” (tawhiid). Muslims insist that there is no distinction within the Godhead. God is sublimely one. Thus the Islamic polemic against Christianity has centered on the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims have caricatured Christians as “tri-theists.” As the Qur’an states: “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a trinity, for there is no God except One God.” (S. 5:76)

The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be adequately expressed within the limitations of human reason. It is an ineffable truth, ultimately not graspable by the human mind. How many heresies in Christian history have arisen because people attempted to detract from the ineffability of the Trinity, to devise doctrines that were more easily “digested” by the human mind. In all humility, we can only say this: God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do not rationally deduce this; we submit to him as Trinity even if we do not completely understand how he can be Trinity, considering it blasphemy to “reduce” God to something we can understand. The purpose of theology is not to “cut God down” to the size of human reason but to elevate human reason to the contemplation of the Divine Mystery, the Mystery which teaches us that the One God exists in three Persons. We render our submission (islaam) to the God beyond understanding.

One way to enable Muslim friends to understand why we believe that God must be a Trinity is to emphasize Christianity’s fundamental teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love can never be exercised in isolation; it is manifested in relationship, and for that reason the God who is Love exists as a “community within himself,” that is, a community of three Persons. The mutual love of these Persons is so perfect that they, though three, are perfectly One.

It is from this same perspective – that God is perfect love – that we should also explain how Jesus can be the Son of God. Such a statement is blasphemous to Muslims; they believe that God is “far above” having a son. On the contrary, Christians see the Sonship of Jesus as a testimony to the divine love, which is so intense that God was content not just to bless his creation from the outside but to sanctify it by humbling himself and becoming part of it through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. By becoming part of the created order, by taking on a full and a complete human nature, God sanctified humanity “from within.” Both Islam and Christianity say that God is totally other and beyond human comprehension, completely beyond the ability of humans to grasp, yet Christians add something completely different: that God so loved the world that he was willing “to come down from his throne” to became part of it, all the while remaining God “on his throne”! In this wonderful assertion, Christianity stands apart from Islam and Judaism in saying that the transcendent God actually became one of us, like us in all things but sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).

Yet, although we are Trinitarian, we affirm that there is only one God. In fact, the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East always say in Arabic: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the One God.”

The Understanding of Revelation: Christianity believes that God revealed himself and assumed human nature in order to redeem and save us, that is, to impart to us the fullness of life, freed from the destructive effects of sin, both in this age and in the age to come. According to Islam, on the other hand, the purpose of revelation was not to provide redemption but guidance – to provide a straight path through this life, leading to reward in the life to come.

In both Christianity and Islam, the message of revelation is enshrined in sacred scriptures. Christians affirm that the Bible is the Word of God but not that God mechanically transmitted it through people who simply served as passive conduits. Christians hold that the Bible was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Revelation was thus “filtered” through a human lens and written in human words and within human history. Thus our scriptures refer to historical circumstances but chronicle God’s definitive intervention in human history. In Islam the Qur’an is considered the unmediated word of God. Islam stresses that in receiving his revelation Muhammad was illiterate and hence completely passive. Thus the words of the Qur’an are not his words. He simply recited what was put into his mouth without any input of his own. Muhammad was simply the agent of revelation.

But according to linguistic theory, all communication is mediated. As soon as a thought is put into words, it is a mediated, human construction. The very fact that a thought is put into words means that it is “processed” through a human lens. Most Christians recognize this, aware that God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. Thus Christians would call the Islamic view of “unmediated revelation” into question on both linguistic and theological grounds.

Islam is much more book-centered than Christianity. The Qur’an is not to Muslims what the New Testament (or the entire Bible) is to Christians. What the Qur’an is to the Muslim, Christ himself is to the Christian. We have a Person-centered – that is, Christ-centered – faith. Christianity proclaims that Jesus Christ himself is God’s Word to humanity. For Islam, God has spoken in a Book: for Christianity, He has spoken in a Person. In Islam, the written Arabic Book is the marvel while, in Christianity, the Person of Christ is the ineffable wonder.

The Understanding of Sin and Salvation: Sin and salvation are central categories in Christian theology and spirituality. Christianity teaches that the effects of original sin have corrupted the world and the human beings who exist in it. In Islam, however, there is no such a thing as original sin. The Qur’an does indeed state that Adam and Eve sinned, but according to Islamic belief, they repented and were fully forgiven so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race.

I believe the Islamic rejection of original sin is really the rejection of a specific understanding (what I would consider to be a narrow understanding) of original sin. Islam rejects the notion that all human beings inherited the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve. This seems unfair to the Muslim: Why should we have to accept guilt for someone else’s disobedience?

To respond to such a question, we Christians must move beyond the understanding of original sin espoused by St. Augustine (+430) and those who followed his thought, according to which “in Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Calvinists later carried this view to an extreme, saying that the result of Adam’s sin is total human depravity – that is, that original sin has made human beings completely incapable of doing anything good without the assistance of divine grace. Such a notion is thoroughly incomprehensible to Muslims.

Eastern Christianity, however, understands original sin in this way: No sin that is committed is without its effect. Every sin disrupts the entire cosmos. Your sin has an effect not only on you but also on everyone and everything else. Any sin that you and I commit has a reverberation throughout the world, just as every puff that one takes on a cigarette pollutes the air that everyone else breathes. So when the Old Testament claims that the sin of the father will be visited upon the children, it is simply describing reality. Sin has a “snowball effect”: it accumulates throughout human history, impacting upon all who are born into the world. What started this off was the sin of Adam and Eve – the first, or original, sin. For the Eastern Christians to say that all suffer the effects of original sin is not to say that all are “born guilty” but rather that all have to deal with the powerful force of sin that has accumulated from the sin of our first parents until the present day.

Salvation means breaking loose from the bonds of sin that have grown stronger through the ages. With sin’s effects everywhere around us, we have an undeniable proclivity to sin. Because Islam has understandably reacted against the narrow understanding of original sin as inherited guilt, it has tended not to be receptive to this more realistic understanding of the pervasive effects of sin on all human beings and thus sees no need for salvation; it cannot understand how Christ’s death and resurrection brings salvation. “Salvation from what?” they ask. Just as it is unthinkable to Muslims that one person should have to shoulder the guilt for another person’s sin, it is unthinkable that another person (in this case, Christ) would be able to pay the penalty for another person’s sins.

Furthermore, because Muslims believe that prophets are sinless (`ima), it seems a blasphemy to them to say that Christ died the shameful death of a sinner on the cross. They therefore deny that it was Jesus that was crucified. (Some maintain that it was Judas, whom God made to look like Jesus so that he would suffer his rightful penalty for his treachery). In making this claim, Muslims see themselves as protecting the prophetic integrity of Jesus. In general, Muslims affirm that Jesus ascended to heaven but deny that he died on the cross.

Because Muslims do not recognize the universal and corruptive power of sin, unleashed as a result of original sin, they see no need for salvation in the Christian sense. What you should do, according to the Islamic view, is simply live a good life, pleasing God in all that you do. Submit to God and follow his directives. Religion, to the Muslim, does not mean salvation from sin; it means following the right path, or the sharii`a, mapped out by Islamic law. While Christianity is a faith concerned primarily with “orthodoxy,” or “right belief,” Islam is a faith concerned primarily with “orthopraxy,” or right practice. It is a religion of law, and it sees Christianity’s rejection of the Law (as taught by St. Paul in his writings, especially Romans and Galatians) as a serious deficiency. This, of course, does not mean that Islam is not concerned with right doctrine or that Christianity is not concerned with right practice. It simply means that the emphasis is different.

That difference in emphasis is very important. If one recognizes the pervasive power of sin, salvation is not just an option; it is a necessity. Christians lament the fact that an incomplete understanding of original sin led early Islam to “throw out the baby with the bath water” with regard to their understanding of sin. By reacting against an “inherited guilt” view of original sin, as described above, they have missed what Christians consider to be the central truth of human existence: that no matter how hard we try to conform to “right practice,” we will fall short of the goal. We cannot live the kind of life that God wants by our own power. And that is why salvation is necessary.

The understanding of religious community: The theme of religious community reverberates in the hearts of both Muslims and Christians. What the Church is to Christians, the umma is to Muslims. Christians and Muslims both consider themselves accountable to a community of faith. It is not enough to believe in isolation; we must link our lives to brothers and sisters in the faith.

Nevertheless, there are noteworthy differences between the Christian and Muslim visions of religious community. There is no ordained ministry or hierarchy in the Islamic umma. Also, in the umma there is more stress on homogeneity, on common pattern of life throughout the Islamic world, regulated by the sharii`a, than in the Christian Church at large. Christians have attempted to “incarnate” Christianity as much as possible in local culture. For example, the Bible, hymns, and liturgical texts are translated into the local language and adjusted to the local culture.

But to be a good Muslim one must learn Arabic as the Qur’an is considered to be untranslatable. Any translation into other languages is regarded only as an interpretation.

Moreover, Muslims and Christians have different understandings of worship. When discussing these differences, we should also note that Muslims are very attentive not just to the interior aspects of worship but to the external aspects as well. In this regard, Muslims have more in common with Eastern Christianity than with Western Christianity, especially Protestantism. Like Eastern Christians, Muslims use their whole body in prayer. Both groups, for instance, make prostrations in their worship. In much of Western Christian worship, what one does with the body seems unimportant. Not so in Islam. The submission of the spirit is symbolized by the submissive gestures of the body, made according to a ritualized pattern. Muslims have a much easier time, therefore, understanding the spirit behind the highly developed liturgical worship of Eastern Christianity.

On Presenting Christianity to Muslims: Let me conclude with just a few observations on how a Christian can best witness to Muslims.

Avoid polemic and argument and never give answers to questions that have not been asked. If you are questioned, “always be prepared,” as the First Epistle of Peter says, “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:15).

Second, the best way to make people want to know more about Christianity is to attract them to our shared way of life. The first step in witnessing is to build community! What will most impress non-Christians is a vibrant community where faith is strong and people live transformed and full lives. If they do not see that kind of community, why should they even be interested in Christianity? We must manifest a bond and a love among us that will make them wonder why we are different from others in the world. Recall the reaction of the pagans who encountered the first Christians. They marveled, saying, “See how they love one another!”

Keep in mind that for us Christians, the primary law is the Law of Love. Our emphasis on the primacy of love is perplexing to many Muslims. They do not understand it. It seems unjust to them. They feel Christians over-emphasize love, that Christianity’s teaching on love is “lop-sided,” unrealistic, impractical. Yes, Muslims too believe that God is a loving God, but love does not form the “heart” of their understanding of God. To them, above all, God is just; therefore their religious law has some harsh requirements. To them Christianity seems weak.

Love overcomes. It is stronger than any other force on earth. What may seem like weakness is really an unparalleled strength. Therefore the best way to witness to Muslims or any other non-Christian is to love them, to serve them.

Other-Appreciation and Self-Affirmation: Now more than ever, Christians have an obligation to develop an objective, nuanced knowledge of Islam not only for the sake of understanding this important “other” in our midst but also for the sake of better understanding the unique genius of the Christian view of God and humanity and of the relationship between them.

Make no mistake about it: despite areas of common ground, there is a wide theological chasm between Islam and Christianity. It was largely in reaction to an often distorted presentation of Christian doctrine that Islam formed its own doctrinal heritage. Islamic doctrine challenges us to embrace anew those facets of Christian theology which differentiate us from Muslims, especially the mystery of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ, and then to find new and ever more insightful ways of articulating these dogmas. Simple repetition of traditional formulas usually will not suffice to foster greater understanding of Christianity among Muslims (or among Christians, for that matter). In questioning the central Christian doctrines, Islam serves us well: it requires us to focus on those distinctive beliefs that are constitutive of our view of God and the world and to find more effective ways of proclaiming and explaining them.

All the while we must be realistic in our interactions with Muslims; these should always be characterized by consistent reciprocity and genuine partnership, not by triumphalism, ignorance, caricature, or manipulation on either side. We must call each other to consistent integrity and accountability. This kind of relationship is not possible in many other parts of the world. It is possible in the West. We should not neglect the opportunity for re-shaping Christian-Muslim relations. In doing so, we might just be able to provide new models of co-existence and cooperation for the rest of the world to emulate.

Fr. Theodore Pulcini, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, is Associate Professor of Religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. This is an abbreviated extract from Face to Face: a Guide for Christians Encountering Muslims, published by Light & Life: www.light-n-life.com.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

Hospitality and Marriage

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Nancy Forest

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah -- detail of a sixth century mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

When I was growing up, hospitality was something that had a ring of social class to it. It suggested entertaining at home, hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and leisure wear – a lifestyle of “gracious living” that my parents, shy people of modest means, did not share. Even today, we tend to think of money and charm when we think of hospitality, or the “cordial and generous treatment of guests,” as the dictionary still puts it. (Search “hospitality industry” on the web and you’ll come up with millions of hits for hotels, restaurants, fashion and home decorating.)

So when my husband and I married and Jim suggested we try to “practice hospitality,” I wondered what on earth was in store for me. But Jim had been educated in what might be called the Dorothy Day School of Hospitality, which has nothing to do with affluence.

After more than twenty-five years of welcoming people into our home and our lives – from friends to strangers, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming, from the friends of our children to my 91-year-old mother, who now lives with us – my own understanding of hospitality has grown, deepened, and endured testing.

Far from an optional pastime, hospitality, I’ve learned, is an essential part of the Christian life. Indeed, hospitality is the Christian life. We can no more do without hospitality than we can do without prayer and the Eucharist. It’s that important.

This kind of hospitality, of course, is a far cry from the leisure class idea of popular culture. For Christians, hospitality is not the acquisition of elegance but the decision, made in freedom, to open your heart and your life to whomever God brings to you, and to welcome them with joy and gratitude. Hospitality is the constant effort to break through the various walls we build to protect ourselves, and to approach the Other in love.

For some people hospitality comes easy; for others it takes a lifetime of prayer and ascetic exercise, and even then it may only manifest itself in a kind word to your next-door neighbor. Hospitality, like Christianity itself, is not a “place” but a “way.” It’s the determination to get beyond the fear, or the distrust, or the distaste for the Other and to get beyond the desire to look out for Number One (which our culture holds up as the meaning and purpose of life). And not only because being open to others is a moral good, although surely it is, but also because it is the key to salvation, the key to true freedom. It is the sole content of the Last Judgment.

In Matthew 25, the great Gospel chapter on the Last Judgment, Christ says that to practice hospitality is to enter into the Kingdom “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” As St. Maria of Paris wrote,

At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.

Having dedicated our marriage to the practice of hospitality, Jim and I have begun to see that hospitality is really at the heart of Christian marriage. It isn’t just something we decided to do as a Christian couple; it is the sacrament of marriage itself made manifest in everyday life.

Marriage is a sacrament, Fr. John Meyendorff explains in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, because to be married is to participate in the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage is the prototype of breaking through the walls of our selves and fully accepting another person in love. In St. Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians, the text read at every Orthodox wedding service, the mystery – the sacrament – of marriage reflects the sacrifice of Christ: “The husband becomes one single being, one single ‘flesh’ with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e. God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body.” The mystery of marriage is that the door through which I welcome another into my life is the same door by which I enter into the Kingdom. By its very nature marriage is a denial of self. Husband and wife offer hospitality first to one other, turning from the exclusive pursuit of their own personal concerns and deferring to each other in self-giving love. Yet at the heart of their mutual submission is the Eucharist.

Fr. John also points out the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of Christian married people. “When in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh,’ and if both are members of the Body of Christ, their union is being sealed by the Holy Spirit living in each of them. Now the Eucharist is what makes them members of the Body of Christ.” The early Church, he explains, did not have the kind of wedding rite it has today. Until the ninth century, the normal practice was for a Christian couple to enter into a civil marriage, then partake of the Eucharist together. Communion was considered the seal of the marriage.

So the Eucharist forms the model of hospitality – of sacrifice, self-giving love and submission – upon which Christian marriage is based. Just look at what we do when we approach the chalice, and see how true this is. After preparing for the reception of Christ through fasting, prayer and confession – like a young couple making their wedding preparations, making their bodies ready for each other – we approach the chalice with our arms folded on our chests, literally disarmed, putting up no defense whatsoever to protect our selves. Christ the bridegroom, whose love is unconditional, open and ever-sacrificial, bursts forth from the Royal Doors and receives us into His Kingdom. And we, in turn, humbly take Him into our bodies in a stunningly physical way that is beyond rationality and analysis. We pray for Christ to receive us: “Receive, therefore, O Christ who lovest all men, even me, as the Harlot, as the Thief, as the Publican, as the Prodigal.”

If we understand ourselves to be the “worst of sinners,” we understand that true Christian hospitality knows no limits, for if I – the worst – can be received, then no one can be excluded. And we pray that despite our wretchedness we may be deemed worthy to receive Christ – “so now take it upon thee to enter into the manger of my dumb soul and my soiled body.”

Hospitality in marriage begins there, but it doesn’t end there. As Fr. John put it, the “Great Mystery” (in St. Paul’s words) of marriage is “the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their ‘agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom.” Hospitality in marriage opens out like a series of concentric circles, and the responsibility given to married people to “transfigure ‘their agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom” involves a real effort to move further and further outward. At the center of the circles is Christ in the Eucharist. Then beyond that are the couple themselves, loving and supporting each other. Within this context, the wedding reading from Ephesians (which continues to trouble so many people) makes perfect sense: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

We don’t happen to live in a world that looks favorably on submission and sacrifice. Ours is a more rights-based world, where we’re encouraged to demand what’s coming to us, to make sure we don’t get cheated, to exert an enormous amount of energy protecting our precious selves from what we regard as the injustice of others. Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at each other, and our neighbors, in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my husband, my wife, my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated?

In his journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison – the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976)

Marriages that operate on this principle are doomed. If a married couple are unwilling to disarm themselves and to receive each other, based on the model of the Eucharist, there’s no hope at all for living a life of hospitality. And if hospitality is the key to our salvation, this is a very serious problem indeed.

The next circle beyond the couple themselves are the children with which they may be blessed. It may seem odd to speak of practicing hospitality towards one’s own children, but in a sense they really are strangers, and very demanding strangers at that. They come into your life fully convinced that you have been put on earth to tend to their every need, and they’re right. But as they grow you’ve got to help them become selfless and hospitable themselves, without withdrawing too much of your active support and care. It’s not easy to strike a balance. We found that one of the best ways to do this is simply by your own good example.

When our children were small, due to Jim’s work with an international organization, we often had guests come to dinner or stay overnight. These were the next concentric circles in the life of hospitality: family and friends, and even total strangers. They came from all over the world. We kept a world globe next to the dinner table (it’s still there) so our guests could show the kids where they came from. They loved having such interesting people in the house. One evening when we were going to have a rare dinner without guests, our disappointed daughter asked if we “couldn’t call the office and have them send someone over?”

Not everyone has the opportunity – or the inclination – to practice this kind of heavy-duty hospitality. But children don’t need the world at their table every night to learn what it means to open your door to strangers. Hospitality, as I said before, is not just a particular way of running a household. It’s simply the Christian life. It doesn’t take much to show children, by your example, that the world is not full of threatening strangers, and that your mission in life is not to protect yourself from them. You may have little money, or time, or room; you may be terribly shy; you may have disabilities and other kinds of special difficulties to deal with. But none of these should prevent you from being determined to open your heart, and your life, to the people God puts in your path.

Nancy Forest is an translator, editor and writer living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Her essay is reprinted with permission from Handmaiden magazine. She is co-editor of In Communion.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

Calling Governments to Account

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

an interview with Fr. Meletios Webber

[Photo: Fr. Meletios witnessing the confession of a young member of the parish of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.]

Archimandrite Meletios Webber was born in London and received his Masters degree in theology from Oxford University in England and the Thessalonica School of Theology in Greece. He also holds a doctorate in psychotherapy from the University of Montana. He is the author of Steps of Transformation and Bread and Water, Wine and Oil: an Orthodox Christian Experience of God. He has served as parish priest in England, Greece, and the United States, and for a year was a guest priest at St. Nicholas Church in Amsterdam. He has recently been elected abbot of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai in California. He is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

This is an extract from a longer interview done by a Russian correspondent for the Russian Orthodox web journal, Pravoslavie.ru.

o you have any comment on the decision by the European Union to deny the Christian origin of European culture? And, in contrast, on the recent attempt in the United States Congress to affirm and value this origin, and the essential role Christianity has played in the development of Western civilization? What is the portent of this statement for the European Community?

One of the most important factors in the modern world is that, perhaps for the first time, the Church has become free to criticize any political leader. I think that the Gospel is, and always will be, at odds with the social systems we have developed. And it is the Church’s task to call government to account whenever governments are behaving in ways that are at odds with the Gospel.

It is interesting that America, in which the notion of the separation of Church and state really originated, or partially originated, is now wanting to affirm some Christian roots; whereas, in Europe, where Christianity is so much part of the life blood that it hardly needs to be talked about, such a statement is deemed unnecessary.

The high points in the life of the Church, spiritually speaking, have usually been the times when the Church has been heavily persecuted, and the low points, spiritually speaking, have been times when the Church has been allied with political power. Not always, but sometimes. So, I think it is largely irrelevant as to whether political powers seek to have their roots in Christianity or in other religions, if they use that religion to justify whatever it is they are doing. So, the freer the Church is to comment on political life in the light of the Gospel, the better the situation is, everything else notwithstanding.

The experience of the Byzantine Empire, which remains somewhere in the consciousness of Christian society, has as its symbol the double-headed eagle signifying the harmonious functions of two heads in one body – the Church as the conscience of the government, and the government as the protector of the Church. Does this have any meaning for Europeans today?

Of course, the Byzantine ideal depends upon Christian emperors. That is a great deal more than emperors who happen to be Christian. In the good examples which Byzantium gives us, we see people who are of great spiritual depth, and under those circumstances it is possible for such a thing to exist.

I don’t see that the way modern democracy works is likely to bring people who are more than nominally Christian into positions of leadership. People who are too demonstratively Christian are going to be wiped out in the primaries. That is the nature of the modern political machine. People with strong views about anything are likely to be wiped out. The people you are left with are those who are good at balancing, pleasing all sides.

The Church is not like that. The Church should not be like that. The Church has a mission which hasn’t changed from the day that Jesus was physically amongst us on earth. It is the call to repentance, the call to bring people back to God. Very few states can be seen to have been successful in doing that same thing.

You are speaking of states in the Western world, or states in general?

In general. I know that Byzantium is a beautiful idea for many, many people. Holy Russia is a beautiful idea for many other people. Yet both the Russian political system and the Byzantine political system fell short of the Gospel in many ways, at least during certain periods of history, and sometimes markedly so. Neither one was of the mold of modern democracy.

Unless things change dramatically in the future, I don’t see that the sort of government that existed in Russia, and in Byzantium, is going to be a possibility at all. So I would see the future being where the Church and the state might be amicable, but the Church always needs to reserve the right to criticize. And many governments don’t particularly care for that part of the Church’s mission.

Do you think that this might be the underlying cause for this statement by the European Union?

To be honest, the people who seem to be making the rules in Europe at the moment baffle me entirely. I have no idea why they say anything. Or even who they are.

But you do not see this as setting the stage for more strictures on Church activities?

No, absolutely not.

They have fallen away from the Church, so they assume that all of Europe has fallen away from the Church?

Pretty much. In some ways, that is good for the Church. Wherever, for example, Catholicism has been hand-in-hand with a particular government in a particular country, you haven’t always seen Catholicism at its finest.

Being hand-in-hand with the government did not bring out its finest?

Precisely. On the contrary.

It brings out its worst?

Well, the Spanish Inquisition leaps to one’s mind, but there are other examples.

So, do you think that this decision could also have sprung from the Western European historical consciousness of abuses springing from a unity between Church and state?

The Christian background of Western Europe is so vast, and so omnipresent, that nobody could actually eradicate it. It is an historical fact, there to stay. That is the basis of what’s going on. Given the arrival of Islam into Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, it has always been one variety of Christianity or another which has dominated this area for 1200 years, in some places even longer.

And the new wave of Moslem immigration – are you feeling any pressure from this in Amsterdam?

I am almost certain that there is a solution waiting to be found to what appears to be a problem. Most Moslem people here in Holland are very happy to lead their own lives, doing what they usually do peacefully with what are usually post-Christian neighbors. There will always be layers of fanaticism in every society, but on the whole, the Moslem presence in Holland is something that most people can live with.

However, when people turn to religion to provide themselves with what one might want to call “ego identity,” simply because that identity is not present anywhere else, it transforms the religion into something which is rather distasteful, and also makes their own psychological make-up somewhat suspect.

This isn’t the best way of finding an identity. That is the problem. If people only find some sort of living identity in their religious affiliation, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. Because in the end, religions aren’t made to coexist.

Religions, by definition, tend to be at odds, and this has always been historically true for Christianity as well as Islam. There has always been a tendency for one to want to wipe out the other. They don’t live side by side naturally. Quite how we can get them to live side by side with some sort of friendliness, I am not quite sure, but that is the work that needs to be done.

Finally, do you have any words for our readers? Some wishes for the people of Russia, and her relationship to Europe?

I suppose my view is that the Communists who took over Russian society at the time of the revolution were – and I think this is true – genuinely trying to improve society. But I also believe that the way they went about it, particularly becoming adversarial towards Orthodoxy, meant that their labors were in vain. Russia is Orthodox to the marrow.

I see it in the people who come to Church, who have no real academic or book knowledge of what Orthodoxy is all about, but who have a deep, deep reverence for Orthodoxy, and the life of Christ that Orthodoxy exhibits.

Russia without Orthodoxy is, and has been, impoverished. It might be splendid in some ways, but there is something desperately lacking. And I am fairly certain that in God’s time the roots will be connected with the leaves. Then, what is in the depths of Russian history – what you might want to call the depths of the Russian soul (but perhaps that’s a little more dangerous) – will begin to manifest itself once again in positive ways, through growth, outreach, and commitment to the words of Jesus. That future is very bright indeed.

Links for the complete interview:

part 1: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080205103442

part 2: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080206153355

part 3: www.pravoslavie.ru/enarticles/080207170014

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

The Liturgy after the Liturgy

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Irina von Schlippe


[caption: Three of the works of mercy (giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked) as depicted in a large Romanesque icon of the Last Judgment. It was painted in the second half of the 12th century for the oratory of St. Gregory Nazianzen near Santa Maria in Campo Marzio. It is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museums. Double-click on the image to enlarge.]

There cannot be a Liturgy after the Liturgy without a Liturgy coming first. That is: we cannot go out into the world and serve God without first joining other people in the Eucharist. But can there be a Liturgy without committed service to God preceding it? Surely we must praise God in our work and our life, before we can presume to come and be partakers in his glory at the Liturgy. Unless we engage the Holy Spirit in our work, then whatever we do, however virtuous and useful, will not go beyond professionalism and be, at best, philanthropy. It will still be very useful and welcome to its beneficiaries, but it will not bring us into communion with God.

At the end of the Liturgy, before the final blessing, the priest says the words “Let us go forth in peace,” with the congregation answering, “In the Name of the Lord.” Then comes a final prayer, summing up all our wishes and re-affirming our faith, establishing the bridge between the Liturgy at the altar and the Liturgy in the world, where we are all celebrants. When there are two or more priests serving, this prayer is offered by “the junior priest,” the priest with the most recent ordination, the one who has most recently left the crowd of lay believers to become one of those who serve at the altar and may bring the Lord in Communion to the people. He is best suited for this, as he remembers our lay condition more vividly.

The word “dismissal,” applied to this part of the service, seems to me inadequate. Yes, we are all dismissed from our joint prayer around the altar, but these words are also an instruction, a command, to go out into the world in peace and go about our lives in the name of the Lord rather than following our own whims and desires.

Since the 1950s, I have been instructed to bring together my church life with my everyday life, to “church” my life, and to “church” the bit of the world immediately around me. This expression – “the churching of life” – seems to have been first used by Fr. Sergei Bulgakov and is still the banner of the Russian Christian Movement in France. Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom] talked about the need for it incessantly.

I often talked with Metropolitan Anthony about this, about ways of living as a Christian in an environment which was entirely secular, ways to bring one’s life into the church at all times, ways to bring the church into one’s life outside the times of worship. His words about transforming every breath into a prayer are forever vivid, if difficult to apply. I am not good at all at praying and the emphasis of our conversations concentrated more and more on a practical level. May I call it applied religion? This resulted in a great variety of practical applications, way beyond my personal outreach.

While working at the BBC Russian Service in the 1960s and 70s, I had the opportunity to organize Metropolitan Anthony’s broadcasts to Russia when he seemed to be the only representative of the Moscow Patriarchate who was able to make straight-forward statements to the people in the Soviet Union. This was done using an interview format. I would ask a question and he then would speak for 25 or 30 minutes.

In preparing these broadcasts, there was a genuine conversation and he would talk in practical terms about tangible, immediate events and attitudes. For broadcasting purposes, however, he would give advice on a more general level, advice applicable to all times and all societies – but the very timing and slant of this advice were invariably of immediate value to the listener in Russia, as well as to anybody who was worried about current affairs – as we all were during the Cold War, most acutely during the Cuban crisis, the persecution of dissidents, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Metropolitan Anthony refused to exercise his significant authority by making any political condemnations in his official statements, but he made his position clear at all times, including during these landmark events, about our own personal responsibility for the state of the world.

When Solzhenitsyn wrote his open letter to the then Moscow Patriarch, demanding that he defend his own clergy, his own people and his own country, I was asked by the BBC to beg Metropolitan Anthony to make a statement on this, since the Patriarch himself would obviously be unable to respond. We knew that, in Metropolitan Anthony’s view, Solzhenitsyn was justified. Certainly Solzhenitsyn had suffered enough to have a right to speak out. But Metropolitan Anthony saw that any statement of his own would only make matters worse. He chose another path: he talked about the duty of the Church as an organization and the duty of each member of the Church, the duty, in fact of every single person.

He said that the Church has the duty of ensuring communication of man with God and of God with man and is obliged to ensure that this function is carried out to the full at all times and in all places. This is a most difficult task, and nothing can be allowed to interfere with the full commitment to this task by the Church and by the people who represent her on earth – the task of commitment to prayer, to ensuring that the sacraments are accessible to the people, the task to keep open the channels of communication between God and Man. The Church is not allowed to be distracted from this unique and exclusive duty by any other considerations – even to defend the lives of people, even to engage in charitable works, not to speak of politics. The Church brings the sacraments to people. Its hierarchs are answerable before God for the continuity of Eternal Life among the people, for the spiritual life of God’s people. Therefore no one has the right to make statements in the name of the Church, including political statements, that might curtail the church’s most fundamental activity.

I was appalled to hear this – how could he possibly preach appeasement and silence? Metropolitan Anthony responded:

“All this applies to the Church as a specific organization, living in the world. This does not in any way apply to her living members. It does not apply to a Christian as a person. On the contrary, when a person becomes a Christian, he has duties in addition to what could be called conventional Christian activities: prayer, keeping the fasts, leading a devout and virtuous life. As he is receiving the Eucharist, he is also given the duty to grow into the full measure of the talent which he has been given on earth. This concerns not only his personal and spiritual qualities, but also his professional life and his activity within society. Whatever your occupation on earth, you as a Christian have the duty to develop it to the highest possible degree, to achieve the highest professional qualification and the highest position in society at which you are capable to function efficiently – you have this duty in order to show by your entire life (and first of all by your professional life) how you are working to improve yourself to the glory of God.

“This is the first compulsory step. The next one is the behavior of a Christian in the life of society as a whole. This includes politics, social work, protection of the environment, teaching – any area of human activity in which each Christian must participate in addition to his church and professional life.

“Moreover, a Christian has the duty to be active in society, to move forward and up to the full measure of his strength and to live according to his convictions with such an intensity that other people, who are strangers to these convictions, can get to know them, to share in them, to come alive in their turn.

“Each Christian has the duty to be fully responsible for the condition of the world which surrounds him and has the duty to demand – if only of himself – an active and effective participation in the life of his society, in the husbandry of our environment.”

Metropolitan Anthony was truly passionate in his defense of this exceptional function of the Three of the works of mercy (giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked) as depicted in a large Romanesque icon of the Last Judgment. It was painted in the second half of the 12th century for the oratory of St. Gregory Nazianzen near Santa Maria in Campo Marzio. It is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museums.

Church as an organization for all times and outside time, and he was also passionate about the function of the people, who at any given time are the Church, constitute the Church in its temporary, current, physical existence on earth.

This was Metropolitan Anthony at his most demanding – stressing that God had faith in Man, and that Man had to justify this faith; that Man, that is, every single person, had to accept this trust and justify it.

This broadcast gave rise to a series about God’s faith in Man, and also about some of the practicalities faced by believers in the Soviet Union. This was based on ever-recurring questions received from our listeners, such as: What does one do if a priest cannot be trusted? How does one choose between one’s career and one’s commitment to God?

But after having made this statement on the function of the Church as an organization and of every believer as a member of the Church, once the recording was over and we were out of the studio, he proceeded to criticize me for not having taken part in a protest demonstration outside the Soviet Embassy the night before!

I pointed out that he had talked about the pointlessness of such actions, so why should I have gone? He said that I had missed a chance to put my convictions in action, and therefore had failed to do my best. I was calling to others to take risks while myself remaining in the shadow. (He relented when he heard that I was caring for the children while my husband attended the demonstration.)

There is a Russian saying: “Every initiative will be punished immediately.” One meaning is that you will have to do yourself whatever you propose. If you commit yourself, you must be true to this commitment to the limit of your ability.

In his writings, Metropolitan Anthony’s main topic was prayer. In his several books on prayer, he addressed the world as a whole – every sort of Christian and indeed those who were of others religions or no religion. But his emphasis was different when he spoke to those attending the Liturgy. In his sermons he spoke mostly about the work of the Lord, of the love which the Lord showed towards the world by serving it, and of our obligation to show our love for God by showing love to our neighbor.

In the way he lived and in what he said, he demonstrated that the life of our Savior, and particularly the miracles of Jesus Christ, not only show his compassion, his mercy, his all-conquering, unlimited power, but also show us ways in which we can follow Him actively, physically, not only in word and prayer, but also in deed and action.

All through the Gospel we read Christ’s injunction to us – be active in your love for your neighbor. In Matthew 25, he even seems to show the limits of his patience. We see the Last Judgement as a time when there is no redress, when we have to face our sins and failures, the time when we cannot put anything right any more. We shudder on hearing this chapter.

In our everyday life, however, unless we remember at every step that we are going about our business in the name of the Lord, we tend to forget Matthew 25 and all the other reminders of our duty as followers of Christ.

We may pray, and we may pray fervently, meditating on the wonderful, inspired words of the Gospel or of the innumerable prayers in which innumerable saints have condensed their faith and their love for God – but all too often we limit our prayer to the effort of praying in words and meditation. We do not pray in action. We neglect our duty to bring relief through all the mundane actions available to us when we commit ourselves to our neighbor.

Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is the person who is actually next to us in life, the person whom we have met, the person we come upon by chance, the person who has sought us out, the person we can ignore, destroy or support.

Our Savior gives specific examples in Matthew 25: the hungry, the thirsty, the wanderers, refugees or homeless, the naked, the sick, those in prison. We may shrug and say that these examples are far from our own life. We may say also that we make generous donations to various charities in the expectation that professionals will do a much better job and on a much wider scale than we could ever hope to do.

I am the last person to criticize those who make such donations. But personal participation is all-important as well – all-important to the giver – but, from my own observations, also immensely comforting to the receiver who knows that he has been noticed as a person.

As an example of our own activity in the St. Gregory’s Foundation, let me cite the example of an elderly English lady whose only income is her state pension. Even so, she has been donating ten pounds a month – truly a widow’s mite – to help a young Russian man train as a priest. She agreed to give this support to a choirmaster in the deepest provinces. Her widow’s mite – given over ten years – has taken him through an intensive course in the tipica and other “technical” church matters, also through a degree in teaching music. Thanks to her support, he now has two professional qualifications. He remains a rock on which the choir at the parish’s services stands, and he has grown immensely in spiritual stature, thanks to this exceptionally generous and loving support. He can also earn his living.

As an example at the opposite end of the scale, consider the Russian royal family in late 19th and early 20th century. They not only financed hospitals and orphanages – and the sums involved were staggeringly high – but the women in the royal family trained as nurses and systematically carried out physical nursing duties at these very hospitals. One of the late tsar’s daughters was a most capable surgical sister.

This personal involvement, this physical involvement is essential. It is not enough to pray for the world, you must experience the effort needed to make any change at all. It is wonderfully useful to sign a cheque to benefit a charity, (and without strong financing and strong administration large-scale charitable activity is impossible), and I am forever grateful to those who support us in this way, particularly those who come and see the results of their generosity for themselves. But it is equally useful for one’s soul – as different from one’s social conscience – to do something practical with one’s own hands to help one’s own neighbor.

The Liturgy after the Liturgy means that we bring our faith and the joy of our faith to every action of our lives. It is a great effort, much greater than engaging in long, formal prayers, but only repeated effort makes one stronger and healthier.

Our Lord told us again and again that prayer and obedience to God’s laws are essential, but personal commitment and active love towards our neighbor are the greater proof of our love for God. In my work for St. Gregory’s Foundation, I see the immense difference between the people who treat their charity as a profession and those who treat it as a service to God, or perhaps to a greater good, if they have not yet found God. It is the combination of personal empathy, non-sentimental love, the ability to be joyful together, the natural, organic way in which the charitable person discovers the need of others, which is the hallmark of those who serve God by serving their neighbor.

It is a wonderful way to live.

Let us go in peace in the name of the Lord and in the love of our neighbor.

Irina von Schlippe, a longtime member of the BBC Russian Service staff in London, is the founder of St. Gregory’s Foundation, a charity that provides resources and support to local people who help each other in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

See the foundation’s web site: www.stgregorysfoundation.org.uk. This is an abbreviated version of a talk given at the 2008 conference of the Vicariate of Great Britain and Ireland of the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe.

The complete text is at: www.exarchate-uk.org/Archive/Conference2008/Ivsch.html.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

Saints Cosmas and Damian: Holy Unmercenaries, martyrs at Rome (284)

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Saints called unmercenaries are physicians who offered their healing services while refusing any payment and who, since their repose, continue to heal by their prayers those who call on them in faith.

There are three pairs of unmercenary physicians named Cosmas and Damian. The martyrs associated with Rome, shown with Peter and Paul in the mosaic icon on the cover, were twin

brothers who gave their money to the poor, setting aside only enough for themselves to devote their lives to the service of Christ in their neighbor.

According to one account, they were born in Arabia and lived as adults in Syria before coming to Rome. Raised by devout Christian parents, they led chaste lives and were granted by God the gift of healing the sick. By their generosity and kindness to all, the brothers converted many to Christ. The brothers told the sick, “It is not by our own power that we treat you, but by the power of Christ, the true God. Believe in Him and be healed.”

So strict were they in their determination not to accept any payment that, according to a legend, one brother refused for a time to speak to the other because the brother had accepted an apple.

Their life of service and their influence on the people around them led many into the Church, but also attracted the attention of the Roman authorities. When soldiers were sent to arrest the brothers, local Christians convinced them to hide for a while until they could arrange their escape. Unable to find the brothers, the soldiers instead apprehended other Christians. Cosmas and Damian then

surrendered to the soldiers, asking them to release those who had been arrested in their place.

The brothers were executed in Rome in 284 during the reign of the emperor Carinus. “We have done evil to no one,” they declared to the emperor. “We are not involved with the magic or sorcery of which you accuse us. We treat the infirm by the power of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we take no payment for rendering aid to the sick, because our Lord commanded His disciples, ‘Freely have you received, freely give’.”

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50