Archive for the ‘Spring Issue IC 60 2011’ Category

Dear In Communion reader

Monday, May 16th, 2011

The icon of “Holy Wisdom” is the work of Fr. Andrew Tregubov and is placed in the Church of Holy Wisdom at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York.

Dear In Communion reader,

Christ is risen! May we never take these few words for granted and never grow too old not to be challenged by their implications in our own lives.

Who does the Church present to us as the first to be raised from their tombs? Adam and Eve, our most distant ancestors, the original troublemakers. If Adam and Eve are revealed to us as the first to be freed from death, then there is immense hope for each of us, hope not only to rejoice in Christ’s mercy after we die, but to live in Christ’s mercy – and become channels of that mercy here and now – in the time that is left to us before death.

Above: The icon of “Holy Wisdom” is the work of Fr. Andrew Tregubov and is placed in the Church of Holy Wisdom at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York.

In this Paschal issue, we look at some aspects of living within the resurrection.

Recalling Dostoevsky’s remark that “beauty will save the world,” Fr. Isaac Skidmore looks closely at the words “wisdom” and “beauty.” Think of the saints you have known, the people living the most Christ-revealing lives, and I am guessing you are amazed by their fearlessness, their wisdom, and their ability to see beauty in places and faces others failed to notice. Lavanne Humphries shares some of her experiences of working with prisoners, people who, in the Russian tradition, are very often referred to not as criminals but as “unfortunate ones.” The women Lavenne Humphries has come to know and care about, in whom she finds the beauty of God’s image, are people whom few of us attempt to meet or know by name. Tom and Judith Snowdon write from Cairo, were they have been living through a time of a tumultuous transition that is still far from complete but where huge crowds, including many Copts, have risked their lives in a nonviolent challenge to a dictatorship infamous for its use of violence and torture. And then there is the remarkable story that I relate of Louise and Nathon Degrafinried and their “Paschal hospitality” to an escaped prisoner convicted of murder and armed with a shotgun.

These are a subjects of significance for all Orthodox Christians, though it is rare to hear about them in other Orthodox journals.

We cannot carry on our work without your help. Thank you for whatever you manage to send, even if only once a year. One way to help is to make more than one donation per year to OPF, or to give more than the minimum. We are deeply grateful to those who manage to make monthly or quarterly donations — such help makes a huge difference.

You might also consider giving someone — a friend? your parish priest? — a subscription to In Communion.

Or, if you prefer accessing “In Communion” via our web site, while there is no obligatory charge, we ask you, insofar as your circumstances permit, to help us financially.

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest, OPF co-secretary

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Christ has risen from the grave like a bridegroom

Monday, May 16th, 2011

 Anastasis: Christ with Adam & EveThe life of the present age is not a rejection or nullification of this age, but an externalization of all things in this age that are worthy of being externalized; just as the eternity of the future is not a forgetting or abolition of time but a cessation of its changeable course. The glorification of the creature in the resurrection is accomplished by the feat of self-renunciation. For Christ’s resurrection takes place by virtue of his voluntary suffering and death on the cross, by the fact that he has “trampled down death by death.”

The victory over death is accomplished from within, by means of death itself. The life of this world is lived out to the end in Christ’s death, just as death, known and experienced to the end, is now powerless to hold him, for it is exhausted in him …. The resurrection is not the creation of a new life, but the victory over death in death itself. It is eternal life, shining out of death, the eternal life of “Christ risen from the grave like a bridegroom.”

Christ’s resurrection is therefore an externalization of his salvific death, which crowns his redemptive passion  and the entire way of the Incarnation. Christ’s resurrection is accomplished by the cross, by virtue of the sacrificial feat of love and obedience. “We venerate your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection.”

In the trampling down of death, in the triumph of the resurrection, the cross is the foundation and power of the joy of the resurrection. The bliss of paradise preserves the memory of suffering illuminated and overcome, just as the light is in the victory over the “darkness that was upon the face of the deep,” the Divine world clothing in beauty and order “the earth … without form and void” (Genesis 1:2).

This age passes into the future age and is transfigured in it, just as the earthly body of the Lord was transfigured in the resurrection. The body of the resurrected Lord retains the wounds made by the nails and the wound in his side made by the lance as a testimony of its identity to itself; and the power of Christ’s resurrection is revealed in the unity of this age and of the future age.

— Fr. Sergei Bulgakov

in the essay “Divine Joy” in Churchly Joy (Eerdmans)

* * *

credits:

The Anastasis icon above was done by John Reves

* * *

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Beauty Will Save the Church

Monday, May 16th, 2011

by Fr. Isaac Skidmore

Holy Wisdom Icon: Sophia – Holy WisdomI have recently begun visiting the works of Orthodox “sophiologists,” a group of theologians in nineteenth and twentieth-century Russia who focused their attention on the mysterious, personified sophia (Greek for wisdom) that appears so often in Scripture. Early festal materials and names of churches, including the great Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, also attest to awareness of this figure in Orthodox tradition. These thinkers have been largely peripheralized due to the suspicion that they describe sophia in ways that make it nearly a fourth divine person. While it is not my intention to rehabilitate them, I find in them an insight germane to much turmoil that we face within our modern Orthodox churches, as well as to the seeming incapacity of worldwide Orthodoxy to pull together in a cohesive witness to the world. They lay particular emphasis on beauty, seeing it as a correlate to truth and love, in God’s self-revelation and in creation. While beauty’s importance is affirmed throughout Orthodox theology, it is stated most emphatically by these sophiologists, and described by them in ways that highlight its implications for our own creative activities. Their insight is captured in several statements: one, by Dostoevsky, who by at least some accounts stands within the sophiological lineage, says, “Beauty will save the world”; others, by Nikolai Berdyaev, saying, “For God’s purposes in the world the genius of Pushkin is as necessary as the sainthood of Seraphim” and “Revelation demands a creative act.”

These statements call attention to an aspect of the Church which receives little notice these days: the role of the aesthetic in embodying and conveying truth. Counter to the notion of ecclesiology that has developed in the West, the Orthodox Church does not experience authority primarily as a structural force that hangs, in hierarchical fashion, from a chief potentate. We know this and delight in describing our conciliar self-understanding, in which authority is expressed as mutual agreement and indwelling, affirmed and renewed by each council’s immersion into holy tradition, resulting in a unified, doxological confession of faith. We are mistaken, though, if we believe this distinction of our ecclesiology, or even the omission of the filioque, is sufficient to bring about Orthodox life in a way that is meaningful to members and onlookers. It seems obvious that, in our modern efforts to be Orthodox and transmit Orthodoxy, we are missing “something.” Try as we might, coherency escapes us. Our endeavors rarely come together in a wholeness that resembles the image of the Church we hold in our hearts. No matter how much we adjust the recipe, some critical ingredient seems lacking.

Looking for this missing element, we grasp at some of the more obvious possibilities. Surely, we think, the desired harmony will appear if we have leaders who are responsible and accountable. At other times, we look to structural dynamics themselves, wondering whether our form of governance should be more hierarchical, more congregational, more (or less) democratic, or more synodal. We focus on questions about autocephaly, autonomy and “maximal autonomy.” In the Western Hemisphere, we wonder about the implications, if any, of the transition from our former Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to the newly formed Episcopal Assemblies. We eye the development, and the failure in development, of committees that promise to bring about a pan-Orthodox consolidation of resources and that point, dimly, to the possibility of jurisdictional unity in the future. We yearn for a kind of reform – a return to one or another of periods in which integrity prevailed. Alternately, we long for a future which feels itself free to shake off the past as though it were dust. All of this is well and good, as these are matters – each one and many more – that eventually have to be settled.

In all of this, the missing ingredient remains missing. The more we seek the manifestation of the Church’s divine pedigree, mandate and hope, the more we encounter our human inability to see it to completion. This is no minor crisis, as it seems our spiritual effort, individually and collectively, is consumed by these questions.

It also evokes further questions:

  • While the future may bring resolution of these issues, can we get there by way of the road we are on now? Doesn’t it seem as though the solution, at some point, must involve ceasing to push forward in the direction we are going and turning onto a different path altogether?
  • Until these matters are set in order, are we destined to put our Orthodox lives on hold?
  • Also, if and when these issues begin to resolve, will we be in a state to then start living the life we claim to be seeking, or will we merely continue to focus on the imperfections of our churchly condition?

We are failing, I have come to believe, not because we do not expend effort in good and necessary ways; nor because we are made cynical by the operations of our church administration and life; nor because there is not often sincere repentance. I believe we are failing because, alongside all of our present activities, we are not simultaneously sustained by a creative vision of Orthodoxy that is capable of encompassing and transcending the present morass.

The take-home lesson of the sophiologists, I believe, is that we can have correct dogma, ritual and even administration, yet still lack the substance, if we do not also have beauty. More than that, when beauty is present, we find that even the deficits our humanity inevitably introduces into the expression of dogma, ritual and administration are bearable, and do not suffice to sever us from hope, communion and even joy. The upholding of beauty is one of the most truthful and life-affirming declarations we can make. Beauty is not empty. It contains the fullness of hope, and holds in secret all that hope anticipates.

Holy Wisdom, 16th century, NovgorodThe symptoms of our malady are apparent. Our language has become dominated by bureaucratic words that are foreign to the soul in its depths. Ecclesial conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, where the idea of sophiology was developed, were more challenged than our own; yet, faith flourished, being fed by a eucharist that could be consumed even outside the warmth of the churches. The spiritually sustaining food was an image of earthly-heavenly beauty that informed the aesthetic experience of the people who lived through hard events. They could not have pointed to structures of church administration that were less fraught with fallibility than our own; yet, at the same time, they had Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. We, on the other hand, have become anemic, administrative, and at times puritanical in our conception of spiritual life. We need a breath of fresh air.

Each year, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, yet may be far from grasping that day’s special meaning. Orthodoxy has flourished, even under occupation by Tartars and Turks, owing to its ability to hold onto its image of glorified creation. This has provided it with a poetic sensibility that turns even bitter experiences into things that can be borne.

Holy Wisdom, 18th century, Russia

Much of our present dilemma comes from the fact that we consistently appraise creative expression and imagination as secondary in importance to administrative integrity, ascetic effort or prayer – and to almost anything else – assuming that fulfillment of these conditions will lead naturally to beauty, and that, prior to that, beauty is a vain indulgence.

I think this order should be reconsidered. We need to cultivate the image, sustain it, believe in it and celebrate it, even in the absence of external confirmation. We can survive years, even decades of ill-defined administrative structures. The church has done so before, embodying a spirit that evokes wonder. This church of the past, though, was not so soulless as we have become. They were capable of enduring much more than we, because they understood that their enduring took place in the context of beauty.

I am not suggesting we should cope by trying to escape into a golden past. This will only confirm our despair. Nor am I suggesting that we cease with our internet banter, even in the name of our Lenten seasons, or that we give up our efforts to improve church structures. I am suggesting that we take up the task of articulating, writing, and “writing,” in the iconic sense, the vision of God’s beauty in our present world.

We have failed, with few modern examples to the contrary, to articulate a story that captivates people in their craving for life. It’s not that our words fall on deaf ears but that they are not words that enchant the heart. We have botched the task of telling people a story they can be inspired by.

It is said the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, in an ineffable, imagistic way, answered the tensions of dogmatic disputes regarding the nature of the divine persons and essence, and calmed the passions of feuding sects. Rivals let go their opposing positions, finding themselves stammering “Amen,” lips trembling, before the breathtaking landscape of God’s Holy Trinity that had been laid before them. In all our words, strategic plans and investigative committees, let us not overlook the scandalous possibility that a single icon, conveying unspeakable grace of the order of Rublev’s Trinity, perhaps written tomorrow by some now-unknown hand, could turn the century around. And let us imagine that it not merely be such for the something-odd number of people who currently call themselves Orthodox, but for everyone who has capacity to be moved, to feel, to cry.

What will assist each of our Churches, around the world, through the struggles, predicaments and controversies that have become commonplace? What will rejuvenate worldwide Orthodoxy in the fulfillment of its universal calling? Only in part does the answer consist of administrative reforms that we necessarily pursue. Only in part does it consist in the transformation of millennia-old sensibilities regarding jurisdiction and barbarian lands.

More than that, it involves the bringing forth of a vision that renders the world breathless, telling a story that embraces every sinner in the birthright of a God whose name they don’t yet know, spreading a canopy that covers the earth as lovingly and solemnly as though it were covering the holy gifts. The world-changing, creative acts we celebrate within our Tradition were born in just such a doxological vision, and will be sustained by nothing less. Then, they will come. “And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

Beauty will save the world.

* * *

Fr. Isaac Skidmore is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and is rector of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon. He is also a counselor, and is pursuing doctoral studies in psychology.

* * *

A note on the Holy Wisdom Icon: Sophia – Holy Wisdom – appears in intimate relation to Christ, and betweenthe most-glorious saints, the Theotokos and John the Forerunner. In these three, creation realizes itself as anexpression of the divine prototype, which existed in God’s eternal Wisdom, even before it was granted its ownlife. Of these mysterious images, Sergei Bulgakov writes: “These icons have been accepted and authorized bythe Church and are preserved to this day. But these memorials of symbolic sophiology remain dumb, and thoughtheir meaning must have been clear when they were composed, in our time, which lacks sophianic inspiration,they often remain enigmatic and partially incomprehensible relics of a former age.” We might find ourselvescurious about an aspect of theology that was once understandable but now seems so esoteric. What riches mightwe be leaving behind, if we continue to marginalize something the Church once saw fit to celebrate? – I.S.

* * *

On Divine Beauty:

By virtue of their creation in the image and likeness of God, all persons participate in the Divine Beauty. While this is true of every human being without exception, however outwardly degraded and sinful, it is true pre-eminently of God’s holy ones, the saints…

So it is also with every expression of beauty in created things: such beauty is symbolic, in the sense that it makes manifest the Divine. In this way beauty brings God to us, and us to God; it is a two-way door of entry. Beauty is therefore endowed with sacramental power, acting as a vehicle of God’s grace, an effective means of sanctification and healing. And that is why it can justly be claimed that beauty will save the world…

Despite the effects of the Fall and despite our deep sinfulness, the world continues to be God’s creation. It has not ceased to be “altogether beautiful.” Despite human alienation and suffering, the Divine Beauty is still present in our midst and still remains ever active, incessantly performing its work of healing and transfiguration. Even now beauty is saving the world, and it will always continue to do so. But it is the beauty of a God who is totally involved in the pain of the world that He has made, of a God who died on the Cross and on the third day rose victorious from the dead.

— Metropolitan Kallistos / Sobornost, vol. 30:1 (2008)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

 

Women in Prison: On the Glory Road

Monday, May 16th, 2011

by Lavanne Humphries

“Do the time, don’t let the time do you.” These are words I often hear from the women I visit each week at the local jail, a detention center for people awaiting trial. Those who participate with me in Bible study are the ones who have chosen to believe that this is the beginning of an experience that can have profound meaning in their lives.

They are open to the possibility that God is trying to get to them and they are willing to let go and let that happen. Some are further along in the journey than others, but all share in seeing that jail can be a womb of transformation.

Every Monday, when I open the Bible study session at two different PODs (places of domicile – sections of the jail, a large, circular structure with from ten to forty prisoners per POD), I begin by suggesting to the women that they see the cup half full rather than half empty because even in jail some good events can happen in their lives. They share their statements of gratitude with the group. More often than not some will say, “I’m grateful for being here,” “I thank God that he put me here,” “I’m glad I’m away from (the drug dealer, the abusive husband, the battles with family members, addictions, prostitution).” Many have come to see jail as “time out” – a space in their lives enabling them to begin moving in a different direction.

The women who come to Bible study are only a small percentage of the women incarcerated; of the two hundred locked up, five to ten percent get involved. They are of every age and condition – teenagers, pregnant women, grandmothers, many just coming off addictions. With few exceptions, all are in jail on drug-related charges.

The first POD houses women on short-term felony charges such as violating parole, prostitution, burglary, assault, or shoplifting. The average stay is short – seventeen days – but some are held for weeks or months. The other unit houses women charged with violent crimes – in a few cases murder. Some are held for up to two or three years while their cases are being prepared by overworked public defenders.

Due to our weekly encounters, I develop close relationships with many women, in some cases corresponding with them after they leave. I’ve seen several of these women grow and mature in amazing ways as we’ve shared love of Scripture, prayer and their deepest concerns.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)The lessons I offer to both groups address several major themes presented in various ways using different scriptural references. We talk about prayer, how much they are loved by God, forgiveness, deification, suffering as it relates to life in Christ, and a strong emphasis on getting into a church when they leave. I always make the Orthodox option known to them – a part of Christianity many never knew about. I bring in icons of the feast days and give every woman I encounter an icon of Christ with a scripture verse on the back: “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” (Isa. 41:10)

Above: I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)

The lessons always begin with a Psalm (I encourage them to read a Psalm every day). I include six or seven scripture texts relating to the theme as well as several readings from either contemporary sources or Church or Desert Fathers on the subject. We start with a prayer and end with all of us praying together, each woman voicing her special request to God, each one sharing concern for the others. They begin to see that incarceration is an opportunity to grow in prayer. The women with separate cells – those regarded as “high risk” – may follow the Desert Fathers, who say: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” I urge them to pray for each other, their families, the guards, the judges, their victims, their enemies.

As we close the session, I ask them to tell me one thing they want me to pray for and I will pray for them each day when I pray for my own children. Some of their prayer requests include: “Pray that my little children will remember me when I get out.” “I want to be given wisdom to see my role in life and what God wants me to do when I leave here.” (This came from a woman whose child was murdered.) “Protect me from negative influences in my life.” “Ask God to protect and nourish me.” “More than anything, I want to do God’s will.’‘ “Pray that I won’t give birth to my baby in jail.”

In my four years of jail ministry, two women stand out as particularly open to God’s healing love. Here, in their own words, are their accounts of their experiences while incarcerated.

Helen’s story:

As a young mother of three children, I was thrown into prison on some serious charges. I was heartbroken and suicidal at the thought of leaving behind my young children. I was placed on suicide watch for eight long excruciating weeks. [The prisoner is stripped, given a blanket, locked in a cell and isolated, except for being checked by another prisoner to report if she is engaging in head banging or other types of destructive behavior.] I lost all hope in life and simply gave up. Even when I moved upstairs with the other girls in my classification, I was still depressed. I stayed that way for six months until I was introduced to Bible study. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church but strayed. I finally decided to trust in the Lord with all my heart. I started gaining my hope back and it was enough to get me through .

I’ve suffered many losses while incarcerated which brought me to my knees. I prayed non-stop for my children’s father to change his negative ways. I didn’t want to lose my children to strangers. The more I stayed in the Word, the more I saw myself grow. My outlook on life changed dramatically. I can finally see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. I’ve regained all hope again and I have tremendous joy in my heart. I’m able to see the good in all things and learn lessons that come along the way. I’m so thankful that the Lord has given me another chance and not given up on me. He’s been coming through for me time after time. After a year and a half of consistent prayer, my children’s father is finally doing what he’s supposed to do for our children. As long as everything continues this way, he’ll get them back from the state for good. It’s a huge relief for me. The Lord continues to prove that he can indeed move mountains for those who believe. I’m proud to say that I love the good Lord with all my heart and soul. I try every day to apply his words to my life. I notice that as I move closer to him my perspective has changed as well as my desires. I’m able to handle situations a lot better and I strive to be sin free. Although I still mess up I know that my loving Father in heaven will forgive me. He’s helped me put the pieces back together and now I know that it’s not over. I’ll be released when God says I’m ready.

Helen is an extremely bright, lively woman, very articulate and more than eager to change. She wanted to learn, and stood out as a candidate for rich spiritual growth in that constricted environment. In Bible study, she was always taking an active role, sharing reflectively on the passages and questions. She was eager to know how to pray. As she grew over the months, she became very committed to keeping peace among the “little community” in the POD and would ask for prayers that they could live together in harmony.

As Helen mentioned, she grew up in the Catholic Church. Recently another woman came into the POD, also Catholic though having attended no services since she was five. I asked if either of them had ever prayed the Rosary. They remembered it from years ago and asked if I could get rosaries and teach them how to use it. We spent the hour I was there that day looking up all the scriptural bases for the Glorious, Sorrowful and Joyful Mysteries. I was describing to them my understanding of the Dormition of the Mother of God, showing them the icon. “Oh, could you bring us a copy of that icon? And can you please pray that we can forgive each other when we have disagreements so we can live in peace?”

A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands

Above: A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands

After two years of incarceration, Helen asked if I could arrange for a priest to come so they could make their confession and receive communion. The priest visited them just before my last visit, and Helen was ecstatic that she could begin her confession and take communion for the first time in many years.

Louise was another prisoner I encountered who showed such remarkable growth while in jail. I knew her for about a year and half during her time in the high risk POD. She was moved to a women’s prison across the state over a year ago. We still correspond.

This is what she wrote to me in a letter sent just after arriving at prison:

Well, I’m finally here … it is beautiful. We’re in the middle of a 300 acre wildlife sanctuary. There are trees and grass, flowers and birds everywhere. And that beautiful sky! My heart sings, it is full of the beauty of God’s creation around me! [I wrote to you about how] God is now in my heart, but not where he took me from. Like the violent life that I had been living riddled with drugs and alcohol, the life of owning things and working two jobs to have it “all” and yet didn’t own a Bible! How I had gone from being a freshly saved teenager, wanting to be in the ministry – into a downward spiral over a period of 40 years to end up in prison for stabbing another human being in a drunken blackout! That’s where I came from. Here’s where I am today, with the joy of Jesus in my heart and it all started with prayer!… I look at this time of incarceration as an opportunity to magnify and glorify the Father and his Son Jesus.

I am (and always will be, until I join the Father) a work in progress. My life only gets better with each day as I meditate on God’s word. In surrendering my will to Him I have the greatest peace in my spirit and love for all in my heart. I can’t imagine ever living any other way than in obedience to the Lord and living in His light! One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received other than salvation is learning how to pray, because prayer is the answer to everything. Whenever anyone comes to me with a problem, my answer is always – “let’s pray.” I know that there is no problem too large or too small for my God. All we need to do is talk to Him. Prayer – that is the answer! I give Him all the praise and glory for all the changes He’s made in me and my life. I was once a prisoner of sin, but now I am set free! Praise God!

My encounter with Louise in the high-risk POD revealed a very responsive person, always eager for the Bible study and instructions on how to pray. I always pass out a sheet of instructions on how to do contemplative prayer – 10 to 20 minutes morning and evening using a word – Jesus, love, peace – to calm the mind and to allow God to take over. I’ve not heard responses from many on doing this, but Louise took to it like a duck to water. She reported to me after having done it for several months how it had changed her. She was becoming more forgiving and also realizing the pain her offense had caused others. She felt laid on her heart the need to pray for her victim and the victim’s family. When she left the high-risk POD unit and was moved to another and found there was no Bible study there, she wrote both to the chaplain and to me. “We have to have Bible study here,” she said. “Send someone to do Bible study!” I arranged to go to her POD rather than another one I was visiting at the time.

We went through the nine fruits of the Spirit, spending an hour each week on each of them. Always prepared, having read about and pondered the next lesson, she co-taught this with me. As we concluded the study, she informed me that she had been sentenced and was on the way to the women’s prison across the state. Eager to get there, she told me, “I have a ministry to share God’s word with others. I always wanted to do prison ministry, but didn’t realize I’d have to be sentenced to prison to be able to do it!”

Not all the women who attend Bible study and appear to respond maintain their growth after they leave. If they go back to the same environment they left, they will find drug dealers waiting on their doorstep, the abusive spouse, the poverty, the lack of jobs, homelessness, the loss of children. Many return to jail – recidivism is sixty to seventy percent. However, seeds have been planted by those of us who study the Bible with them and our Lord has promised that his Word will not return to him void. We have faith that what we have offered will not be in vain.

To truly be with these women, I must practice being with God in my own life. In fact, it took twenty years of setting apart time during my day to practice silence and the Jesus prayer to develop in my heart a compassion for these prisoners, the “least of these.” To continue the silence and the “listening” enables me to listen to them and to their deepest needs, to be consistent with weekly visits, and also to set boundaries, as one can easily be manipulated in this work. Consistency in being there is important. Several women have said, “Lavanne, it’s not so much what you teach us as it is your coming out here every Monday, week after and week and ‘being’ with us.”

Prayer in the context of the Orthodox Church led me there, gives me strength to be there, keeps me going back and prompts me to hold my sisters up to God in intercessory prayer for mercy for us all, bound together in the Spirit and the love of Christ.

I sometimes sense that I’m entering the real world out there, a world of real people who have hit bottom, who admit they’ve done wrong, who face it, who own it, who are willing and eager to grow. Real people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. When I leave the jail to head home, I encounter all around me the chimera of addiction, denial, falseness, materialism. The unholy drive for total satiety of the senses this culture demands makes me wonder: who are the real prisoners?

Two primary realities have impressed me – at times overwhelmed me – in these four years of jail ministry: first, the power of God to lift up the fallen, to put within them a hunger and thirst for righteousness and a desire for real change; and second, the resiliency, courage, faith and hope of these women to welcome and embrace that change despite their having come from the most circumscribed, negative, demeaning circumstances where they have been betrayed by friends, abused by family members, treated poorly (at times unjustly) by the courts, and imprisoned for the sickness of addiction, instead of enrolled in rehabilitation. In spite of all this, some manifest an acceptance, serenity and determination with God’s help to move forward toward the Light. They are truly women on the glory road!

There was one beautiful soul I encountered several years ago whose inner tranquility I will never forget. Sexually abused during childhood by the men in her family, she became a prostitute at fourteen (probably to support a drug habit) and was gang-raped by a group of boys the day before she was sent to jail. She sat there with the most peaceful look on her face, her eyes calm. As she told me her story, her well-worn Bible in front of her, she said to me in a voice filled with confidence and trust, “And I’ve given it all to God.”

Would that we all could follow the example of this terribly wounded young woman who surrendered her suffering to the Great Healer and gained peace. Certainly, her witness gave to me a new meaning to our Lord’s words, “the last shall be first and the first last.” (Matt. 20:16)

Lavanne Humphries (nom de plume) is a retired college chaplain who has been involved in jail ministry for four years. She joined the Orthodox Church in 1982 and is currently active in Bible study and the parish choir. Names have been changed to preserve privacy.

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Paschal Hospitality

Monday, May 16th, 2011

by Jim Forest

Louise and Nathon Degrafinried

Above: Louise and Nathon Degrafinried

“The essence of sin is fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the Other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘Other’.” – Metropolitan John Zizioulas

Thinking about Metropolitan John’s words, a particular story came to mind. It involves the sort of fearful encounter that no one would wish for – the invasion of one’s home by a convicted murderer armed with a deadly weapon. This is a true account of what occurred in one American household in February 1984.

At the center of the story is Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathon. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church.

The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. He had escaped from Fort Pillow State Prison several days before along with four other inmates. Once on the run, Riley had gone his own way. Somehow he had obtained a gun. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.

Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathon with his shotgun, shouted, “Don’t make me kill you!”

Louise responded to their dangerous guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild. She started out by identifying herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. “Young man,” she said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in no violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”

Riley put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

Louise calmly asked Nathon to please get dry socks for their guest while she made breakfast. Within a few minutes she prepared bacon and eggs, toast, milk and coffee, setting the table not only for Riley but for Nathon and herself. A striking detail of the story is that she put out her best napkins.

When the three of them sat down to eat, Louise took Riley’s shaking hand in her own and said, “Young man, let’s give thanks that you came here and that you are safe.” She said a prayer and asked him if there was anything he would like to say to the Lord. Riley couldn’t think of anything so she suggested, “Just say, ‘Jesus wept.’”

Later a journalist asked how she happened to choose that text. She explained, “Because I figured that he didn’t have no church background, so I wanted to start him off simple; something short, you know.”

The story crosses yet another border, a confession of love. After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She asked about his family and learned of the death of his grandmother. Riley, trembling all over, said that no one in this world cared about him. “Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves all of us, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much.”

All the while the police had been searching for Riley and the other four convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived. As a result of the abrupt ending of the call, her friend had alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars. “They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said.

Louise told Riley to stay where he was while she went out to talk to the police.

Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they were face to face with an old black woman, Louise Degrafinried.

Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”

There are people who have a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response to this determined grandmother as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathon escorted their guest to one of the police cars. He was taken back to the prison. No one was harmed.

The story of what happened to two of the other escaped convicts is a familiar tragedy. They came upon a family preparing a barbecue in their back yard. The husband, having heard about the escaped prisoners on the radio, had armed himself with a pistol. He tried to use it but was himself shot dead. The men took his wife hostage, stole the family car, and managed to drive out of the state before they were captured and the widow was freed.

Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shoot-out with police the following month.

The story of the Degrafinrieds does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise was asked to press charges against Riley for holding her and Nathon hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” she insisted. Both she and Nathon refused to testify.

Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley’s release.

“He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.

Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview.

Riley remembers praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.’ I realized that’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God.”

In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”

Louise was often asked about the day she was held hostage. “Weren’t you terrified?” She responded, “I wasn’t alone. My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”

It’s similar to a comment Riley made when explaining the events that led to his conversion. “Mrs. Degrafinried was real Christianity,” he told mourners at her funeral. “No fear.” Riley sat in the front pew at the service and was among those carrying Louise Degrafinried’s coffin to its burial place.

Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville where he works as foreman of a tent & awning company. He and his wife have a son.

The story is not over. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 continue to unfold.

There is a lot of implicit theology in what happened that day. A large part of the Gospel is woven into this story.

One of the main elements in the narrative is hospitality. One might even call it paschal hospitality – an act of fearless hospitality that reveals the resurrection. The Degrafinrieds received a desperate stranger into their home as a welcome guest. They put clean, dry socks on his feet. They put out their best napkins. They cooked for him and ate with him. They held nothing back. He was addressed in caring terms — Louise prefaces much that she says with the words, “young man.” They prayed with their guest and invited him to pray. When Riley couldn’t think of a prayer, Louise proposed a Gospel verse that connected Riley directly to Christ’s sorrow: “Jesus wept.” Indeed Jesus weeps for Riley and all those like him, people who have lost their way in life and become a hazard to themselves and others. Riley was made safe in the Degrafinried home and then his hosts protected him from the police.

Even when Riley was back in prison, the hospitality continued. Far from thanking God they had survived his visit and hoping never to see him again, the Degrafinrieds came to regard Riley as a member of the family. His relationship with Louise and Nathon has even been taken up by their children. Riley was given a place of honor at Louise’s funeral, was called on to speak, and joined family members in carrying her body to its final resting place. In 2004, Riley was a guest speaker at the Mason elementary school whose principal is one of the Degrafinried children. The hospitality that Riley experienced 21 years ago continues to this day.

Hospitality is at the core of Christian life. The church is a community of eucharistic hospitality. In receiving communion, we experience nothing less than the hospitality of Christ.

Hospitality has to do with our willingness to make room in our lives not only for those who in some way are related to us – spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers – but for strangers and even people we prefer to avoid.

Every act of welcoming engagement with another person is an act of hospitality. In marriage, hospitality becomes a vocation: a man and a woman commit themselves to a lifetime of welcoming each other. Parenthood is hospitality to our own children. The circles of hospitality are small at first but gradually widen. The front door of one’s home acquires a sacramental significance: the place we welcome others.

Christ calls us toward an extremely difficult level of hospitality: the love of enemies, a love that is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust, love that does not depend on affinity or affection, love that struggles to protect the life of the other and even hopes to assist in saving the soul of the other. The “other” is the stranger, the outsider, the person who irritates us, the competitor, the enemy. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands, “and pray for them.”

Our salvation depends upon communion — with God and with each other. Christ doesn’t often speak about the Last Judgment, but when he does, it is in terms of mercy. He says that mercy will be given to those who were merciful. The hospitality of heaven will be given to those who offered hospitality. “I tell you solemnly,” he says, “that what you did to the least person you did to me.” He gives a series of specific examples: food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, welcoming the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.

These are all very concrete actions that Christ speaks of — not very “theological,” if we think of theology as a realm of intellectual activity. Many Christians would prefer a Last Judgment that concentrated on their professed beliefs rather than their actions. We would rather the doors of heaven open to us because we had recited the Creed correctly and had an excellent attendance record at church services.

Hospitality is at the heart of Louise and Nathon’s response to the arrival of Riley Arzeneaux at their door. Equally striking is their freedom from fear. No doubt they had heard via radio and TV that five armed men had escaped from prison and that a manhunt was underway. For several days local people had been repeatedly warned about five convicts being at large and advised to take precautions. A good many people understood that to mean that they ought to keep their weapons handy. America has a well developed gun culture. Many own guns just for such contingencies. But there is no trace of reliance on guns in the Degrafinried household. As Louise said to both Riley and the police, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t allow no violence here.”

Fear locks doors. The Degrafinrieds had been freed from fear by the depth of their conversion to Christ. If the resurrection of the dead refers not only to our final rising but how we are living our lives here and now, the Degrafinrieds are people who had already risen from the dead when they met Riley Arzeneaux. I don’t mean to say they were strangers to fear, only that fear clearly was not the driving force.

Many who have written on the spiritual life have emphasized the necessity of overcoming fear. The monk and author Thomas Merton wrote, “One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves.”

Fear has its function in life. It’s something like an alarm clock. It’s a helpful means of rising from sleep on time, but not something that you want ringing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unfortunately for most of us the alarm clock of fear is ringing much too often, too long and too loud. Most of us are still prisoners of fear. We make many choices, small and large, because of fear. Most of us take great care not to do things that involve grave risks, especially the risk of being in the company of potentially dangerous people. They frighten us. Fear stands in our way — fear of death, fear of the other. When things we sought to avoid happen despite our best efforts to avoid them, we tend to be paralyzed. If a young Riley Arzeneaux armed with a shotgun were suddenly to appear at our door, not many of us would find space within ourselves to worry about his freezing feet or his empty stomach. Probably we would feel like people on an airplane about to crash.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

“Acquire the Spirit of Peace,” St Seraphim of Sarov would sometimes say, “and thousands of people around you will be saved.” For many years Seraphim lived as a hermit in the Russian forest but had many visitors. Hospitality was a major aspect of his life. Most of his visitors were pious people seeking advice, but not all his visitors were safe. A bear sometimes came to visit him. Seraphim explained to a terrified nun who once happened to witness Seraphim sharing his bread with the bear that he, after all, understood fasting but the bear did not. On another occasion Seraphim was visited by several thieves who heard that was a treasure buried in his log cabin. Not finding it, they nearly beat him to death. In portraits of Seraphim in later life, you see him stooped over, supported by a walking stick, his back permanently damaged. He saw the robbers as “unfortunate ones,” a term Russians in former times often used in referring to people we tend to refer to in harsher, more condemnatory terms: criminals, convicts, pathological killers, etc. Seraphim’s attitude was not unlike that of Louise Degrafinried, who assured Riley Arzeneaux that he wasn’t by nature an evil man, only one who had fallen into bad company.

Shaped as we are by what I sometimes call The Gospel According to John Wayne, we tend to think of many people as being genetically evil. Either the evil is somewhere in their DNA or they were so damaged early in life that they have became unchangeably dangerous and need to be either permanently isolated or simply executed. But the Christian view is that each person, as a descendent of Adam and Eve, bears the divine image and that no one, even the most demon-possessed person, is incapable of repentance and conversion. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” said St. John of Kronstadt, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

St. John of Kronstadt was not a person who had any illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. Kronstadt was a naval base not far from St. Petersburg, a place of much drunkenness, prostitution, and disorderly behavior. The people St. John met in daily life, and whose confessions he often witnessed, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence.

Like St. John of Kronstadt, Louise and Nathon were able to glimpse the image of God in Riley, seeing in him an angry, lonely child who had lost his way, someone who urgently needed to be cared for. In their response to Riley Arzeneaux, they provide us with a model of loving hospitality and of a life not ruled by fear.

If the essence of sin is fear of the other, the essence of our healing is love of the other.

* * *

Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . Hismost recent book is “All is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day” published by Orbis.

Note: The most detailed account of the story I’ve come upon was “Bless You, Mrs. Degrafinried” by William Willimon, published in Christian Century, March 14, 1984. I have found additional details in Memphis newspaper accounts published in 1998 after the death of Louise Degrafinried as well as in a recording of a talk by Riley Arzeneaux given at the Northwest Elementary School in Mason, Tennessee, whose principal (now retired) was a daughter of Louise Degrafinried. The photo of the Degrafinried was provided by their granddaughter, Faith Marshall.

* * *

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

 

Tahrir Square, Again

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Tahrir Square, February 2011

Tahrir Square, February 2011

by Tom and Judith Snowdon

There is near euphoria in many circles over the wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Indeed, for those of us who look to principles of peace and nonviolence as positive agents of change, in several cases there is cause for rejoicing. Here in Egypt, despite constant provocations, harassment, tear gas, beatings and even killings from the police and pro-government forces, protestors remained amazingly in control of their emotions, reigning in their natural tendencies to respond to violence with violence. Truly, they won the day with their numbers, their prayers, their determination, their organization, their self-control, their dedication to refuse violent methods – and, yes, their mobile phones and social networks.

At the core of this protest was a group who had organized a study of nonviolent strategy and of such leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. This was well documented even before the revolution began, though few imagined that so small a group could have such impact. Even after the revolution flared and triumphed in nearby Tunisia, many seasoned Egypt watchers, not to mention Egyptians themselves, predicted that nothing similar could happen in Egypt. Egyptians, it was declared, were too passive, too cowed by decades of authoritarian rule, were too much “under the thumb” of the police and internal security agencies.

At the point of writing, however, two months after Mubarak resigned and fled Cairo, this revolution is far from over. Continuing pressure from those demanding change is pushing the tenuous alliance with the military to the breaking point. Confidence about predicting the future in Egypt has been swept away like dust in the wind. Nearly every Egyptian to whom we have spoken states only one thing: that the future of Egypt is entirely uncertain. It seems that almost anything could happen in the coming months. Will we see movement to full-blown democracy – or will there be a counter-revolution by reactionary forces? Will there be a long political stalemate – or the development of a fundamentalist, Islamic state? No one is betting on the future. The stakes are very high indeed.

It would be wonderful if we could know with confidence that there will be growth towards a fully democratic country with a full range of recognized and guarded human rights, with stable political parties and a government serving the Egyptian people with integrity – the wish and hope of the thousands of protestors who even now continue assembling in Tahrir Square in order to pressure the military government to keep moving towards democracy.

Yet real liberation remains elusive. The revolution of 2011 is the third Egyptian revolt in less than a century to spring up at that same intersection where a web of Cairo streets converge. Tahrir (Liberation) Square was given the nickname by Egyptians after a revolt against British rule that led to the end of that regime in 1922. In 1952, after a revolt ended the monarchy and established a republic, the square was officially given its unofficial name. If two previous revolutions failed to bring changes sufficient to establish a stable, self-renewing system of government but fell back into one form of tyranny or another, dare we be optimistic about the third?

Conflicting forces are on the move in Egypt which would push the country in several contradictory directions. One of these forces is seen in the continuing energy which animated the revolution itself. This very visible, infectious, driving energy moves in the hearts of young people, professionals, people who are educated and informed, those have seen the world outside of Egypt, either in person or through family or personal connections. This group is Muslim, Christian and secular. Beyond their united desire to be rid of tyranny, they are quite varied in their motives.Then there are conservative and fundamentalist Islamic groups, the Muslim Brotherhood being the largest and best known. Visitors to Cairo in recent years have been startled to see the increasingly conservative attire of Muslim women, a vivid indication of growing Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. “This is not Egypt!” one seasoned visitor and former resident of Cairo exclaimed as she looked at the head coverings and fully-veiled women in the streets. The former regime kept the political manifestations of these groups in check – often in jail. (The possibility of Islamic fundamentalists coming to power is the biggest political fear for Christians, despite leaders who urge believers to have faith and “not be afraid.” It is a big issue here for the churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, by far the largest and most visible group – and the most visible target for any discriminatory acts.)

These two groups, the revolutionaries and the fundamentalists, are vying for power in a new Egypt. The former favors a civil society, a “secular” state with large freedoms for the Egyptian people. The latter has a varying vision of a conservative, Islamic state, with other groups tolerated at best and a conservative version of Sharia law in place.

As well as all of this, there is the fear that the old regime, having held Egypt in its grip these past 30 years, will regroup and, by showing a metamorphosed face to the people, regain power using the same powerful connections and the same well-rehearsed, underhanded tactics; new branding, new tag-line, but the same tyranny.

Ultimately more important than these social and political groups, however, are the people – mostly poor, often uneducated, from smaller towns and cities and the countryside – who form the vast majority of Egyptian society. They are utterly inexperienced politically. If there is to be a democracy, ultimately it is these people who must learn what it means to hear and weigh political opinions, to discern what constitutes public corruption and public service and to cast a ballot based on one’s own interpretation of these and many other things. It will not be easy. It is on this political inexperience that tyranny grows as local leaders play on divisions and fears, including religiously based fears, to ensure that their wills are followed.

The much-lauded internet which served as a catalyst for the revolution is accessed by only 17 percent of the population. On the United Nations’ comparative index of human development in 169 countries, Egypt stands at position 101. Spending on human development languishes in Egypt. Adult literacy sits at 66 percent – lower for women. The average years of schooling is 6.5. The education system depends largely on memorization of facts to prepare for exams. Training in critical thinking, exploration of ideas and the use of varying learning techniques are all sorely lacking in Egyptian schools. Public school teachers often withhold curriculum from the students to force them to study in private lessons taught by the same teachers in the evening, private lessons for which the students must pay in order to boost the extremely low government salaries of the teachers.

two participants in a women’s literacy class sponsored by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Mallawi, Hermopolis and Indianapolis

It is these neglected people who must build the new Egypt – and not only by their hard labor for minimal wages. They must learn how to participate in a civil society which values participation, tolerates and even values social and religious differences, encourages debate, accepts the decisions of the majority and rejects the tyranny of privileged elites.

None of this way of living and being has been fostered in Egypt. If this revolution is not to lose itself under the weight of these deficiencies, like the two previous revolutions, there is much work to be done in the coming months and years.

Literacy and education are the two main roads to a stable and democratic Egypt, though a myriad of other needs also present themselves. In a society where such a large percentage of people practice their religious faith, the religious values of faith over fear and love over intolerance must be the themes of many thousands of prayers and sermons. Community discussion forums about local problems, conflict mediation workshops, trauma healing for victims of abuse, community courses on democratic rights, responsibilities and practices – these are places to start the work of equipping people able to rebuild the country.

Thankfully, these are all doable. Local mosques and churches, even if they don’t host such events, can still encourage and help support them. Schools, colleges and other domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations can all become involved in creative and engaging projects along the same lines. It is much less glamorous than a revolution, but it has the potential to be more enduring. Once the eyes of the world media have moved on to more dramatic events elsewhere, it is these actions which may prevent the need for Tahrir Square to be used once again to overthrow tyranny.

* * *

Longtime OPF members Tom and Judith Snowdon live in Cairo, Egypt, where they work for the Mennonite Central Committee. The MCC partners with local churches (Coptic Orthodox, Presbyterian and Anglican) on peace-building and development projects.

* * *

M.L. King on the Nile:
  photo: a comic book introduction to nonviolence originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1956, republished in an Arabic edition in 2009 by the American Islamic Congress

Conventional wisdom assumes that nonviolent action can work only in societies that are lawful and democratic, but the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia show that nonviolent civil resistance can succeed in even the most oppressive systems and against ruthless regimes that do not hesitate to torture and kill their opponents. During the protests in Egypt, hundreds of demonstrators were killed, most at the hands of security forces and pro-Mubarak thugs. Yet people continued to pour into the streets day after day to demand their freedom. The victory of the protesters was virtually total, and was all the more amazing because it was so unexpected and seemingly spontaneous. … The demonstrated power of nonviolent resistance in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world helps to undermine the central narrative of Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri claim that terrorist violence is necessary to bring down autocratic Arab governments. If these regimes can be transformed instead through peaceful democratic means, the appeal of Al Qaeda diminishes. As Mohamed ElBaradei said, “If we get Egypt right, it could be the best medicine to get rid of radicalism.”

photo: a comic book introduction to nonviolence originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1956, republished in an Arabic edition in 2009 by the American Islamic Congress

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

 

Pascha in Dachau

Monday, May 16th, 2011
Christ of Dachau icon

Christ of Dachau icon

Dachau concentration camp, opened 22 March 1933, was the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany. Over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were held there during the years of the Third Reich, of whom two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third Jews.

by Gleb Alexandrovitch Rahr

Dachau, April 27, 1945: The last transport of prisoners arrives from Buchenwald. Of the 5,000 originally destined for Dachau, I was among the 1,300 who survived the trip. Many were shot, some starved to death, others died of typhus.

April 28: I and my fellow prisoners can hear the bombardment of Munich taking place. As the sound of artillery approaches ever nearer, orders are given proscribing prisoners from leaving their barracks. SS-soldiers patrol the camp on motorcycles as machine guns are directed at us from the watch-towers.

April 29: The booming sound of artillery has been joined by the staccato bursts of machine gun fire. Shells whistle over the camp from all directions. Suddenly white flags appear on the towers, a sign that the SS would surrender rather than shoot all prisoners and fight to the last man. At about 6:00 p.m., a strange sound can be detected emanating from somewhere near the camp gate which swiftly increases in volume. Finally all 32,600 prisoners join in the cry as the first American soldiers appear just behind the wire fence of the camp.

After the electric power is turned off, the gates open and the American GIs make their entrance. As they stare wide-eyed at our lot, half-starved and suffering from typhus and dysentery, they appear more like fifteen-year-old boys than battle-weary soldiers…

An international committee of prisoners is formed to take over the administration of the camp. Food from SS-stores is put at the disposal of the camp kitchen. A US military unit also contributes provisions – my first taste of American corn. By order of an American officer, radio receivers are confiscated from “prominent Nazis” in the town and distributed to the prisoners. The news comes in: Hitler has committed suicide, the Russians have taken Berlin, and German troops have surrendered in the South and in the North.

Naturally, I was ever cognizant of the fact that these momentous events were unfolding during Holy Week. But how could we mark it other than through our silent, individual prayers? A fellow prisoner and chief interpreter of the international prisoner’s committee, Boris F., paid a visit to my typhus-infested barracks, Block 27 to inform me that efforts were underway, in conjunction with the Yugoslav and Greek National Prisoner’s Committees, to arrange an Orthodox service for Easter, May 6th.

Among the prisoners there were Orthodox priests, deacons and monks from Mount Athos. But there were no vestments, no books, no icons, no candles, no prosphoras, no wine. Efforts to acquire all these items from the Russian parish in Munich failed, as the Americans could not locate anyone from that parish in the devastated city.

Nevertheless, some of the problems could be solved. The approximately 400 Catholic priests detained in Dachau had been allowed to remain together in one barrack and say mass every morning before going to work. They offered us Orthodox the use of their prayer room in Block 26. The chapel was bare, save for a wooden table and an icon of the Theotokos hanging above the table.

A creative solution to the problem of the vestments was also found. New linen towels were taken from the hospital of our former SS-guards. When sewn together lengthwise, two towels formed an epitrachilion and when sewn together at the ends they became an orarion. Red crosses, originally intended to be worn by the medical personnel of the SS-guards, were put on the towel-vestments.

On Easter Sunday, May 6, Serbs, Greeks and Russians gathered at the Catholic priests’ barrack. Although Russians comprised about 40 percent of the Dachau inmates, only a few managed to attend the service. By then “repatriation officers” of the special “Smersh” units had arrived in Dachau by American military planes, and began the process of erecting new lines of barbed wire for the purpose of isolating Soviet citizens from the rest of the prisoners – the first step in preparing them for their eventual forced repatriation.

In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon wore the make-shift vestments over their blue and gray-striped prisoners uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, then back to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras – everything was recited from memory. The Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – also from memory. The Homily of St. John Chrysostom also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live.  St. John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well!

Eighteen Orthodox priests and a deacon, most of them Serbs, participated in this unforgettable service. Like the sick man who had been lowered through the roof of a house and placed in front of the feet of Christ the Savior, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate throughout the service.

The priests who participated in the 1945 Dachau Easter service are commemorated at every Divine Service held in the Dachau Russian Orthodox Memorial Chapel, along with all Orthodox Christians who lost their lives “at this place, or at another place of torture.”

Within the Dachau Resurrection Chapel is a large icon depicting angels opening the gates of the Dachau concentration camp and Christ Himself leading the prisoners to freedom.

Should you ever come to Germany, be sure to visit our Russian chapel at Dachau and pray for all those who died “at this place, or at another place of torture.”

Khristos voskrese! Christos anesti! Christ has risen!

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

 

News – Pascha 2011 / IC 60

Monday, May 16th, 2011


 

Serbian Nuns Learn Language of Albanian Muslims

iconographer nun at Sokolica monastery in Kosovo

The eight nuns of a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Sokolica, in religiously polarized Kosovo have decided to learn Albanian so they can talk to Albanian Muslims who come to pray at an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.

Muslims from all over Kosovo flock to the Sokolica monastery because they believe its 14th-century sculpture of the Sokolika Virgin can cure deaf-mute children and help childless couples become pregnant. The famous sculpture is adorned with gold necklaces, bracelets and strings of pearls from grateful pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim. “It cures not only their people but also our people,” said a Muslim neighbor.

The monastery, surrounded by the Muslim village of Boletin, is located in the mountains that overlook the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

“When Muslims ask how to pray, we tell them to pray in their own language and in the way they are taught to,” the 67-year-old head of the monastery, Mother Makarija, told Agence France Presse. “We let them praise their Allah as we do our God.”

“Our door is open for all who come, both Christian and Muslims. If Muslims think our sacred sculpture can help them, then they are welcome,” said Mother Makarija.

“But speaking the languages of neighbors is a must,” she said. “I don’t want our sisters to talk to the neighbors and Albanians who visit the monastery in English but in Albanian. I am always looking for [Albanian] textbooks. I may be too old for it but my nuns must learn Albanian.” (The abbess speaks Serbian, English, German and Greek.)

Local villagers tell how the abbess braved heavy fighting during the war to take a pregnant Boletin woman to deliver her baby at a Serbian hospital in Mitrovica. “It was dangerous even for her, despite the fact that she was a nun,” said Besim Boletini, who lives next door to the monastery.

Muslim villager Mustafa Kelmendi, 67, said Mother Makarija had saved his son Basri from Serb paramilitaries twice. “The war brought chaos … However she did not allow Serb forces to stay in the convent even when fighting was going on in the area.”

The nuns are well known as fresco painters and iconographers. “That is our main income,” said Mother Makarija.

 

Bishop Applauds End of Death Penalty in Illinois

Bishop Demetrios of MokissosWhen Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed legislation on March 9 ending the death penalty in his state, among those in attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.

The Bishop praised the governor’s decision to sign the bill, which commuted the sentences of fifteen death row inmates.

Bishop Demetrios said, “This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment…. On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy. Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of sixteen states that have abolished the death penalty. There is much work to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world.”

Bishop Demetrios was the spiritual advisor to the last death row inmate in Illinois, Andrew Kokaraleis, executed in 1999.

Since that time he has worked tirelessly as an advocate in the movement to end the death penalty. He noted his hopes for moratoriums in Indiana and Missouri as well.

 

Russian Church Seeks to Reduce Abortion Rate

Russian women who feel driven by dire financial need to abort their babies may soon have help in choosing another option.

Patriarch Kirill has proposed several measures to reduce Russia’s high abortion rate, one of which is to give financial aid to women driven to abortion by poverty.

Among other measures, Kirill urged the Ministry of Health and Social Development to embrace a guiding principle “that makes preservation of pregnancy a priority task for the doctor and bans medical initiatives on its interruption.”

Other policy suggestions included a two-week waiting period after signing an “informed consent” document, networks of orphanages for mothers in great need, and crisis pregnancy centers with religious representatives in every hospital.

 

Pan-Orthodox Meeting in Switzerland Fails

In late February a meeting was convened at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Chambesy, Switzerland to seek consensus on preparations for a pan-Orthodox council, but the meeting ended after four days without obtaining its objectives.

Diptychs, a term that describes the order in which local Orthodox churches commemorate each other at services, was one of the issues blocking plans for what would be the first church council in 1,200 years.

A leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church cited its founding in the fifth century in explaining why his church insists in demanding greater recognition.

If the Georgian church agrees to remain in ninth place in the diptychs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches, said Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe, “it means that we cross out our entire history. That is why we cannot agree with this under any circumstances.”

Another area of tension is the relationship between Constantinople and Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox Church in the world, chafes at any suggestion that the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as Ecumenical Patriarch, is comparable to the pope.

Both Moscow and Constantinople agree that Orthodoxy needs to streamline procedures for making statements and granting independence but are at odds how this is to be done.

“This is exactly why the Catholic Church had the Second Vatican Council, because it clarified many questions,” said Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who represented Constantinople at Chambesy.

“It’s not because the Catholic Church had its synod that we have got to have ours, but I think everyone agrees to the need for a clear unanimous position of our church. We cannot just be preparing for 50 years and not come to an agreement.”

Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, a representative of the Russian church at Chambesy, said that statements that are presented as the unified position of Orthodoxy should not come across as solely the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

“In order for the Ecumenical Patriarch to speak on behalf of all the churches, there needs to be prior consultation to exchange opinions,” he said.

Another issue is granting autocephaly. Metropolitan Emmanuel said the procedure for granting independence discussed at Chambesy would have the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaim autocephaly and sign a tomos (a declaration of independence) that would then be forwarded for signing by primates of all the other churches. But not all churches, he said, agree with the form the signatures would take. Balashov said Moscow has no qualms with the Ecumenical Patriarch signing first, but that discussion arose over whether his signature “should in some other way fundamentally stand out from that of all the other primates.”

 

Russian Patriarch Kirill and Cardinal Koch Meet

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Cardinal Kurt Koch, representing the Vatican, met in Moscow behind closed doors on March 16 as a preliminary visit, anticipating the possibility of a future meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict XVI. Theological dialogue between the two churches headed the agenda.

Such a meeting, said Cardinal Koch, “must become a Christian witness to the world, and that’s why such a meeting requires very thorough participation … the qualitative content of such a meeting is immeasurably more important than the quantitative indicators.”

Kirill and Koch also discussed anti-Christian sentiment both in regions of the world where there is persecution of Christians, and also in Europe.

Koch said his visit to Russia “made a very deep impression on me.” Many Westerners, he said, “do not understand the full depth of the tragedy that befell the Russian people and the full scale of the crimes of Stalin.”

 

IOCC Launches Relief Effort in Japan

damaged church in Ishinomaki

With an initial emergency grant of $25,000, International Orthodox Christian Charities quickly began providing medicine, food and other essential items to communities in the earthquake and tsunami-damaged coastal districts of Japan. Assistance is being distributed by the Orthodox Church in Japan in cooperation with regional authorities.

Initial efforts by IOCC and the Orthodox Church in Japan will focus on an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people who have been displaced from coastal communities by the earthquake and tsunami. The Church is also working to assess the needs of people displaced from the cities of Ishinomaki, Yamada and Kesennuma, made largely inaccessible because of the damage.

“The suffering and hardship of the victims in these ruined areas is indescribably serious and severe now,” wrote Fr. Demitrios Tanaka of the Orthodox Church in Japan. “The aftershocks of this complex disaster will remain upon us for a long time. We anticipate that the really critical situation will turn up two or three months from now.”

The Orthodox Church in Japan anticipates that considerable additional assistance will be needed to aid people threatened by the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As the Orthodox Church in Japan focused its efforts on providing assistance to people in need, it also found reason to give thanks. An Orthodox priest previously reported missing in Tohoku, Japan was found alive and safe with his wife. All of the Orthodox clergy from the East Japan Diocese of the Orthodox Church have now been accounted for and are safe.

Support also came from Orthodox churches and monasteries of the Primorsky Region on the Russian Far East, where parishes collected about 470,000 rubles ($17,000) to support the Orthodox communities of Japan which suffered from the disaster, the press service of the Vladivostok Diocese reports.

“Mercy is a characteristic feature of the citizens of the Primorsky Region,” said Archpriest Alexander Talko, head of the diocesan department for charity and social service.

 

Ukrainians Send Icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan

As an act of support and sympathy, the Donetsk department of the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine transferred the icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan at a ceremony held on April 5 at the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kiev. Department head Evgeny Struzhko presented the holy image to the director of the Terada Ballet Art School, Michiko Terada, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reported on its website.

“Today we would like to be with suffering Japanese people who are living through the tragedy. It is something very close to us and so we would like to transfer the holy icon to an Orthodox Japanese church,” Struzhko said.

Christ, the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael and those who protected others after the Chernobyl catastrophe are depicted on the icon. (Interfax-Moscow)

 

First Astronaut Gagarin No Atheist

Astronaut Yuri Gagarin’s most famous words, “I don’t see any God up here,” were in fact an invention of Soviet propaganda. The 50th anniversary of the Gagarin’s space flight brought to light the news that neither Gagarin nor the famed rocket engineer Sergei Korolev were atheists.

“Yuri Gagarin baptized his elder daughter Yelena shortly before his space flight,” said Hegumen Iov Talats, rector of the Transfiguration Church in Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City). “His family used to celebrate Christmas and Easter and keep icons in the house,” Father Iov said in an interview in the April issue of Foma magazine, an Orthodox journal. He also recalled that Gagarin urged the authorities to reconstruct Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

He added: “Sergei Korolev lost faith for some time but eventually regained it through suffering. Of course he could not make it public, but he used to attend liturgy, pray and confess. Now I am trying to find out who was his confessor.”

According to Fr. Iov, great sins are preventing people from further outer space exploration. “I was once asked why do we fail to move further on in space. I answered that it was because we have already damaged the earth. Do you want to damage the whole universe? Look what’s going on around us – robbery, murder, violence, deception. Shall we carry our wickedness into space? Therefore, God does not let us move on. While we are in the process of moral growth, we shall not go far away from the Earth.” (Interfax-Moscow)

PM Erdogan’s Help to the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Fr. Dositheos Anagnostopulos, disclosed in April that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had saved the future of the patriarchate in 2009 by offering Turkish citizenship to non-Turkish archbishops.

In an interview with The Star, Anagnostopulos said there were 12 archbishops in the patriarchate’s synod at the time, most of them very old. “But in order to become a member of this board, one has to be a Turkish citizen. If the patriarch dies one day, it seemed unlikely that a new patriarch would be elected from the board [due to the members' age]. This danger has now passed. The prime minister attended a luncheon in Bykada in August 2009 … and said the problem will be overcome if archbishops applied to become Turkish citizens. He promised applicants would be granted citizenship.”

“After the prime minister’s call, 27 archbishops abroad submitted applications to become Turkish citizens. So far thirteen of them have been granted citizenship.”

Anagnostopulos defined the prime minister’s remarks as the “most positive moment in his lifetime.” (pravoslavie.ru/english)

 

European Churches Debate Response to Anti-Christian Violence

When Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian cabinet minister, was assassinated in March, it was only the latest act against Christians to provoke outrage worldwide. A New Year’s Day bomb blast killed 23 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Now, church leaders in Europe are debating the best course of action to be urged on governments to counter the wave of violence.

“We’re living in globalized times, which have made many groups feel insecure about their own identity, an identity which has then become radicalized and closed rather than open to others,” said Rudiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches.

“In Europe, where religion has often been seen as a problem, public opinion hasn’t been particularly concerned about the fate of religious communities. This seems to be changing now, as false images of religion give way to a greater awareness of its contribution to the common good.”

In February, European Union foreign ministers condemned the use of terrorism “against Christians and their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities,” and reiterated the EU’s commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom.

However, while welcoming the pledge, some church leaders are urging the EU’s 27 member-states to go further. In March, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to European institutions, Antoni Ilyin, called for a special EU center to monitor Christian rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year, a Brussels-based commission representing the EU’s Roman Catholic bishops, COMECE, submitted 11 policy recommendations, including the creation of a “religion unit” in the EU’s External Action Service and measures to link EU aid agreements to protection of religious rights.

“It isn’t up to churches to suggest practical action – what we’re calling for is a clear warning about the consequences of continued persecution,” explained Johanna Touzel, French spokesperson for COMECE, which has a Dutch president and bishops from Ireland and Poland as vice-presidents.

“Officials have been reluctant to mention Christians, fearing this risked ‘a clash of civilizations’ by identifying Europe with Christianity. But respect for fundamental rights is already a condition for EU aid, so concrete steps should be taken to uphold this. Now that revolutionary changes are occurring in the Arab world, Western governments have a responsibility to set some ground rules,” she said.

The Dutch-based Open Doors International reports that persecution of Christians is harshest in communist-ruled North Korea, but also listed Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen and Mauritania as among worst offenders.

The Vatican’s Agenzia Fides news agency recorded 149 separate attacks on Christians during 2010 by Hindu militants in India, while human rights campaigners in nearby Indonesia reported 46 attacks by Muslim extremists.

The Vatican’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, notes an “increased proliferation of episodes of discrimination and acts of violence.” He cites evidence that 75 percent of those “killed because of religious hatred” were Christian.

“The state must enforce its laws that fight against religious discrimination vigorously, and without selectivity,” Tomasi told the UN Human Rights Council in March. (Jonathan Luxmoore/ENI)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Conversations by e-mail / Pascha / Issue 60

Monday, May 16th, 2011

These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF’s e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson [markp /at/ earlham.edu] or Jim Forest [jhforest /at/ gmail.com].

Casting out fear:

Thomas Merton once wrote, “One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love.”

The question is how. We are basically brought up to deal with fear by becoming tougher, developing a “thick skin.” In a sense this is inevitable. It is part of growing up. The stock answer is to pray for courage. Jesus himself tells us several times not to be afraid. But I suspect many of us hide our fear under a mask of piety.

Perhaps first of all we have to confess to God just how terrified we really are underneath that adult thick skin we’ve cultivated over the years. Most of us are potentially only moments away from absolute terror – spiritual fear, of being alone, cut off, undone. The apostle Peter, sinking under the waves, cries, “Lord, save me!” That is the place from which we must call out to God.

Paul del Junco

Thick skin?

I’ve never developed a “thick skin” and doubt there is such a thing – but if there is I can’t imagine how it would help anyone overcome fear. It would just help make you less sensitive to the problems and sufferings of others and more indifferent to (often constructive) criticism. But isn’t praying for courage a very good idea? I don’t think courage comes from within us. It’s not a genetic trait. It’s a gift from God, though no doubt it helps to nurture ourselves on stories of courage – and to have icons of one or two martyrs in our icon corner.

Jim Forest

 

Adam & Eve:

I like the image of a thick skin, or perhaps “extra skin” is even better, because it has a biblical inspiration for me. In Genesis God made “garments of skins, and clothed them.” I see part of the meaning of this being that Adam and Eve could not bear the vulnerability of their nakedness anymore and so God in his mercy “clothed them” to help make the human condition of the fall bearable. Everybody except small children and some mentally ill folks have this protection to help them negotiate their way through life. A fairly banal example is a small child receiving an injection for the first time. Is their horror at seeing this instrument and then pierced by it imaginary, an exaggeration? I think not at all. They are experiencing its reality in a way we no longer have to.

I see these “garments of skin” as our basic day-to-day consciousness, the toughness we develop to help us get through life. And God help those that don’t. The world is full of those who, for better or worse, never properly developed this extra layer of protection, to help them cope with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare said in Hamlet. They are in our streets, and in our prisons, and in our mental institutions, in the prisons of their own minds.

Maybe it’s not so bad admitting I’m afraid. Maybe it’s a sign of really knowing my need for God. All of us have that primal fear of abandonment, no matter how deeply buried. There are innumerable ways of dodging our own fear, basically involving some form of denial, “whistling through the graveyard.” And then there’s fighting it off. Anger. Love casts out fear, but anger is much quicker and easier. Isn’t it amazing how if you’re afraid of someone, getting angry with them will banish your fear?

Paul del Junco

 

Out on a limb:

Paul’s take on things adds a dimension, that of recognizing the depth of the fear and how far back it goes. We are not just people who have a few things that scare us; we are a species that realizes always at some level how much “out on a limb” we are and how far down the ground actually is (the image of the iconic “Gates of Hell” ought to be in your mind’s eye at this point.)

Alex Patico

 

Blame:

Fear is at the base of our human “condition.” As Adam said to God in the garden, “I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” There we have it, afraid of being seen as we really are and hiding because of it. Then Adam goes on to blame Eve for the situation, and she blames the serpent. So, we are afraid inside of our selves, hiding from God and blaming others. That pretty much sums up our negative condition. Thankfully, there is more to our humanity than that and God is not through with us.

Thomas Snowdon

 

Fear of death:

Fr. John Romanides argues that one of the results of the Fall is that humans came to fear death. This fear of death resulted in a multitude of sins as humans moved further away from being creatures relating to each other in unselfish love (“like God”) to becoming creatures pre-occupied with survival and guided by self-preservation. This is what in turn makes our fears so deadly for others. The antidote is found in what Archbishop Puhalo calls self-sacrificing love – the love which Christ exhibits in his willingness to die on the cross for us. He wrote:

“When we take into account the fact that man was created to become perfect in freedom and love as God is perfect, that is, to love God and his neighbor in the same unselfish way that God loves the world, it becomes apparent that the death of the soul, that is, the loss of divine grace, and the corruption of the body have rendered such a life of perfection impossible. … Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival … Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love.” (The Ancestral Sin, 162-3)

Fr. Ted Bobosh

 

The terrorist label:

As citizens, as believers or as lovers of peace, does it benefit us to slap labels as “terrorist” on groups or individuals who take innocent lives? When we use terms because we think they are more concise, we may be saving column inches in the newspaper or making our e-mails quicker to write, but possibly at the expense of truth.

For example, if a bomb is set off in a public market, does it help anyone to say this is the work of “terrorists” as opposed to a “disturbed persons?”

We always used to employ terms like “Cosa Nostra,” “Mafia,” or “the Mob” while today, we speak of “organized crime.” It is a little longer, but is actually more expressive, since we eventually learned that those groups can be Irish, Russian or Mexican, not just Italian. Every time we use “shorthand” we shortchange some of the content.

If we immediately categorize the offender, we run the risk of oversimplifying motives and strategy. Perhaps the aim was not to terrorize, but to repay a specific perceived harm or to strengthen a political faction. Have we closed our thinking along those lines because we think we know what “terrorists” are all about?

If we speak of “Islamist terrorist” or “Muslim extremist,” we tend, even if inadvertently, to sweep all followers of Islam into that group, at least in the minds of those who have no other significant associations when they think about Muslims.

Though people in law enforcement have to deal at some point with the background of any suspects or potential criminals, the ordinary person may be ill-served by such designations. For instance, if a Timothy McVeigh blows up a bomb, the investigation of his crime may actually be hindered by public expectations that the culprit must be a “Muslim terrorist.”

Are there groups that mix violence and religion? Of course there are. But the current, growing polarization and antagonism between our faith communities is arguably doing more to stoke that fire than to extinguish it. If the confrontation between law enforcement and other security apparatuses and the Muslims who are involved in violent acts spills over into a general disaffection, that violent minority has achieved one of its goals and the rest of us have failed to achieve what ought to be ours – understanding, harmony and peace.

Alex Patico

 

Feeding the Hungry:

When I was in college, I had a friend in his early 50s, a great bluesman who played the harmonica and guitar. He was working for the campus cafeteria, and at the end of the night it was his job to throw away whatever food remained. It was “policy.” Regardless, he’d give food away to people who, if they weren’t yet homeless, they were still hungry.

This went on for several months and someone reported him. He got a write-up and did it again two nights later and was fired after working there five years. Luckily it was the mid-90s and even with a 7th grade education he found another job a few days later. If it happened in 2011, with jobs so hard to find, I’d give him an award and nominate him for Man of the Year.

I’ve read that if only 2 percent of the world’s food supply was allocated to the poor, world hunger would end. There are organizations like “Food Not Bombs” that feed a lot of people with what businesses throw away. There are people in Nashville, and probably in every city, who are called “freegans.” They only eat what has been thrown away but edible.

Danny Abbott

 

A Burning Question:

I’ve been reading about the protests in Syria and the government’s violent reaction to them. I’ve noticed an interesting conflict in myself, a conflict that extends to the Egyptian revolution. From what I’ve been able to learn, Syria is one of the few places in the Muslim world where Orthodox Christians can worship without vicious persecution. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was another, a situation that changed when he was overthrown thanks to Western military attacks. Since then, life for Christian in Iraq has become almost impossible.

So I find that, as I look over the news from the Middle East, I often wonder whether these military actions are likely to benefit the already-struggling communities there, and my answer is often “probably not.”

So I find that a part of me hopes for the survival of regimes that I know to be quite cruel, because they provide the only realistic hope (that I can see) for Christians to worship in peace in the Middle East. And of course this troubles me.

John Brady

 

Priorities:

Is it not perfectly natural for the Christian to be persecuted and do we really have any right to complain? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”

I want to set the theological context. I love my comfort as much as anyone and I certainly don’t want to be accused of being glib about hard real life situations, but let’s not have any illusions. If I have to support a dictator, or any political leader for that matter, because they’ll protect me from those nasty Muslims, there’s something seriously askew in my priorities as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Paul del Junco

 

Ambiguities:

As with many aspects of being Christian, there are ambiguities if we follow the Scriptures. In the New Testament Epistles, we see a certain respect for government – given the sword by God to punish the lawless, which in many Muslim countries should mean punishing those who attack Christians for being Christian. According to this thinking, government was given to keep order and protect citizens. St. Paul appealed to Caesar when his life was threatened by his fellow Jews.

It seems to me in the current culture wars in the US, some want the government to enforce Christian morality. I think this is not an issue addressed by the New Testament or by the Church in the post-Apostolic pre-Constantinian period. It represents an idea that is substantially different than the notion that the government should protect Christians from illegal persecution.

My personal problem with this kind of thinking is that it is not defensible as based in the Gospel teachings. We are told to go into all the world and make disciples of nations, and discipleship involves a personal willingness to be disciplined by the Master. I don’t see in the New Testament an idea that we are to compel people against their will to obey God. We cannot use coercion to force people to repent or love.

So I think the effort to make people obey Christian morality is not based in the Gospel, but it does make life easier for Christians if they are in power. We want the government to compel people to be Christians (or at least follow Christian morality) because that makes it easier for us to compel our own children to “behave.” As St. Paul says, “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:19-23) He becomes all things to all people so that by all means some may be saved. He doesn’t say he uses some means so that all may be saved.

The reality is that not everyone, including our own children in our families and parishes, are interested in salvation. But we do all that we can so that some may be saved.

But honestly, it often seems to me that many Christians in fact don’t like the New Testament notions of freedom and free will. We don’t like to live in a society where people won’t acknowledge God, and we want to force those who don’t choose to be Christian to live as Christians.

I am also intrigued by St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:20. Here Paul is addressing the Christian community at Ephesus, but then he throws in a line “assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him…”

This seems to me to imply that St. Paul recognized that there might be, not just in society as a whole but even in the Christian assembly, people who have not even heard about Christ. That seems to me to be a pretty open, not closed, community.

Is it wrong to hope for peace for our fellow Christian who live in politically dangerous or difficult places? We pray for peace in our liturgies for the world and for our fellow Christians. So if they are given some peace by a dictator do we wish instead that they be persecuted by a democratically elected government? Being thankful for what peace they may have is not wrong.

This world is not paradise. We may have to live in imperfect or even perfectly horrible places. That is part of taking the Gospel into all the world, not just to places we like, but even to places we don’t or wish were totally different. If American Christians imagine they can’t live in a country unless it conforms to their ideas of Christianity, then they are not willing to be salt and light.

Fr. Ted Bobosh

 

Making things worse:

I worry a good deal about the Christians of the Mideast. However, I think any intervention by the West is likely to make their status worse rather than better. We should not hope for a rapid change to democracy – which will most likely lead to a radical marginalization of the Christians of the Mideast. Nor should we prop up rotten regimes. We ought to allow the societies to make their own (often bad) choices. Intervening is likely to worsen the situation of Christians, however the end game plays out.

Daniel Lieuwen

Death penalty:

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released a study identifying which states are the most peaceful and which are the least. Their standard is the frequency of violent crimes.

It turns out the most peaceful states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Iowa and Washington.

The least peaceful are Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Maryland.

All but three of the most peaceful states have abolished the death penalty. The exceptions are Washington, Utah and New Hampshire, but New Hampshire could be called a de facto abolitionist state given that not one person has been executed there since 1977. Washington and Utah have executed a combined 12 individuals since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977.

Of the least peaceful states, 713 people have been executed.

This is stuff you can’t make up.

While I don’t think deterrence should matter to Orthodox Christians because the death penalty is just plain wrong, deterrence is the reason that people most often support it. But not many people seem deterred.

Danny Abbott

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60


Recommended Reading – Pascha IC 60

Monday, May 16th, 2011

The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian
by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Cistercian Publications, 320 pages, $16.50

In these days, when so many seek ever harsher punishments for those in trouble with the law, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has given us a valuable, delightful and crucial work, rich with quotations, on the life and writings of St. Isaac the Syrian. St. Isaac takes us back to love. St. Isaac puts the love of God, as expressed supremely in the Incarnation of Christ, squarely front and center.

In a short review, the best way to recommend such a book is to provide a few examples from Isaac’s own pen:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. …When we hear Jesus say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a person.”

“Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.”

“Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God’s invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart.”

“If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?”

“O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of him, was drawn by his love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all.”

St. Isaac’s ever-timely writings are redolent of Christ Himself. The author ties it all together with background and historical information to help the reader understand the issues and times in which Isaac lived and wrote. Not to be missed!

– Matthew R. Brown

Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia:
The Diaconate Yesterday and Today
by Dn. John Chryssavgis
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 190 pages, $23

This book recalls days gone by when the diaconate meant far more than functions of deacons in Church services. Using illustrations from our contemporary world to invite readers from all walks of life, Chryssavgis makes a case to reclaim the fullness of service that deacons are meant to provide.

This book breaks critical ground about the office of deacon in Church history and lays a solid theological foundation for the diaconate with superb interpretation of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. In addition to engaging remarks about deacons working among the poor and extensive discussion of women deacons, some of the author’s most compelling reflections appear in discussions of the deacon as related to the local community.

In his foreword, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon emphasizes the personal touch provided by Chryssavgis, himself a deacon since 1984.

– Ioannis Freeman

Holistic Healing in Byzantium
John Chirban, editor
foreword by Jaroslav Pelikan
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 326 pages, $25

This book claims the historical precedence of holistic healing in ancient and medieval Byzantium. Contributors address how historical inquiry might illumine contemporary healing practices of Orthodox believers who have been limited by academic disciplines and professional codes that have been set by healing specialties.

Chapters that focus on healing environments will be of particular interest to IC readers. For example, Chapters 3 and 4: Timothy Miller’s essay (Chapter 3), “Byzantine Hospitals and Holistic Medicine,” and Andrew Crislip’s, “Monastic Health Care and the Late Antique Hospital” (Chapter 4), explore ancient ways to create healing environments that strike me as very modern. In particular, these chapters illustrate practical approaches to resolving modern dilemmas caused by health-care economics and limited access to care in industrialized nations.

Taking the stigma out of illness of body and soul is a theme that runs throughout the 12 chapters. Pelikan mentions this fact in his foreword where he grounds the theme in the “Basiliados,” which were hospitals that institutionalized St. Basil’s Christian anthropology.

– I.F.

Remember Thy First Love:
Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony
by Archimandrite Zacharias
Mount Thabor Publishing, 464 pages, $28

Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John the Baptist Monastery (Essex, UK) provides a third volume in a series of transcribed verbal teachings by his spiritual father, Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), who was the spiritual son of St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1933). The foreword by Bishop Basil notes that Archimandrite Zacharias serves as “one of the sponsors of my monastic tonsure.” Four generations of spiritual fathers [and sons] are evident in this third volume.

The book presents three stages to the spiritual life: (1) God reaches out to every person, which enables the forming of a covenant between God and the person; (2) a long and difficult period of faith when God removes His grace from a person; and concludes with (3) God’s grace flowing again to each person, which results in what Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan called “charismatic humility.”

An appendix with questions and answers amplifies the content that Elder Sophrony shared with Archimandrite Zacharias. For example, a question appears concerning why Zacharias often quotes from the Apocalypse of St. John, whether that was his own preference or else something that he learned from his Elder Sophrony. Zacharias answers with characteristic humility that is borne of love for his spiritual father, Sophrony.

– I.F.

Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus
by Daniel Fanous
Orthodox Research Institute, 260 pages, $15

This book shakes the Pharisees and consoles the seekers among its readers. Faith emerges with understanding as the author explores such difficult narratives in the Gospels as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and “My God, why have You forsaken Me.”

Fanous links understanding to faith by providing just enough rabbinic background to show how Christ employed ideas in order to raise exciting questions that carry not only a punch, but also an answer. Orthodox readers need not leave their thinking caps at the door when reading this book, and they need not bring any more background in biblical exegesis than the interest of an average adult with faith in Christ who asks “What in the world did Christ mean by this or that?”

Fanous sees Christ’s encounter with the Canaanite woman (Mt 5: 21-28) as illustrating a spiritual and economic border between the people of Israel and the Gentiles. The woman asks Christ to exorcize her daughter, and persists despite Christ’s response about not throwing bread for the children to dogs. Fanous explores the narrative according to an imbalance in riches, whereby the Canaanite woman is the affluent representative of people around Tyre. Yet she conveys no such pride in her rank and prestige, but instead humbles herself in response. Comparing us with the woman, Fanous concludes: “Though we were content to sit even at His feet and receive these glorious remnants, it was not enough for Him.”

– I.F.

The Legend of the Valentine
by Katherine Grace Bond
illustrated by Don Tate
Zonderkidz, $15

http://katherinegracebond.com/files/books.html

A child in school, his father in jail. The child is Marcus, a nine-year-old African-American boy living in Alabama in the sixties. His father’s “crime” is that, along with Martin Luther King, he has been in a march against racism. A bully at school named Travis makes life hard for Marcus, first demanding a “skin-colored” crayon, then dumping Marcus’ lunch in his lap. Back at home, Marcus resists telling his mother and grandmother what has happened, but finally he confesses that he hates Travis.

It so happens that the story is set on the eve of Valentine’s Day. Grandma suggests to Marcus that they make valentine cards together and uses the occasion to tell the story of St. Valentine and how, when he refused to worship the emperor, he was beaten and thrown in jail. His prayers for the daughter of his jailer led to her being healed of her blindness.

Finally Marcus is moved to make a valentine card for Travis with the message, “Let’s be friends.” Travis tears up the card but then other students take up the message. The story ends with Marcus extending his hand to Travis. How does Travis respond? Is there is a happy ending? The reader has to decide.

Katherine Grace Bond tells the story with a sure hand and without a wasted word, bringing to life one of the most difficult aspects of Christian life – the love of enemies.

– Jim Forest

From the Pascha 2011 issue of “In Communion” (issue 60)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha / Spring 2011 / Issue 60