Archive for the ‘Winter Issue IC 59 2011’ Category

Dear In Communion reader

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Dear In Communion reader,

The lead article in this issue of In Communion began in an unlikely location – in front of a television screen. A few months ago Nancy and I spent an evening watching Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, an Oscar-nominated movie about a small group of young German anti-Nazi resisters who called themselves the White Rose. All were executed in 1943. The day after seeing the film, I began researching the White Rose. I soon discovered that one of the groups’s co-founders, Alexander Schmorell, was a devout Orthodox Christian who will be canonized as a passion bearer. It has been a blessing learning more about this extraordinary young man.

Doing what we can to make the lives of such modern witnesses better known – St Maria Skobtsova of Paris is another example – has been a major element in the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Brandon Frazier shares memories of what it was like to be a foot soldier in Iraq and now having to live with hellish memories of what happens when, with the slightest movement of pressure, a trigger is pulled and someone’s life is cut short.

Two of our authors, Al Raboteau and Eric Simpson, write about the poor, with Al concentrating on writings from the Church Fathers plus several 20th-century Christians, and Eric explaining what Christ meant in saying the always surprising words, “Blessed are you poor.”

Finally Sergei Romanov, an OPF member in Russia who is on the staff of the museum where Leo Tolstoy lived, gives us a glimpse of how the famous author who (using words as weapons) declared war on the Orthodox Church, in fact lived a more Orthodox spiritual life than I, for one, ever imagined.

These are a subjects of significance for all Orthodox Christians, though it is rare to hear about them in other Orthodox journals or to find similar material on other Orthodox web sites.

We cannot carry on our work without the help of our readers. Thank you for whatever you manage to send, even if only once a year. We are deeply grateful to those who manage to make monthly or quarterly donations — such help makes a huge difference.

Sadly, few of our online readers our donors. Might you become an exception to that norm? Or become a subscriber to the paper edition (or subscribe to the PDF edition)?

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

In Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest

editor

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

St. Ephrem the Syrian

Sunday, February 20th, 2011
St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373)

St. Ephrem the Syrian by Deacon Paul Drozdowski

For this is the Good One, who could have forced us to please him without any trouble to himself, but instead he toiled by every means so that we might act pleasingly to him of our own free will,
that we might depict our beauty with the colors that our own free will had gathered, whereas, if he had adorned us, then we would have resembled a portrait that someone else had painted,
adorning it with his own colors.
— St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373)

St. Ephrem was born about 306. Some say his family was Christian while others say his father was a pagan priest of the goddess Abizal. He was baptized as a young man by Bishop  Jacob of Nisibus, a participant in the First Council of Nicea in 325. Later ordained as a deacon, Ephrem is said to have escaped consecration as a bishop by pretending to be insane. When Jovianus ceded Nisibus to the Persians in 363, Ephrem and many other Christians moved to Edessa where he died in 373 while ministering to people who had the plague. He wrote over a thousand poems. Many of his works are difficult to translate because of their
complex structures, images, word plays and parallels. Scholars question the authenticity of all texts attributed to the “Harp of the Faith,” a name frequently given to Ephrem, since many exist in Latin translation only. Ephrem wrote polemical verse defending the faith against gnostics and Arians. He was devoted to the Theotokos and wrote much in her praise. His Sermons on Faith are metrical homilies. He wrote prose commentaries on the Old Testament and on the Epistles of St. Paul. He annotated the Greek-Syriac New Testament Diatessaron. His descriptions of heaven and hell are said to have inspired Dante.
The iconographer is Deacon Paul Drozdowski. The icon is at St. Elizabeth the New Martyr
Orthodox Church in Rocky Hill, New Jersey.

IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Blessed Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

White Rose memorial in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University is Munich

by Jim Forest

In May 1942, two young medical students in Munich secretly formed an anti-Nazi project they christened the White Rose. The work they envisioned was simple but daring: publication of a series of anti-Nazi leaflets. In the months that followed, four more friends joined the White Rose. Once launched, the group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets advocating active resistance by the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Rejecting fascism and militarism, the White Rose called for a federated Europe committed to tolerance and justice. The leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, Goethe, Novalis and Schiller. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the White Rose also carried out a night-time action of writing anti-Nazi slogans on walls such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” as well as a white swastika with a red slash running through it.

In less than a year, all the principal participants in the group plus many collaborators had been identified, arrested and executed, but their memory lives on. Today not only has the White Rose become important to Germans, but it is internationally known. This is in part thanks to “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” the Oscar-nominated film that focuses on the youngest member of the White Rose, Sophie (only 21 when she died) and her brother Hans. There have also been several books, including Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and numerous web sites.

Part of the initial inspiration for the activities of the White Rose came from a series of sermons by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in the killing of members of society whom the Nazis regarded as unfit or unproductive.

“These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” said Bishop von Galen. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live?… If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’ And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then trust his doctor? He might decide that a patient is ‘unproductive,’ condemning him to death! One cannot even imagine the moral depravity, the universal mistrust that would spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted, and put into practice. Woe to man, woe to the German people, if the divine commandment, Thou shalt not kill, which the Lord gave at Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not only violated, but violated with impunity!”

No German newspaper reported the bishop’s remarks. The Gestapo, while not daring to arrest and imprison so prominent a bishop, put von Galen under house arrest. After the war, it was revealed that Hitler had put von Galen on a list of people to be executed after the German victory in the war. Von Galen’s sermons, and their clandestine distribution far beyond Münster, helped inspire the founding of the White Rose. Although not a religious group per se, faith in God was one of the main strands uniting those involved in the White Rose.

Hans and Sophie Scholl with Cristoph Probst

Though the printings of the first few White Rose leaflets were small – obtaining the paper needed was a serious problem – the leaflets caused an immediate sensation. The Gestapo began an intensive search for the authors.

The White Rose founders and principal leaflet authors were Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl.

Hans Scholl, born in Ingersheim on September 22, 1918, came from a Lutheran family. Hans’s father Robert had served in World War I as a non-combatant medic because of his pacifist convictions. Active in liberal politics, in pre-Nazi times he had been a mayor. As a boy, Hans had been active in the Hitler Youth, but became disillusioned and developed anti-Nazi convictions.

Schmorell was a member of the Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy regularly. His friend Lilo Ramdohr recalls he always had a Bible with him and in various ways expressed his bond with the Orthodox Church. Schmorell was born in Orenburg, Russia, on September 16, 1917. Friends often called him by his Russian nickname, Shurik. His father Hugo was a physician – German by nationality but Russian by birth – and his mother was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. She died of typhus in 1919 when Alexander was only two years old. Hugo remarried the following year. His second wife, Elisabeth, though German, had grown up in Russia. In 1921, the Schmorell family plus their nanny, Feodosiya Lapschina, fled Russia for Germany to escape from the Bolsheviks and the civil war. They settled in Munich, where two more children, Erich and Natasha, were born. Within the home Russian was spoken. Elisabeth Schmorell was Catholic, as were Alexander’s siblings, but Alexander remained Orthodox, attending Orthodox church services as well as religion classes in Munich.

According to Nazi theories of race, Slavs (Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.) were untermenschen, sub-human – a view no member of the Schmorell family could accept. At one point, Alexander had been part of the Scharnhorst Youth, but once the group merged with Hitler Youth he stopped attending meetings.

When Schmorell was drafted into the army and was required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he told his commanding officer that he could not do it, asking instead to be released from military duty. Though not discharged, remarkably he was excused from taking the oath and suffered no punishment. Before his participation in the White Rose, Schmorell had served in Czechoslovakia and in France and so knew first-hand of the crimes the occupying troops were committing.

Schmorell began his medical studies in Hamburg in 1939, but by the fall of 1940 he was studying closer to home at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he met Hans Scholl.

Scholl and Schmorell managed to obtain a duplicating machine – no easy achievement at the time, as such devices had to be officially registered – which they used in duplicating all the White Rose leaflets.

The first leaflet, issued in June 1942, declared that “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other of God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”

Alexander Schmorell's grave

A passage written by Schmorell in the second leaflet, issued in June 1942, contains the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust. “We wish to cite the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in a bestial manner. Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of man, a crime that has no counterpart in human history…. No crime of this dimension has ever been perpetrated against human beings.” The text blames the German people, in their apathy, for allowing such crimes to be committed by “these criminal fascists.” The leaflet declares, however, that “it is not too late to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt…. We know exactly who our adversary is.” The text adds, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on.”

The third leaflet recognized that many people “do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this ‘government’ or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism…”

The fourth leaflet had a theological dimension: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means, but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.

Archpriest Nikolai Artemoff of the Russian cathedral in Munich: panikheda at Alexander Schmorell's grave in 2005

“Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak, when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom, when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order, and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.

“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.”

In the summer of 1942, Hans Scholl, Schmorell and another soon-to-be White Rose member, Willi Graf, were sent as medics to the Russian “Eastern Front.” For Schmorell it was a homecoming of sorts, the first time since early childhood that he could experience Russia for himself rather than through such writers as Dostoevsky. He told his friends that there was no way that he could shoot at any Russian, adding he would not kill Germans either. As a fluent speaker of Russian, he opened the door for his friends to make informal contact with ordinary Russian people as well as doctors and Orthodox priests. He, Scholl and Graf attended Orthodox liturgies together.

When they returned to Munich in October, the activities of the White Rose were redoubled. Several new people were involved – Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl (Hans’s sister), Professor Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – as well as others in a supportive outer circle. Through Alexander’s friend, Lilo Ramdohr, contact was established with Falk Harnack, younger brother of Arvid Harnack, active in a resistance group in Berlin.

In January 1943, the fifth leaflet was ready. Asking if Germany was forever to be “a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind,” the text called on its readers to dissociate themselves “from National Socialist gangsterism” and to “prove by your deeds that you think otherwise…. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” Thousands of copies were distributed all over “greater” Germany – that is, in Austria as well. Schmorell’s travels brought him to Linz, Vienna, and Salzburg.

Two weeks after the fall of Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, a sixth leaflet was produced. In it Hitler was described as “the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured…. For ten long years Hitler and his collaborators have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words – freedom and honor – to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor.”

On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing the leaflet at the University in Munich. Two days later Christoph Probst was arrested. On February 22, the three were tried and executed by guillotine hours later.

A Gestapo manhunt was now underway for Schmorell. Assisted by friends, he tried to escape to Switzerland using a forged passport, but he was inadequately clothed for a winter crossing of a mountain route – he had no alternative but to return to Munich. On February 24, with the city under heavy bombardment, he was arrested after being recognized in an air-raid shelter. On April 19 he was tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.

At his trial, Schmorell told the court of his work as a medic trying to save lives on the Russian front, his refusal to shoot “the enemy,” and also his earlier refusal to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. The judge, the notorious ultra-Nazi Roland Freisler, responded by screaming, “Traitor!”

Schmorell’s body was buried behind Stadelheim Prison in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst. After the war, American forces built a base adjacent to the cemetery. Following closure of the base in the mid-1990s, the buildings, including a church, were turned over to the German government. Providentially the Russian Orthodox community was searching for a church building and was able to purchase it. As a result, Schmorell’s parish is across the street from where his earthly remains are buried, while in the church there is an icon of Schmorell.

Archbishop Mark of Berlin, head the German diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, says that in the near future Schmorell will be formally recognized as a martyr saint. In 2007, he led a pilgrimage group to Orenburg, Russia, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Schmorell’s birth, an event arranged by Igor Chramow of the Eurasia Foundation in Orenburg. During this trip, the pilgrim group met 87-year-old Nikolai Daniilovich Hamasaspian, who, while living in Munich, had been a friend of Schmorell. He had given Schmorell his Bulgarian passport for possible flight from the country. Hamasaspian recalled that Schmorell had often spoken with him about spiritual matters, since they were both Orthodox Christians.

Blessed Alexander Schmorell (1917-1943)

Katja Yurschak, a participant in the Orenburg pilgrimage in 2007, described to me in a letter how impressed she was by the comments Hamasaspian made over dinner one evening: “He said that his friend, Alexander Schmorell, loved his life and did not go around with the idea that he would become a martyr. It’s easy to forget that Alexander Schmorell, in many ways, was not so much different than most other 26-year-old young men at that time. I have always felt it easier to relate to Alexander Schmorell and the story of the White Rose because besides the story being amazing, it’s true, and in some ways, it’s easier to relate to people who are of a similar age, and who live in a similar type of world. In the bonus material for the ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ DVD, there’s an interview with Elisabeth Scholl Hartnagel, sister to Hans and Sophie. The part that especially hit me was when she said that she doesn’t like it when people call her brother and sister heroes because they tend to use it as an excuse – well, they could do what they did because they were heroes, but you can’t expect me to do anything of the same because I’m not a hero. It misses the point that it is more or less ‘ordinary’ people who work and struggle day by day to accomplish something bigger than themselves…. that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ is always around us, and that we can aspire to that in our lives. Alexander Schmorell was a young man with many talents. He had good friends and loved sculpture and music and literature. Apparently, he also was someone that young women became smitten with. All these things would point to a very bright future, but because of his faith, these alluring things did not hold him fast to this earth. Doing what was right was that much more important.”

In the letters Schmorell sent to his family from prison, he wrote about the deepening of his faith, assuring his family that, although he had been condemned to die, he was at peace, knowing he had served the truth. “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary,” he wrote, “to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God?” In the last letter, written the day of his death, he told his family, “Never forget God!!” Just before he was taken to the guillotine, he told his lawyer, “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.” ❖

* * *

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His books include All is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day (due out in March), Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness. A White Rose web link to visit: http://www.katjasdacha.com/whiterose/ .

The icon of Blessed Alexander Schmorell is the work of Deacon Paul Drozdowski and is located in St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Orthodox Church in Rocky Hill, New Jersey. Mounted prints can be ordered from Come and See  Icons at http://www.comeandseeicons.com/a/drz33.htm .

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Dear Eric,

>> As things turned out, I’m not sure I earned the full $600 for the
first issue. Given that, however, I am wondering if it would be
possible to have an advance for the next? And, perhaps, if my work
proves to be more helpful this time around extend the trial to three
issues without further pay for the third?

Apologies for the two-day delay. We been hosting our 20-month-old granddaughter Lux and it has been labor-intensive, to say the least. What a show.

Don’t be distressed with round one in our experiment in editorial collaboration. Neither of us has ever before done anything like this — far from being in the same room we’re not even in adjacent time zones. You made my work esasier than it would have been and will probably help even more next issue as you now have a much better feel for this — and so do I.

Love,

Jim

PS I hope Amber will have check to you quickly.

* * *

When Killing is Just Pressure on the Trigger

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

by Brandon Frazier

No act is more violent than taking another’s life. Four years of my life were defined by training to commit, attempting to commit or committing these very acts of violence. During that period I was one of the unfortunate Marines put into situations where murder seemed to be my only option. For me, this taking of lives was only half of the sad and violent story that was my life from ages 18 to 22. The other half of the story is one that most people do not consider when they sign the military contract that gives away the right to their own lives.

It’s the story of friends that you lose in war that is left untold in recruiting films. It’s the story of the friends so badly wounded that they will never live a full life again. Such stories shaped my life in the aftermath of the violent confusion that defined my years in the Marine Corps infantry.

What made me realize the true severity and true weight of the act of murder was a series of incidents on November 26, 2004 – a sunny and warm Thanksgiving Day in Fallujah, Iraq. It was my unit’s third straight week without a shower, hot meal or change of clothes. The day started normally, mortars and rockets exploding outside the walls of the house we had made into our temporary central command. I remember thinking as I put my boots on that this day felt different.

The first task of that day was to retrace our steps of the last 21 days and show a “body snatcher” team where we had killed people so they could dispose of the remains. This mission was supposed to be simple. I thought it would get me out of the daily patrol and thus maybe save my life. It would be a vacation day.

What actually happened was to take a huge emotional toll that I will have to live with the rest of my life. The things I saw can only be described as something from a terrible nightmare or a gruesome war movie. The bodies were barely human – few human characteristics remained. This was the first time I had seen the results of my violence up close. I felt disgusted with myself knowing I had done such things to another living being.

Unfortunately, I was unable to avoid the daily patrol that day. In fact, my platoon had waited for me to get back so I would not be left out. On this patrol I watched my close friend get killed by a machine gun. He, two others and I went into a house where there were six men in a room with the door closed and mattresses on the ground so they could not be heard moving around. Brad walked in front of the closed door and was shot seven times in his body and twice in his armor. He died before he hit the ground.

In the confusion that occurs after such an event, I – who was directly behind Brad – fell onto the stairs behind.

Everything around me was moving in slow motion. Once I regained my composure I realized what had happened and was so enraged that what I did next was the complete opposite of every human instinct in my body. Instead of trying to help my friend, as most would have, I went to the door that Brad had died in front of and kicked it in and shot wildly into the room.

The story of this day is important because it is an accurate account of the ways in which I have handled violence in the past and illustrates the reasons why I handle violence now. The act of killing, in these years, was as simple as three pounds of pressure on a trigger, and that’s how we were trained. What I realize now, astonishingly for the first time, is that I should have questioned my orders at every instance when I was told to go somewhere to take another’s life and that killing another living being is far more complicated than three pounds of pressure on a trigger.

There is no contract with any government in any country that can justify murder of any kind. By the same token, I cannot justify my actions by claiming that I was simply being obedient. Those were my decisions. I made them, and now I must live with them forever.

Now I feel terrible for what I have done. I’ve been haunted by nightmares every night since returning home. These experiences, my education and the reevaluation of my past have brought me to where I am today when it comes to violence. I have seen firsthand what the most gruesome violence looks like and I know that I was capable of committing it. I am actively trying to learn about being a nonviolent person and have worked hard to avoid violence. So far I have been successful.

What I am most afraid of is not the person with the guns, it is how I will react to the violence they bring into my life. Will I revert to the instincts that were drilled into my head while in the military – the same instincts that sent me through the door shooting wildly? Or will I remember what it felt like to see the dead bodies that my friends and I had killed, and be sickened with the thought of taking another’s life?

It has and will continue to be a learning process for me and I hope very much that I can be the caring and compassionate person I believe I am. ❖

Brandon Frazier is a student at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. This essay was written for a class on “The Principles and Practices of Peace” taught by Colman McCarthy. Reprinted from The National Catholic Reporter.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

The Least of These

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

by Albert Raboteau

St. Basil, St John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of NyssaIn his book Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, the historian Peter Brown argues that “a revolution in the social imagination” occurred between 300 and 600 AD and that it was closely associated with “the rise to power of the Christian bishop.” In that three-century period, Brown notes, the Christian bishop was regarded “as the guardian of the poor.” In 362 the last pagan emperor, Julian “the Apostate,” wrote to a pagan priest, “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [the Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

It was the Cappadocian Fathers – St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus – who elucidated this novel virtue and its central importance to the community life of Christians.

Around the time of a severe drought followed by famine in the year 369, in three homilies on wealth and possessions, St. Basil stressed that property is something entrusted to us rather than something we own. In the first homily, “On Greed,” he preached on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18):

Who, then, is greedy? The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked when he was able to do so – what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!

Preaching on the same text, Martin Luther King Jr. linked poverty and race:

You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others…. Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations…. For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people?… And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God … because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature…. God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in the universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.

In another of Basil’s homilies, “Against the Wealthy”, delivered in 369, he interpreted the Gospel story of the rich young man in Matthew 19. Here he diagnosed the tendency of wealth to feed the ever-spiraling need to gain and maintain dominance over others:

[S]o those who progress to great power take on, at the expense of those they have already subjected, the ability to do still greater injustice; the growth of their power becomes a superabundance of wickedness … Nothing can withstand the force of wealth; everything bows to its tyranny, everything trembles before its lordship; each of those who has suffered unjustly is more concerned not to experience some new evil, than to bring the perpetrator to justice for what has happened before. He drives away your yokes of oxen; he plows and seeds your field; he harvests what does not belong to him. And if you speak out in resistance, you are beaten; if you complain, you are held for damages and led away to prison…

Directly addressing the rich young man rhetorically, Basil contends that his failing is his treasuring of possessions over love of God and neighbor:

If what you assert was true, that you have kept the command of love since your youth and have distributed what you have as much to others as to yourself, how is it you have this excess of wealth? For care of the needy consumes our wealth, when each person receives a small amount to meet his or her own necessities, and all divide up what they have equally and use it for those in need. But you seem to have many possessions. How is that? Is it not clear that you have considered your own enjoyment more precious than the comfort of the masses? Surely the more you abound in wealth, the more you are lacking in love!

St. Gregory of Nazianzus tells us that Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen on his family’s country estates to feed those suffering during the famine caused by the drought of 369. Eventually Basil developed a large complex of apartments for the bishop, his guests, needy travelers, and the poor. “Here the sick received medical and hospice care … The poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades.”

Basil’s younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his lifelong friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also expounded the requirements of Christian philanthropy. Gregory of Nyssa, in “On Loving the Poor,” declares that fasting is meaningless unless linked to acts of social justice:

There is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline which affects the soul; this abstinence is from evil, and it was as a means to this that our abstinence from food was prescribed. Therefore I say to you: Fast from evil-doing, discipline yourselves from covetousness, abstain from unjust profits, starve the greed of mammon [and] keep in your houses no snatched or stolen treasure. For what use is it to touch no meat and to wound your brother by evil-doing? What advantage is it to forgo what is your own and to seize unjustly what belongs to the poor?… Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread with the hungry. Bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.

Preaching on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, a text that appears repeatedly in the sermons of the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed:

I am fearful of that “left hand side” and of “the goats” … because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…. Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, as some do, nor just with precious ointment, like Mary, nor just with a tomb, like Joseph of Arimathea, nor just with gold, frankincense and myrrh … but let us give him this honor in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.

St. Maria Skobtsova of ParisThe special identification of the poor with Christ is stated even more boldly in his sermon “On Almsgiving”:

Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance [prosopon] of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.

Perhaps the most striking and frequent references to the poor in patristic social teaching occur in the sermons preached by St. John Chrysostom after his election, in 398, as Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom vividly paired caring for the poor with participation in the Divine Liturgy:

Do you wish to see his altar?… This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes your altar … venerable because it is itself Christ’s body…. This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime … invoke the spirit not with words, but with deeds. Nothing kindles and sustains the fire of the Spirit as effectively as this oil poured out with liberality….When you see a poor believer believe that you are looking at an altar; when you see this one as a beggar, don’t simply refrain from insulting him but actually give him honor; and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop them, prevent it. Thus God himself will be good to you, and you will obtain the promised good things.

And preaching on Matthew 25:

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked…. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First fill him when he is hungry; only then use the means you have left to adorn his table…. What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?

Contemporary activists and theologians have revisited these patristic themes in discussing the social mission of Christianity today. Listen, for example, to the words of an Orthodox priest from Romania, Fr. Ion Bria, echoing Chrysostom’s connection between liturgy and human rights:

What does sanctification or theosis mean in terms of ecology and human rights? Christian community can only proclaim the Gospel – and be heard – if it is a living icon of Christ. The equality of the brothers and freedom in the Spirit, experienced in the Liturgy, should be expressed and continued in economic sharing and liberation in the field of social oppression. Therefore, the installation in history of a visible Christian fellowship which overcomes human barriers against justice, freedom and unity is a part of that liturgy after the Liturgy.

The same passage from Matthew 25 that attracted the Cappadocians and St. John Chrysostom, captivated the recently canonized martyr, St. Maria Skobtsova, a Russian Orthodox émigré nun who lived in France:

The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says “I”: “I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.” To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

The identification of Christ with the poor and the despised led her to found Orthodox Action in Paris which established houses of hospitality, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, aid for the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, all to carry out the Gospel social imperative, and it led ultimately to her internment and martyrdom in Ravensbrück for protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation.

The identification of Christ with the poor opens out into reflection upon the Trinity as a model of interpersonal communion. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has written:

Every form of community – the family, school, workplace, the local Eucharistic center, the monastery, city, nation – has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity. When as Christians we fight for justice and human rights, for a compassionate and caring society, we are acting specifically in the name of the Trinity. Faith in the Trinitarian God, in the God of personal interrelationship and shared love, commits us to struggle with all our strength against poverty, exploitation, oppression and disease…. Precisely because we know that God is three-in-one, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world. Love after the image and likeness of the Trinity signifies that, in the words of Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima, “Each of us is guilty of everything before everyone.”

The only iconic representation of the Trinity permitted in the Orthodox Church is the image of the Hospitality of Abraham. The icon depicts the three visitors whom Abraham and Sarah tend at the Oak of Mamre, as three angels, sitting at table, each with his head tending toward the others, forming a circle. It is a reminder that it is our mutual acts of compassionate care that draw us into the never ending circle (circumcession or perichoresis) of self-emptying Divine love.

To summarize, let me suggest what seem to me to be several important implications of seeing Christ in the poor:

  • Presence through personal encounter is essential. Hearing the stories of the poor, gaining a vision of their lives and of life through their eyes can change our lives.
  • Caring for the poor and oppressed is inextricably tied to worship. It is the Liturgy after the liturgy for the transformation of the world.
  • Excess possessions are robbed from the poor. As St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton aptly put it, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
  • Consumption readily leads us to an addictive ever-spiraling cycle of manufactured needs-fulfillment-more needs, based on the illusion that we have no needs that we cannot fill.
  • Wealth tends to displace our need for God in a spurious attempt to fill the emptiness which only God can fill. Engagement with poverty can help to teach us this lesson, just as fasting teaches us our hunger for God.
  • We need, as Martin Luther King put it, to move from being a “thing-oriented to a person-oriented society.”
  • We need to work for reconciliation across the economic, social, and racial divides to re-member the sundered body, by observing occasions for remembering and by creating occasions for repentance and for mourning the victims of racism and oppression, both those who suffer and those who perpetrate the suffering.

These elements are basic strands of the ancient and living tradition of social concern expressed in the early Church as well as in African-American Christianity, a tradition that Martin Luther King so eloquently articulated and exemplified. ❖

Albert Jordy Raboteau, a native of Mississippi, is Professor of Religion at Princeton University. His written work includes Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South; A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History; Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans; and A Sorrowful Joy: a Spiritual Memoir. He is a member of the Orthodox Church in America, serves as chair of the board at Emmaus House, a house of hospitality in Harlem, and is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Blessed Are You Poor

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

by Eric Simpson

I once had a job working in an office at a shopping mall and spent most of my time there. After dark, I would turn out all the lights except the desk lamp and sit at my desk and write. Not knowing I was there in the dark, a homeless woman would arrive with a few cardboard boxes, put together a makeshift compartment to sleep in and situate it just outside the office in the cold air in a little cubbyhole that could not be seen from the street. I would sometimes hear her muttering to herself. On some nights when she thought she was alone and did not know that there was someone else on the other side of the stucco wall against which she propped her head, I could hear her softly sobbing to herself as I sat in a comfortable office writing book reviews and other assorted items on a computer screen. Here we were, me in the camp of the “haves” (relatively speaking) and she in the camp of the “have-nots.” We were less than three feet away from each other, separated only by a thin wall, each of us lost in our own universe as if the other were light years away.

Jesus says to his followers in the Sermon on the Plain, “Blessed are you poor…” – a statement contrary to common sense and to all of our expectations and wisdom about how the world works. How was this woman blessed? To be blessed connotes happiness, but also signifies a more profound reality than that. There is a sense in which it means to be held in the providential hands of God, to be on the right track and to know the implicit joy of being in such a state in accordance with its potential and promise. Jesus contrasts this in His sermon on the plain, when He says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” St. James in his epistle follows this up with the words,

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.

The sentiment that poverty is a blessing for those who follow Christ does not square easily with the way we actually think. Aren’t abundance and wealth a sign of blessing, and destitution a sign of shame and woe? Are not the rich happier because of their abundance of things, the multitude of conveniences, the ability to satisfy all desire and want? And are not the poor more woeful because of their lack of those same things, their misery, their unspent desires, their inability to access even the most basic necessities? Isn’t wealth a sign of integrity and hard work, and poverty a sign of probable addiction and implicit laziness? It’s easy to equate money with happiness, or with being blessed. It fixes problems. The thought of winning the lottery sends many people into hours of profound daydreaming. It would seem that money is not only the source of happiness, but also of hope.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” What does this mean? One is initially tempted to think it refers to a “pie in the sky when you die” theology, the notion that your suffering on earth will be rewarded in heaven. I consider this amid my own awareness of that which I lack, and I don’t think it is the total truth or the point Jesus is making. The heaven to which He refers has an entrance, a door through which we go even in this life – Christ himself – and we become partakers with him and in him of the life of God even now, prior to death and that which awaits us beyond death.

The kingdom of God is the Church, a kingdom in which Jesus reigns, and wherein the walls separating us are dismantled: we become equal as human persons made in the image of God, and the judgments of comparison, either condemning others through pride or ourselves through shame, are thrown down. Jesus draws out the distinctions between the two kingdoms, whose kings vie to rule our hearts, later in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys.” And he concludes, “you cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Does this mean that it is a sin to be wealthy? I don’t think that is the point either, although at the same time there is no justification implied here for seeking wealth as an end, or for the sins of acquisitiveness or greed. The point rather seems to be one that pertains to the disposition of the soul. Because he does not have riches does not put his trust in them, the poor person does not find his security in them. We may want to have financial security, which is a good objective as long as we understand that the terminology is relative. Financial security, as many people discovered in recent years, is not really secure; it can fall out from under your feet as readily as a trap door you did not know was there. The poor person is more easily predisposed to put his trust in God and to seek in Christ a sense of security – that in His providential hands God will bring to him whatever medicine is most needed for his soul. That may or may not include a new car, a nice house and a beach vacation on some exotic island.

The notion isn’t that merely being poor is a virtue or a guarantee of heaven, but that those who follow Christ in their poverty, rather than trusting in riches or in the ultimately empty promises of money, will gain the benefits of being in a relationship with God in His eternal kingdom. While Jesus advocates a total lack of reliance on money and things as being the source of life and meaning for us, He does not advocate being materially poor as a virtue for its own sake. For people made in the image of God, to languish in hunger, to starve to death, to perish because they do not have adequate housing or heating, or to live in cardboard boxes or try to raise their children in tent cities, for them to suffer a complication of illness or death for lack of appropriate medical care that is available but not attainable – these are all realities that provide evidence of the existence of evil. Jesus is not putting a stamp of approval on material poverty in his Sermon on the Plain when He says, “blessed are you poor,” but He is giving hope and consolation – that the very thing which causes suffering is also the entrance to spiritual riches in Him.

It is more difficult for a wealthy person to disengage himself from his attachment to riches and to put his trust in Christ. The temptation to feel secure because of affluence and wealth is overwhelming. By the same token, a poor person who desires to be wealthy is filled with the same avarice as the rich person who clings to his wealth, and Jesus advises that a heart captured by the deception that money buys happiness and security, whether rich or poor, will find it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven – though not impossible because all things are possible with God, even a camel walking through the eye of a needle.

Or, as Paul elaborates in his first letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”

A person who is poor in spirit, on the other hand, does not trust in riches, or in the natural feeling of security afforded by a good job, or in the apparent stability of a comfortable home. Such things are necessary, desirable and part of life, and there is nothing implicitly wrong with one’s enjoyment of them; but the person who is poor in spirit does not invest in them beyond their usefulness.

Jesus goes to great lengths to describe the peace that exemplifies the kingdom of God, wherein Christ rules over one’s own heart, body and mind. It is a realm where violence is not an alternative, where enemies are forgiven, where one gives to all who ask and does not judge. It is a kingdom of forgiveness, fulness, mercy and eternal life.

The kingdom ruled by riches, however, is one of pride and shame and constant comparison with others and what others have. Given notions of scarcity and feelings of unsatisfied desire, conflict is born, and perpetual unhappiness becomes the status quo despite the acquisition of many things, all of which we are ultimately ungrateful for and which we take for granted. Much of the thanks that Americans give once a year on Thanksgiving Thursday is canceled out in the mega-sales of “Black Friday,” when crowds mob stores and even fight each other over items on sale – thanksgiving one day and a journey to hell the next.

How we relate to money and to things in some sense determines the way we relate to other people, especially those in need, and therefore how we relate to Christ.

Jesus says to us, “Blessed are you poor.” To those of us who struggle in these present difficult times, this should come as a word of consolation and hope. Our struggles give us an opportunity to follow Christ, to place our trust in Him and let God be our strength and security.

The Beatitudes are not only a set of blessings and promises, but they are also descriptive of the character and attributes of Jesus, who with extreme humility and poverty of spirit willfully submitted himself to death in order to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses and follow him. This, and not riches or possessions, is the path that leads not only to contentment even amid the trials and difficulties of life, but also leads to peace. ❖

Eric Simpson, an associate editor of In Communion, is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the religion section of Huffington Post. The present essay is an abbreviated version of an episode of his “Seeking Peace” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Tolstoy and the Sign of the Cross

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

by Sergei Romanov

I cross myself because this gesture expresses my faithfulness to the will of

God, admission of my personal sinfulness and desire to set myself free from it.

— Leo Tolstoy. Diary, 1908

Leo and Sofia TolstoyThe outer aspect of prayer is as necessary as the inner one. Both serve to express a person’s spiritual experience. Christian prayer is traditionally accompanied by visible signs of reverence: bowing one’s head, raising one’s hands to heaven, and kneeling. Movement and gesture add to and deepen the words and assist in inner concentration.

The most important physical expression of prayer is the sign of the cross, which usually accompanies prayer and is a preface to a bow from the waist or a prostration. For Christians, the fullness of the spiritual world is the cross-centered love of Christ for man, of God for the world; therefore, the visible sign of this love, Christ’s cross, is the weapon which is the redemption and union of man with God, the mystery of salvation, completed by Christ the Lord. The sign of the cross is ontological. It bears witness to a different reality, to the existence in this world of another life. It seems that especially this ancient Christian sign, inseparably connected with all that Tolstoy had rejected, should have been totally excluded from his inner experience. But it is here that begins one of the “unsolved mysteries” of his soul, his unresolvable contradictions which elude rational interpretation.

For those familiar with Tolstoy’s life and the tragedy of his estrangement from the Orthodox Church, one would assume that this ancient Christian gesture, linked with everything Tolstoy had renounced, should have been utterly rejected by him.

A man of common sense, in his opinion, cannot accept the deliberate deceit and nonsense which compel him to light candles, to raise his hands in prayer, to kiss pieces of wood, etc., but not once did Tolstoy express the opinion that making the sign of the cross was merely a senseless “waving of hands” during prayer.

The symbols of worship and ritual, in his opinion, hindered true faith, leaving no room for the understanding of actual Christianity, which dwells within. If there are some actions which please God and redeem a person from evil, and they must be expressed by the bowing and raising of hands, asks Tolstoy, then why not use legs or feet? Isn’t a pilgrimage performed by the faithful considered a prayer performed with feet? And if a person works all day for a poor widow, couldn’t this be considered a form of prayer? Tolstoy answers these questions in the affirmative.

More often than not, in his opinion, an artificial barrier of rituals is constructed within young, impressionable minds when much is accepted by trust, but as a person matures and is influenced by the accumulation of knowledge and life experience, he should put all of his childish beliefs to trial by reason, because reason is “the only faultless defense of knowledge.”

In this way, following Tolstoy’s logic, a mature person, especially by the age of “noble gray hair,” should have moved beyond all assumptions and superstitions.

But within Tolstoy himself, despite his theory, totally different changes occurred. In the last years of his life, his attitude to the rites of the Church softened noticeably. As Alexandra Lvovna, Tolstoy’s daughter, remembered, “he became more and more tolerant.” In 1906, during a difficult time for Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna, when she was close to death and had already called for a priest, Tolstoy did not object. He was sincerely glad about her wish and “enthusiastically assisted in fulfilling” it.

His steadfast conviction that true faith does not need “external forms,” in the face of the possible death of the person closest too him and he admitted that, within the religious form, is a spiritual foundation. This brings to mind the literary character in Anna Karenina of Konstantin Levin, the author’s brother-in-spirit, who, during an hour critical for his beloved Kitty, grabbed his own head, repeating, “Lord, have mercy!” All of Levin’s reasonable, doubting consciousness was instantly “flung from his soul like ashes” and his unbelieving mind prayed for the help of the One, in Whose hands he “sensed himself and his own soul.” As the saying goes: “The deeper the sorrow, the closer God is.” And He who is above life and death, Who is Himself merciful Love, responds to the prayer of the supplicant.

Notwithstanding the final formulation of his teachings, when Tolstoy was confident that he had solved all of the “great questions of life,” his son, Lev Lvovovich, observed that his father was often afflicted by doubts and “sought moral and religious support not only within himself, but externally.” He noticed a remarkable warming in the views of his father:

Once he spent the evening not far from the servants’ rooms, the door of which was open. It was the eve of a great feast, and lampadas were warmly burning before the flower-covered icons. Father met me on the staircase. “Where are you going?” he asked, as usual. I answered and he added, “I was just in the servants’ rooms. The icons are decorated and the lampadas are burning. Do you know what I think? In this is the whole poetry of religion.” I understand what had occurred in his soul. He thirsted for that poetry, which he had been deprived of. He envied earlier times, and the humble soul of the common folk, who had faith and happiness.”

Tolstoy with two of his grandchildren

Perhaps Tolstoy understood that all human accomplishment, all of the creative beauty of religion, is not an accident, that it all emerges from an earthly passion for Heaven, from a surrender to God, from spiritual completeness, from a pure and loving heart. Love is a synonym for God; there cannot be anything unclean in it. Even the least perfect and poorly expressed manifestation of love draws to itself what is higher and more creative. “As we become accustomed to crossing ourselves, saying the words of prayer,” wrote Tolstoy, “so we should and must become accustomed to love….” Love widens the senses, transforms them into words, into song, into the beauty of flowing prayer.

The return of Tolstoy to Orthodox prayers (in his last years he regularly said the prayers “Lord, and Master of my life” and “O Heavenly King, O Comforter”) is the return of the artist to beauty. The crystals of spiritual beauty which had been polished for centuries could not but attract the sensitive artist. This was a return to form as well, to that “outward form” which he might find rude, but which he could not avoid sensing in his favorite poems, the work of Tyuchev and Fet, and in the simple, laconic peasants’ speech, in the prayers of praise read before the decorated icons.

But the most unexpected news was that he was not just praying, but he was making the sign of the cross over himself during prayer. Once, Tolstoy asked his son-in-law Michael Sukhotin if he prayed. He answered that he prayed in the evenings, but often performed prayer “like a memorized habit, without feeling or thought.” As if he had expected that kind of answer, Tolstoy immediately made his position clear: “Oh, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you do pray every day; that’s very good. It is totally different from going to church. There the people would say ‘what a good person – he remembered the Nativity of the Mother of God and went to church!’ But to pray to God by yourself, to cross yourself, to address Him when no one knows what you have said to Him, what you have asked, is a different thing altogether. I pray every day.”

Sukhotin was shocked: the author of Resurrection crosses himself and reads Orthodox prayers! What is this? The habits kept from childhood, or a new spiritual revolution? But there had been no radical change in his views; every year, something emerged from his pen which was new, bright and unique. Outwardly, Tolstoy remained the same: proud, angry, and rebellious. But what seemed mysterious to his “dark,” ideology-driven followers was quite understandable to his domestic circle.

On December 8, 1908, Sofia Andreyevna made an interesting entry in her diary: “I would like to write down that which I have accidentally overheard. Chertkov [leader of the ‘Tolstoyan’ movement], who visits us every day, came into Lev Nikolayevich’s room last night and spoke with him concerning the sign of the cross. Involuntarily, from the hallway I overheard their conversation. L.N. said that he sometimes by habit does the sign of the cross, that is, if his soul is not praying in that minute, then his body is making a visible sign of prayer. Chertkov answered: it might happen that, while dying or suffering intensely, Lev Nikolayevich will cross himself and those surrounding will think that he has converted or would like to return to Orthodoxy; but to prevent this, Chertkov would write down in his notebook every word Lev Nikolayevich would say from now on.

What a limited creature Chertkov was, and what a narrow point of view he had! He was not even interested in the psychology of Lev Nikolayevich’s soul at the time, when, alone, by himself and before God, he made the sign of the cross, which had been made over him by his mother, and grandmother, and father, and aunt, and even his little daughter Tanya, when she could come to say good night to her father, quickly moving her tiny hand, babbling: ‘To make a little cross on my papa.’ Chertkov only wants to write down, to collect information, to make photographs, but nothing else.”

Chertkov, of course, understood what the conversation was really about. Both in his diaries and in his letters Tolstoy did not hide that he had preserved in himself Orthodox “superstition,” and in his most intimate minutes of communication with God he turned to that “primitive expression” of his closeness with Him. Sofya Andreyevna, with her female intuition and inner experience, was able to perfectly comprehend the spiritual suffering of her husband and also to regard Chertkov’s thought processes as overly simplistic. “What for the mind is covered with darkness, for the heart is visible from afar,” a poet has said correctly. Would it really be possible for the words in a notebook to be an adequate expression of a human being’s world – a world, full of aspirations and efforts, full of life and rich in a variety of opinions and attitudes? Could a higher source, which the heart in its fulness recognizes, with its sensory and extra-sensory perceptions, be comprehended by cold rationality? The reformer from Yasnaya Polyana could not entirely free himself from “naive superstitions” and purge his former faith from his heart, just as he could not radically change the Christian way of thinking instilled in his soul by God-loving aunties with their patriarchal mode of existence.

“It may be that while I am dying, my hand will make the sign of the cross…. Even now, I sometimes cross myself. Often, when I sit down to work, with this gesture I invoke within myself a tender religious mood which is connected with the gesture since childhood,” Tolstoy wrote to one of his correspondents three years prior to his death. That far-from-unconscious childish gesture forced him to return to that “happy, irretrievable time” when the young Nikolenka secretly watched the prayer of “the great peasant Grisha.” Grisha was a holy fool who sometimes wandered about Tolstoy’s parent’s estate and even entered the mansion itself and “gave little icons to those he took a fancy to.” He recalled his first confession, when his young soul was filled with a feeling of blessed awe, and the times when, facing ancient icons, his childish lips murmured the words of prayer repeating them after his dear papa.

He grieved for the lost “paradise of childhood,” for that golden time, when everything was perceived as a miracle, when with naive directness, his soul responded to the call of God and glimpsed the eternity of God, which set him aflame.

In the last hours of the writer’s life at the Astapovo train station, darkened by illness, extreme weakness and delirium, Tolstoy wasn’t able to consciously cross himself. It was done for him by his faithful spouse, who was allowed to see him only at the very end. Sitting by his pillow, through her tears, Sofia Andreyevna asked him to forgive her. She prayed and was the only one of all of those who were present to make the sign of cross over her dear one. ❖

Since 1989 Sergei Romanov has been on the staff of the Leo Tolstoy Museum at Yasnaya Polyana in Russia. Currently he is writing a book, Leo Tolstoy Praying. The translation of this article from Russian is by the author, assisted by Jillian Parker. (Note: On page 28, see the news story: “Tolstoy’s Excommunication Still Controversial.”)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

News – Winter 2011 / IC 59

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Russian Church Proposes Steps to Reduce Abortion

Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has proposed to Russian President Dimitri Medvedev a series of family policies that would restrict access to abortion, Agence France Presse reported in January. The proposals are the first time the Russian Church has suggested specific policies to the Russian government.

The patriarchate requests that the expenses of abortion no longer be covered by the health system except in the case of danger to the woman’s life. It also proposes the obligation to inform women about all the negative consequences of the interruption of pregnancy and hopes, moreover, for the introduction of an informed consent and a time of reflection. The document of the Orthodox Church also suggests the creation of a “crisis center” in all obstetric clinics that would be staffed by counselors and religious persons.

Alexander Verkhovski, of the Sova Human Rights Center, told AFP that the patriarch offered “very moderate proposals, from a religious point of view,” but affirmed that “the Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, is categorically opposed to abortion, but in this address to the authorities, it counts on a compromise.”

Last June, the Church launched an appeal in favor of severer norms to reduce abortions in the country, in response to worries about the decreasing size of the population. At that time Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that “in Soviet times we were accustomed to abortion and to consider it an inevitable part of our legal reality with no way of turning back. But today we see that it is possible to turn back quite a bit.” Even young people without ties to the Church or any other religious institution, he said, wish to see a reduction in the number of abortions.

Abortion in Russia goes back a long time. In 1920, just three years after the revolution of 1917, Russia became the first country in the world to legalize the practice. Prohibited again in 1936 by Stalin (with the exception of some situations), abortion was reintroduced in 1955. Less than 10 years after this date, in 1964, the highest level of abortions was recorded in the history of Russia or the then Soviet Union: 5.6 million. The number of abortions began to drop in Russia in recent decades.

According to data of the Health Ministry, in 1990 there were 3.92 million abortions, 2.57 million in 1995, 1.96 million in 2000, and 1.78 million in 2002. Despite this decline, however, the level of abortions exceeded that of births in 2004: 1.6 million abortions as opposed to 1.5 million births.

The mortality rate is high in Russia, partly due to the decay of the health care system after the collapse of the USSR and also widespread alcoholism. Abortion is regarded as the key factor in Russia’s dramatic demographic decline, which began in the mid-1990s, that is, almost immediately after the collapse of the USSR. In less than 20 years, the Russian population decreased from almost 149 million in 1991 to less than 142 million in 2010.

The effect of this demographic collapse is already visible in the educational system. Since 1999, the number of school children has fallen every year by close to one million. In the 2004-2005 school year, 5,604 schools reported having only ten pupils.

Without a dramatic change of course, Russia may have only 116 million inhabitants in 2050.

Patriarch Kirill’s Response to Airport Bombing

January 25, the day after the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, described the attack as “the horrifying scowl of sin and a barbaric distortion of human nature,” adding that acts once condemned even in war “are today becoming a form of protest.”

He was speaking after a service at a church overflowing with Moscow State University students and officials who gathered to celebrate St. Tatyana’s Day, both a religious and student holiday. This year, it became an occasion to address growing ethnic tensions and remember the victims of a suicide bomber who killed at least 35 people and injured 150.

The service took place at St. Tatyana’s Church, just steps from the Kremlin and Manezh Square, where Russian nationalist football fans rioted in December and attacked dark-skinned passers-by from the Caucasus.

“Just recently, frightening events occurred here on Manezh Square, right next to the university church, and suddenly the entire society has shuddered and begun to speak of problems,” said Kirill.

Ethnic tensions had been growing in Moscow for months before that, including anger over plans to build a new mosque in a southeastern district of the city. Muslim migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia have emigrated to the Russian capital, fleeing wars in their home regions since the collapse of the Soviet Union and searching for economic opportunity.

The same day as the service led by Kirill, Ravil Gainutdin, head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, made a statement quoting the Koran: “the fire of hell” awaits those who carry out such murderous acts. [Sophia Kishkovsky-ENI]

Russia to Return More Church Property

By a vote of 345 votes to 42, in November Russia’s parliament passed a law to restore property seized by the state in Soviet times to the religious organizations to which it originally belonged.

Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the Duma’s passage of the legislation as “a giant step toward justice.” Under the law, the federal, regional and municipal authorities have two years to hand over property once a claim has been made. Previously, restoration of church property, which began in 1988 in the last days of the USSR, was regulated only at the federal level and in a haphazard manner.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had earlier promised Patriarch Kirill “to return to religious organizations that which by rights belongs to them.” [ENI]

Bartholomew to Continue Dialogue with Pope and Islam

On December 20, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew delivered a major address in Istanbul in which he defended his commitment to engage in inter-faith dialogue.

“We will insist on dialogue, despite the criticism that we suffer,” he said. “There is, unfortunately, a certain religious fundamentalism, a tragic phenomenon, which can be found among Orthodox and Catholics, among Muslims and Jews. These are people who think they alone have the right to exist on earth, almost as if they alone have the right to rule on this our planet according to the Old Testament. And they say there is no room for anyone else, and are therefore opposed to any dialogue.

“We are subject to criticism and attack because we maintain relations with the Pope (we are strong supporters of the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics), with Islam and the Jewish world. But we will continue to move forward on our journey, according to the path laid by our predecessors, well aware of our actions, regardless of the criticisms of which we are object.

“These fringes, characterized by extreme positions, are everywhere. It is therefore natural that we suffer their criticisms, according to their ideological dictates, all of us who try to widen our horizons and have a theological view of things, because we want the peaceful coexistence of all, based on the principles of charity and friendship.”

Christian Exodus Continues in Iraq

The last Christian man in the Iraqi town of Habbaniya Cece goes to church each morning to clean the building and to remember the past. When he was born 48 years ago, most of the population was Christian. Now his 11-year-old son knows no other Christians and has no memory of attending a church service. “When my son takes an oath, it is on the Koran, not the Bible,” Hawal lamented.

His wife wants to leave town or leave the country, joining what is becoming an exodus of Christians from Iraq and throughout the Middle East, but Hawal still feels an obligation to stay, and also encouragement from neighbors. “What gives me courage,” he said, “is that my Muslim brothers say, ‘Don’t leave.’”

Residents talk about the town as an oasis of ethnic and religious harmony, where Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites all lived together for decades without friction. On one short stretch of road near Mr. Hawal’s church, Mary Queen of Peace, are an Assyrian church, two Sunni mosques and a Shiite mosque.

“This is the best place you will find in Iraq, because we have Christians and Muslims together,” said the mayor, Sabah Fawzi, a Muslim, who stopped by the church to look in on Mr. Hawal. “When my wife and daughters want something, sometimes they come to the church to ask God for it.”

But the local buildings tell a more complicated story. The Assyrian church, St. George the Martyr, lies empty and hollowed out after an explosion in 2005. The Shiite mosque, Husseiniya Habbaniya, is a brand- new building but has no imam, or cleric, because of attacks against Shiites in the region, including a 2006 bombing that damaged the previous building.

Such attacks shattered the mutual interdependence that had flourished for much of the past century. As Anbar Province in Iraq became a stronghold for Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups, Christians and Shiites fled the area, until this town of 10,150 now has only one Christian family, down from about 70 families before the American-led invasion of 2003. There were not enough Shiites to fill the big new mosque.

At Mary Queen of Peace, Hawal is caretaker not only of a church but of local Christian history. For most of the last century Habbaniya was a hub for Assyrian Christians from around Iraq, with an educated elite and a unique dialect.

Hawal, though Assyrian, switched to Mary Queen of Peace (Catholic) after his brother became the caretaker and remained after his brother moved to Baghdad and then to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

“Whenever I look at my son, my heart breaks,” Hawal said. “I just want him to live a normal life where he can practice the Christian traditions.” If another Christian family would take care of the church, he said, he would leave town.

About half of Iraq’s Christians have left the country since the invasion. [John Leland and Duraid Adnan, New York Times]

Muslims Guard Cairo Church After New Year’s Eve Attack

Muslims and Christians demonstrate together in Cairo to condemn the New Year’s Eve bomb attack on a Coptic church.

Following an attack that killed 21 Christians attending a New Year’s service at All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, prominent Egyptian Muslims organized as a “human shield” January 6 – Christmas on the Old Calendar –  to prevent a similar tragedy.

“We either live together, or we die together,” said Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim philanthropist who proposed the “human shield” idea. Among those participating in the shield were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who said that they consider the attack on a Christian church was an attack on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who took part in the action at the Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I’m standing with the Copts because the only way that things will change in this country is if we come together.”

‘Protect Religious Minorities’ Says Muslim at Talks in Geneva

The coordinator of a Muslim initiative to promote common ground with Christians said in November that leaders of the two religions have a duty to protect adherents of the other faith against followers of their own.

“For both our religions, harming religious minorities among us is evil, is absolutely forbidden and is ultimately a rejection of God’s love and a crime against God himself,” Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad Bin Talal of Jordan said on the opening day of a meeting in November of Muslim and Christian leaders and scholars held at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva.

Ghazi urged leaders of the two faiths, “defend the other against followers of our own religion when the other is weak and oppressed, especially in a social minority context.”

Prince Ghazi is the coordinator of the “Common Word” initiative launched in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars seeking common ground between Christian and Islamic religious traditions.

Minefields Surround Place of Christ’s Baptism

Barbed wire and minefields along the River Jordan.

The place on the Israeli side of the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized will soon be opened again as a place of pilgrimage, but there is the danger posed by thousands of land mines that remain in place on either side of the site, presenting a danger to incautious or over-zealous pilgrims who stray from the marked paths.

Israel’s military maintains that the sites are safe and that removal of the land mines is not needed, while advocacy groups insist they present a potential danger, especially given local flooding. Dhyan Or, director of Roots of Peace, has warned that, at times of flooding, mines could drift from the marked areas.

On Epiphany, nearly 15,000 Christians traveled between the land mines, which are fenced-in, in order to attend the blessing of the waters. In neighboring Jordan, about 8,000 mines have been cleared.

Tolstoy’s Excommunication Still Controversial

In November, Sergei Stepashin, Russia’s former prime minister and now president of the Russian Book Union, proposed to Patriarch Kirill that the Russian Orthodox Church lift its declaration of excommunication of Leo Tolstoy issued 110 years ago.

Revered ... Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy was controversial among Russians while he was alive and remains so. Many are scandalized that the Russian Orthodox Church “blacklisted” a national hero. Others regard Tolstoy, with his many tirades against the Russian Orthodox Church, as having helped set the stage for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Lenin described him as “the mirror of the Russian Revolution.”

Stepashin acknowledged “the particular sensitivity” of his suggestion. Reversing the excommunication, he wrote, would be an act of compassion not only toward Tolstoy but “towards doubting persons today.”

The Church’s response to Stepashin, written by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, secretary of the Patriarchal Cultural Council, acknowledged Tolstoy’s “unforgettable, beautiful works” but said the excommunication could not be lifted.

He described Tolstoy as the most “tragic personality” who “purposely used his great talent to destroy Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order.”

“The pain and perplexity of many people who respect his works are understandable; these include Orthodox Christians, for whom the reason for the decision on February 20, 1901 by the Synod to excommunicate him is may still be unclear.”

The Synod, he continued, “simply cited by its decision a fact that had already taken place – Count Leo Tolstoy excommunicated himself from the Church and completely broke off ties with it. This is something that he not only did not deny, but even resolutely emphasized at every convenient opportunity: ‘It is perfectly justifiable that I have renounced the Church that calls itself Orthodox…. I renounce all the sacraments…. I have truly renounced the Church, I have stopped fulfilling its rites, and I have written in my will to my close ones that they should not allow any clergymen from the Church near me when I will be dying.’ These are just a few of the great writer’s numerous proclamations in this regard.”

Tikhon recalled how Tolstoy, when he was 27, had the idea of creating a new faith. “In his old age, when he felt that his aim was nearly accomplished, the writer created a small sect of his fans and wrote ‘The Gospel according to Tolstoy.’ The main object of Tolstoy’s attacks was the Orthodox Church. His words and actions directed against the Church were horrifying to the Orthodox consciousness. Furthermore, [his] activities during the final ten years of his life were, unfortunately, truly destructive for Russia, which he loved. They brought misfortune to the people whom he so badly wanted to serve. It is no accident that the leader of the Bolsheviks valued the aim of Leo Tolstoy’s activity so highly and called the writer “the mirror of the Russian revolution.”

Tikhon also recalled the sad finale to Tolstoy’s life, when he fled from his home, “not to his like-minded friends, the ‘Tolstoyans,’ but to the most famous Russian monastery, Optina Hermitage, where ascetic elders were living. He wanted to meet with them, but at the last minute he lost his resolve, about which he regretfully told his sister, a nun of Shamordino Convent near Optina. When at Astapovo Station he felt his approaching death, he asked that a telegram be sent to Optina Hermitage with the request that they send him Staretz Joseph. However, when two priests arrived in Astapovo, the writer’s followers would not allow them to meet.

“The Church related to the writer’s spiritual fate with enormous compassion. There were no anathemas or curses pronounced either before or after his death, as some unconscionable historians and polemicists have insisted… Orthodox people still respect Leo Tolstoy’s literary talent, but still do not accept his anti-Christian ideas.

“Several generations of Orthodox readers in our country and abroad highly appreciate Leo Tolstoy’s literary creations…. Nevertheless, because the writer himself never made peace with the Church (Leo Tolstoy never publicly renounced his tragic spiritual error), the excommunication by which he separated himself from the Church cannot be removed.”

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Conversations by E-Mail – Winter 2011 IC 59

Sunday, February 20th, 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 or Jim Forest.

Questions: Via the OPF web site, we receive a steady flow of letters. A recent correspondent asked this question: “I read on the OPF website about people whose conscience compels them not to fight. What about people whose conscience compels them to fight?” Here is my response.

I believe that there are several questions tied up in this one:

Should individual conscience be respected and followed?

Is the voice of conscience reliable as a moral guide?

Can fighting, in general, ever be a Christian endeavor?

In answer to the first question, I think that the answer is yes. Law in the USA, for example, recognizes blanket objection to war on the grounds of an individual’s conscience. Unfortunately, recognition of selective conscientious objection – that is, acknowledgment that an individual’s conscience opposes a particular conflict – is not recognized under the existing law. I think that this a wrong approach, in that it takes away the individual citizen’s right to exercise his/her own conscience and makes each person a “good soldier” just following orders. It was this sort of reaction that led to people being executed under the Third Reich for resisting conscription into Hitler’s war efforts, and which leads to men and women being jailed today because they cannot in good conscience serve in Iraq, based on their understanding of the (lack of) justification for that conflict.

This leads us to the second question – can conscience be used with or instead of other sorts of decision-making processes – is it a better way to make important choices? I would say that we never have a mutually exclusive set of methods – one can do all the other sorts of calculations (political, economic, self-interest, etc.) in conjunction with conscience. One ends up saying either, “this would be prudent, cost-effective, advantageous or popular – and it would be the moral thing to do” or “this would be a right decision in every other way … but, it would be wrong.”

Of course, the conscience is only as reliable as the process which formed it; if brought up by parents and teachers who emphasized self-denying compassion, one would have a different sensibility from a person who was imbued with values of cut-throat competition, brutal denial of any consideration for others and so forth.

Lastly, when is it right to fight? Orthodox tradition (especially in the early church) holds that it is never good to take human life. The Church also recognizes, though, that sometimes people have what are essentially “Sophie’s choices” – an untenable set of alternatives, such as war or the slaughter of innocents. Therefore, we acknowledge that certain actions may seem inevitable or unavoidable and yet they would still be lamentable. If a man shot an intruder in the belief that he was threatening his children, he might be acquitted by a jury of his peers and might be judged sympathetically by his neighbors, but he should still mourn the loss of a human life at his hands and deal carefully with its effect on his moral constitution.

The more absolute pacifist tradition (taken by many saints) is that there is no circumstance in which killing can be entertained; that, like Christ, we must even go to our own death rather than becoming a killer. Since this might entail suffering for others, one may be tempted to see it as a “passivist” tradition. Conscience, though, does not let us off the hook that easily. One should do whatever is within our power – short of killing – to effect protection of the innocent. Non-cooperation, sabotage, or putting oneself in the way of deadly force to save another might all be moral choices that would be required. Conscientious objectors have done everything from washing bedpans to serving as unarmed medics on the front lines in their quest for moral purity and responsible citizenship.

Alex Patico

Secretary, OPF-North America

opfnorthamerica@gmail.com

Saved by beauty: Dostoevsky’s famous comment about beauty – “Beauty will save the world” – appears in the dialogue in The Idiot (in which the words are attributed to Myshkin, the prince).

Regarding beauty, I think there is an aesthetic quality even to the love of Christ. If prayer is an art, as is maintained in the Philokalia (literally “love of the beautiful”), then its object must be conceived of or experienced somehow by its subject. The quote cannot be reduced to such bare conceits as one’s appearance, or the subjectivity of eye-pleasing preferences. Beauty may have something to do with the intrinsic worth that subsists in everything, even in that which is desecrated, even in the dignity of an enemy, and the vision one must acquire to see it does involve a kind of aesthetic task.

I don’t think there is any problem in seeing beauty as salvific. This isn’t a threat to the redemption of creation via the cross. We are all involved in the salvation of each other, we work it out “with fear and trembling.” There are many facets to the synergistic cooperation between God and man, which may of course include beauty, or may in fact define beauty in its absolute context.

Eric Simpson

God’s fragrance: While aesthetic experiences can and often do lead to self-transcendence, and hence perhaps to God, such beauty is not salvific in itself. Rather, the beauty which saves is a treasure hidden in earthen vessels. It is revealed through humility, which is abhorrent to the worldly-minded. The beauty of Christ is “the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.” (2 Cor 2:14-16)

As Bishop Kallistos notes, “In a fallen world, beauty is perilously ambivalent: it is not only salvific but deeply seductive.”

It is ironic that this catchy phrase originates from the one major Dostoevsky novel in which there is, in fact, no salvation. In his other novels, we see repentance come through the interactions betwixt the major protagonists. But The Idiot ends with madness, death, and apostasy – perhaps because, as Dostoevsky noted in his journals, the book was intended to show the futility of viewing Christ as merely a “beautiful man.” If He is not God incarnate, there is no salvation – and in this novel, this is made quite clear.

I believe Dostoevsky was responding to the 19th century attempt to portray Christ merely as a good man, a noble teacher, a “Christian Socrates.” I doubt that he was trying to make any absolute statement about Christian aesthetics or our mutual responsibility for the salvation of each other. The latter view was presented in Brothers Karamazov through the person of Fr. Zosima.

But if our understanding of beauty is as broad as the tradition of the Church, then there is no problem at all saying that beauty will save the world, since “beauty” is then a synonym for God’s grace. But while all this is self-evident to those within our tradition, it becomes problematic when the statement is removed from the context of the Church and her teaching.

Peter Brubacher

Saved by love: Beauty can’t save. In fact beauty itself, in our world, is mortal and corrupted by sin, made “ugly” – and must itself be saved! And of course, this is what Christ did – Christ who “was without form or comeliness” and “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” If this is not the heart of our salvation, I don’t know what is.

I would be happier if Dostoevsky had said “love (agape) will save the world.”

Paul del Junco

Solzhenitsyn: I wonder if the phrase, attributed to Dostoevsky, was as well-known before Solzhenitsyn attributed it to him in his Nobel lecture? I refer to this section:

“One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?

“There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

“Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such thing are both trusted and mistrusted.

“In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

“But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

“So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

“In that case Dostoevsky’s remark … was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

“And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today?

“It is the small insight which, over the years, I have succeeded in gaining into this matter that I shall attempt to lay before you here today….”

Eric Simpson

Divine Names: For Dionysius the Areopagite, beauty is one of the divine names or energies that is the same as goodness: beauty is God, the Trinity, in His creative and sanctifying presence to the whole of created reality. Dionysius writes (Divine Names 4.7): “God is beauty because He gives beauty from Himself in a manner appropriate to each thing. He causes the harmony and splendor of all things. He flashes forth on all, after the manner of light, the gifts of His flowing ray that produces the gift of beauty in all things. He calls (kaloun) all things to Himself whence He is called beauty (kallos).”

That beauty, which Dionysius hymns, is the uncreated light of Christ’s divinity which shines forth at the Transfiguration, at Pascha, even and especially at the Crucifixion, as we see in Orthodox iconography. The uncreated light illumines all of the saints and martyrs even in the midst of great suffering. That beauty is the gladsome light of the glory of the Father, who greets us at Vespers; the true light whom, at the end of the Divine Liturgy, we acknowledge having seen and received in His Body and Blood: Christ himself. How could this beauty, this beautiful one, not save?

Fr. John Jones

Likeness of God: In the journal Sobornost (vol. 30:1, 2008), Bishop Kallistos wrote about Dostoevsky’s statement “Beauty will save the world.” By way of a careful explanation of the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) used in Scripture, often translated as “good” in English, as well as quotes from the Fathers and references to beauty in the natural world and in Orthodox life, he concludes that, properly understood, Dostoevsky’s statement is quite correct.

“By virtue of their creation in the image and likeness of God, all persons participate in the Divine Beauty,” he writes. “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.”

He ends with this: “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.”

Peter Brubacher

Beauty of creation: I was coming out of one of the darkest times in my life when my eyes were opened to the beauty of creation and in humankind. It pierced my heart. I realized then that beauty is an expression of God’s love on this earth. It permeates all.

This overwhelming experience of God’s love made me recognize we are suspended every moment by the grace of God. This filled my heart with gratitude. It was gratitude that caused me to re-engage a life I had just about given up on. With time I learned how to integrate the suffering and beauty, trusting that all is being transformed to light.

This is how my heart was reoriented on a path of healing. Yes, beauty will save us!

The tap, tap, tap of the rain will eventually crack the hardest stone heart. Then the healing can begin. Leonard Cohen has spoken of this place of brokenness, saying, “but that’s how the light gets in.”

Jennifer Ferraez

Reading Dostoevsky: What about resolving to read (re-read?) The Brothers Karamazov in 2011? The translation I would recommend is the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s available both in paperback and hardcover for just a little more.

Jim Forest

Parish and monastery: Having experienced both parish life and monastic life, each for a fair number of years, I am more aware of the similarities than the differences. After all, though monasticism began among the desert fathers with hermits living in isolation from one another, monasticism as it has been lived in the Orthodox Church for centuries is mainly a life in community.

We could even go so far as to say that a monastic community is best understood as a specialized form of parish—a parish consisting entirely of adults of the same sex who live together, eat together, work together, and worship together. Typically in a monastic community the member spends only the time of private prayer and the hours of sleep – usually a small percentage of the day – apart from the rest of the community.

In other words, what counts in monastic life is basically what counts in parish life – interpersonal relationships. The difference between the two is largely one of intensity. If we could compare parish life to a pot of soup simmering on a stove, monastic life is like a pressure cooker. Much of the internal life of a monastery remains hidden from pilgrims, and as a result pilgrims may have the illusion that monks and nuns are holy people who spend most of their time in peaceful communion with God.

In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless.” Members of the community know better. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.

They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. This process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either a good example or a bad example.

What monastic life, at its best, has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work, because ultimately healthy relationships – with other human persons and with God – are the only thing that matters.

Monk Cosmas Shartz

Virtues and Vices: Over the last three decades or so I’ve been a monk, mostly in the city and involved with parishes. I’ve learned that the very same virtues which would make a good monk would make a good marriage, and the very same vices which would destroy a marriage would wreck a monk.

Monk James Silver

Israel Boycott: While our Fellowship does not have a policy on the program of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) which is designed to increase world pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, open up Gaza, loosen its occupation regime and come to the negotiating table and related efforts, I have a personal, slightly ambiguous take on the strategy. I suppose it comes down, basically, to where one stands.

For Palestinians, who are daily impacted by the status quo in the economic realm, one can view BDS as akin to the salt march of Gandhi or the divestment campaigns against South Africa: refusal to actively participate in the propping up of a highly-questionable structure of governance – and subjugation.

For Israelis, one can see that approach as punitive, de-legitimizing and a “blunt instrument.”

What are the requirements of true peacemaking? They are different from those of mere political involvement, even at the upper end of responsible participation in decision-making. They include an almost irrational adherence to principles of balance, fairness, withholding of judgment and the simultaneous embracing of the competing narratives of the particular conflict in question.

The question becomes: will this tactic distance us from either or both of the parties in the situation? Will we, by taking it up, pass from honest broker to partisan? Are we the voice of conscience? Or do we become the hall monitor lowering the boom?

Personally I haven’t been able to reconcile peacemaking with BDS. It is nonviolent, and therefore preferable to many other approaches, but isn’t designed to promote reconciliation, which must be part of every stage and every process.

For me, the focus is on helping bring together Jews, Arabs and others to help shift the thinking on Israel-Palestine to where it needs to be. Another’s talents may put one in the other direction, which is also fine.

Alex Patico

On the Sidelines? My question is what would Jesus have done? And what would he have us do? Did he exhibit an “almost irrational adherence to principles of balance, fairness, withholding of judgment” in the face of evil? Not from my reading of the Bible. Would he have us heed the cry of the oppressed? Or stand aside for fear of becoming partisan?

Patricia Ann Abraham

Jesus a partisan? “What would Jesus have done?” He lived in an occupied nation oppressed by a powerful empire, but did not join the Zealots. He seemed indifferent to the importance of political power and many times repudiated the desire of those around him to make him into a conquering messiah (anointed king) who will throw off the enslaver of Israel. As we meet him in the Gospels, he doesn’t seem to be calling his followers to be concerned about such things as nation or statehood.

But clearly we are called to alleviate suffering in any way we can. He seems to assume that no matter what political system or power we’re under, we will always be having to relieve the suffering caused by that system.

Paul del Junco

Hiroshima: A friend of mine from Japan lives in the US with her eleven-year-old daughter. She said that she was nervous when her daughter’s class began studying World War II in school as she didn’t know how the Japanese would be portrayed in US textbooks.

But in one class, when the teacher talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she said, “And now we know that it was wrong to drop those bombs and kill so many innocent people.”

My friend said this was very healing and reassuring for her to know her daughter was getting the whole story.

Monica Klepac

A Justified Act? Well before I became Orthodox, I can remember sitting in a circle with the professor and students of a Senior History Thesis Seminar class while at a conservative Evangelical Protestant college discussing our various projects. One of the students wrote his paper on the use of the atomic bomb during World War II.

At some point during the discussion I realized the question of whether or not use of the bomb was “justified” was not being addressed and the answer just assumed. When I raised my concern I was shut down by the professor who said we weren’t going to talk about that. Maybe it was a matter of staying focused on the thesis, but the thesis seemed to be based on the assumption it was a justified act.

Aaron Haney

War Against Miners: When Alex and I were driving from the Patico home in Maryland to Murfreesboro, Tennessee in October, we stopped midway in Charleston to visit a friend and spend the night at a bed & breakfast.

There we happened to meet a West Virginian who mentioned a significant event in the state’s history, the Battle of Blair Mountain. She referred to it as if you would have to be a piece of driftwood to be unaware of it.

For me, I confess, it rang only the faintest of bells. I’ve since found a link to a Wikipedia text about this important confrontation between the owners, with their private army, and the men who mined the coal:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain

America may pride itself on being “the land of the free,” but in those days to be a union organizer, or even a union member, was to risk your own murder. During the Battle of Blair Mountain, the US military intervened, dropping bombs.

Elements of this story made their way into the film Matewan.

Jim Forest

Silent as a Stone

Deborah Carter in England has written a play for performance by children based on the rescue story told in Jim Forest’s children’s book about St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, Silent as a Stone. It’s ideal for parishes and schools and use is free. We’ll e-mail a copy of the script to anyone who requests it – just send a note to: incommunion@gmail.com .

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

Recommended Reading – Winter 2011 / IC 59

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Atheist Delusions
by David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 272 pages, $17

David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian and classicist, outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways that are now taken for granted, forgotten, dismissed or misrepresented, conferring dignity on ordinary (generally poor) human beings and gradually ending or modifying for the better many of the harsher aspects of classical society while establishing compassionate care for others as the highest virtue.

Hart knows the classical world nearly as well as the world he actually lives in. The Glory that was Greece and the Splendor that was Rome was, Hart shows convincingly, astonishing cruel.

The book puts to rest many myths about the past. Contrary to popular opinion, Hart shows that Christians did not burn the Library of Alexandria, torture millions during the Inquisition, persecute Galileo for daring to propose the earth was in orbit around the sun, or wreak havoc across Europe during the Reformation. Rather Christianity gave the world hospitals, the foundations of modern science, and the moral framework to regard all life as worthy of life.

Hart goes on to demonstrate that what many like to think of as “The Age of Reason” was more accurately the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Finally he warns of the nightmarish consequences of the decline of Christendom as a culture force.

Christianity was, writes Hart, the only true revolution in history, changing everything from the bottom up:

“Stated in its most elementary form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one – the triumph of Christianity – that can be called, in the fullest sense, a ‘revolution’: a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing notion of reality.”

Atheist Delusions is a tour de force. One might only wish it had a different title – The Christian Revolution – as it is less an attack on such popular atheist writers as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins than a book that polishes the glasses through which we see the past.

– Jim Forest

The Isle of Monte Cristo:

Finding the Inner Treasure
by S.T. Georgiou
Novalis, 304 pages, $25

With The Isle of Monte Cristo Georgiou brings to a close the trilogy begun first with The Way of the Dreamcatcher and then Mystic Street. This most recent title continues the grand adventure which began in 1993 when Georgiou quite literally fled from Northern California to the island of Patmos in the Aegean seeking some kind of resolution in a life which had become more and more contradictory and frustrating. Taking himself to Skala, the little port of Patmos, he asked a passerby in the street for directions, who suggested that he look up a poet by the name of “Pax,” and so he did. Only, he quickly discovered that the poet’s surname was actually, “Lax,” or Robert Lax.

That evening a totally unexpected meeting was the beginning of a a series of conversations that would extend over several summers, leading  Georgiou into the most interior places of his heart, revealing the unimaginable reality of the divine likeness at the very core of each of us.

In his story, this first of many meetings with Robert Lax becomes one of many encounters, coincidences, which will echo and re-echo in the search on which he has embarked. And always, the search is for the Christ, who described Himself as “the way, the truth and the life.”

I am reminded repeatedly in Georgiou’s narrative that the work of the theologian is much more than an active and diligent pursuit of learning. It is also the experience of that learning in a mysticism always nurtured by learning, as it in turn nurtures learning. There is only the slightest reference to the passage in Athanasius’s Incarnation of the Word of God that “God became man so that man could become like God,” but in making this reference, Georgiou asserts the wonder of the search and the joy of finding in himself the presence of God.

Seeking the image of God in his own being, Georgiou finds solitude repeatedly in the beauty and wonder of nature, which he also comes to find as yet more a revelation of the creative magnificence of God’s love.

As we seek the mystery of transfiguration, we cannot help becoming more and more that likeness of God, because ultimately, everything created is saved and transfigured by beauty.

Harold Isbell

Orthodox Christianity at the Crossroad
George E. Matsoukas, editor
Iuniverse, 112 pages, $13

This is a collection of five papers delivered in 2007 at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Orthodox Christian Laity. Themes of thanksgiving and hope, matched by perseverance in faith concerning plans and promises of a Pan-Orthodox Council, mark each chapter.

Along with George Matsoukas, the editor, contributors include respected lay and clerical leaders from Russian, Romanian, Greek and Serbian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

As the editor states, “These papers give the reader a greater understanding of Orthodox Christianity worldwide and why a Great and Holy Council was not convened in the twentieth century.”

One highlight: John Erickson outlines debates over the primacy of Constantinople as Patriarch in a chapter that provides sufficient remarkable nuance.

Ioannis Freeman

Remembering and
Reclaiming Diakonia
by John Chryssavgis
Holy Cross Orthodox Press, $23

This book recalls days gone by when the diaconate meant far more than the deacon’s role during Church services. Chryssavgis (himself a deacon since 1984) makes a convincing case to reclaim the fullness of service that deacons were meant to provide. The author speaks plainly and draws on numerous illustrations from our contemporary world to invite readers from all walks of life.

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 an active local community.

Ioannis Freeman

Speaking the Truth in Love:
Theological & Spiritual Exhortations
by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
John Chryssavgis, editor
Fordham University Press, 464 pages, $35

The present text is the second of three volumes to be published by Fordham University Press of addresses, encyclicals, sermons, and other writings by His All Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. In the book’s foreword, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury,  explores two themes that he identifies in the text: an orientation toward a global identity by the Orthodox Church as opposed to prisons of local or ethnic make-up; and a pervasive and penetrating engagement of Church in the world and for the world as an extension of Christ, the Church’s Head, and His kenosis.

The book provides courageous and conciliatory messages of hope. Each selection demonstrates sound Orthodox theology and Christology while engaging in an ecumenical mission that has been tested by fire over the past two decades. Readers will appreciate the author’s vision, such as that we should “never grow tired of conversing with those of good faith who ask the reason of the hope that we have within us.”

Ioannis Freeman

The Friends We Keep: Unleashing
Christianity’s Compassion for Animals
by Laura Hobgood-Oster
Baylor University Press, 230 pages, $20

This book argues that Christians’ compassion toward animals urgently needs “unleashing.” Given the immense number and kinds of animals, Hobgood-Oster organizes her historical inquiry into three domains: animals as companion pets, as connected with sport, and as food.

The author appeals to oral traditions, popular literature, varied artifacts from sacred buildings (such as stained glass windows, statuary, icons, and lives of saints) to illustrate a rich legacy of love and care for animals among Christians. Pets and domesticated animals receive the greatest attention. As for animals as food source, though the author is herself a vegan, she carries no torch when advising others, except to consider occasional meatless days. The book concludes with an excellent group discussion guide and liturgical resources.

Ioannis Freeman

* * *

For this is the Good One,
who could have forced
us to please him
without any trouble to himself,
but instead he toiled by every means
so that we might act pleasingly to him of our own free will,
that we might depict our beauty
with the colors that our own free will had gathered,
whereas, if he had adorned us, then we would have resembled
a portrait that someone else had painted,
adorning it with his own colors.
— St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373)

St. Ephrem was born about 306. Some say his family was Christian while others say his father was a pagan priest of the goddess Abizal. He was baptized as a young man by Bishop Jacob of Nisibus, a participant in the First Council of Nicea in 325. Later ordained as a deacon, Ephrem is said to have escaped consecration as a bishop by pretending to be insane. When Jovianus ceded Nisibus to the Persians in 363, Ephrem and many other Christians moved to Edessa where he died in 373 while ministering to people who had the plague. He wrote over a thousand poems. Many of his works are difficult to translate because of their complex structures, images, word plays and parallels. Scholars question the authenticity of all texts attributed to the “Harp of the Faith,” a name frequently given to Ephrem, since many exist in Latin translation only. Ephrem wrote polemical verse defending the faith against gnostics and Arians. He was devoted to the Theotokos and wrote much in her praise. His Sermons on Faith are metrical homilies. He wrote prose commentaries on the Old Testament and on the Epistles of St. Paul. He annotated the Greek-Syriac New Testament Diatessaron. His descriptions of heaven and hell are said to have inspired Dante.

* * *

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59