Posts Tagged ‘Alex Patico’

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IC66 In Communion 2013

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The Desert Finds Us

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Alexander Patico

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

Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

A High Wind of Grace in Jamaica

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

By Alexander Patico

The winds of grace are always blowing; it is but for us to raise our sails.

– Sri Ramakrishna

Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)

Above: Orthodox participants in the Jamaica convocation (Alex Patico is seventh from the right)

I was fortunate to be one of the thousand people who gathered in Kingston, Jamaica in May for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, an event marking the end of what the World Council of Churches had christened the Decade to Overcome Violence.

We were a diverse group, from the still-campaigning aged to the fresh, energetic young, from those who work “in the trenches” – from war protests to helping rape victims – to those who write and teach in academic settings. Some were survivors of violence and some were healers and some were both. There were torture victims determined to reduce the size of that fraternity of sufferers, and the lesbian person who lived in shame and self-doubt until finding fellow-sufferers and discovering her own voice. There were the parish leaders trying to shepherd their flocks through “the valley of the shadow of death” – from war to street crime – on a daily basis.

Clearly we who took part in the Decade to Overcome Violence did not succeed in our eponymous mission, but then none of us had imagined coming anywhere near such a utopian vision. Far from being overcome, violence persists in an infinity of locations with ever more deadly effectiveness, with robot warriors increasingly shedding human blood. Our convocation wasn’t a celebration.

And, yet whenever we sing “We Shall Overcome,” it’s not in expectation of a miracle. Rather, we are just stating our certainty that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We may not hope to see either peace or justice achieved in our own lifetimes, but we must do our best to bend that arc a fraction of a degree in the time God gives us.

Why was I there? When asked, I said that I represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, a group with members worldwide, though with the majority in North America – a group from a diversity of Orthodox jurisdictions – a fellowship most of whose scattered members have yet to meet each other face to face.

In another sense, of course, I was there as an individual. As a Christian, I cannot pretend that overcoming violence is “someone else’s job.” If I claim Christ, I claim his cross and his call to reverence and to protecting life. This I had in common with nearly all the extraordinary delegates assembled for seven days on the campus of the University of the West Indies. People who, in practice as well as theory, are “their brothers’ keepers.” People who in their daily lives are “known by how they love one another.” People who, as Jesus says in the beatitude of peacemaking, are to be known as “children of God.”

The setting was new to me, but at the same time familiar. It felt like the UN conferences on sustainable development I had attended in Rio and Johannesburg. It also seemed a bit like a summer camp, though without the archery and the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk. Masses of people who, as the days went by, gradually shifted from name tags into people, and then, in many cases, friends.

We talked after plenaries, comparing impressions of the speakers. During Bible studies, we teased out the meanings of phrases written long ago. Over meals, we shared information about the projects awaiting our return back home. Over drinks we talked about what we hoped for our families, our communities, for the world. We walked and we talked, back and forth on the sweltering college campus that was our temporary home. Important areas of discussion included:

Conscientious objection: In various ways and to different degrees, many governments seek to stifle the “still, small voice” of conscience. Until Kingston I didn’t know there are some 900 South Koreans jailed each year for attempting to be recognized as CO’s, or that both men and women are conscripted in Eritrea, with harsh treatment awaiting those who refuse to wage war. The UN Commission on Human Rights declared over fifteen years ago that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.” Developing this issue a few years later, that body acknowledged that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections.” Even so, in most countries conscientious objectors in uniform often end up in military prisons. “Selective” conscientious objection – objection to engagement in a particular war and not necessarily to war in general – is something that is still not recognized in law in the US and many other countries,

Diversity and tolerance: I have never heard respect for “the other” expressed quite so well as one conferee did: “We are all different! God made us all in his image – God must be truly magnificent!” Indeed, Rabbi Arthur Waskow once shared with me the Talmudic wisdom that the coin Jesus pointed to, when he said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” was identical to other similar coins, whereas the products of God’s mint – human beings – are each unique. Each is made in the image of our divine monarch. God embodies the mystery of diversity in unity, while an earthly rulers’ reign is an assembly line of faceless conformity.

Disability, agism, sexism and discrimination: A speaker with a major disability asked the thought-provoking question: “Who exactly are the workers who were hired for the same wages at the eleventh hour – those who so annoyed the ones who were hired first?” They were probably not, she suggested, the strong and able-bodied, nor of the favored ethnicity.

Gays and lesbians: I was unaware of how heated the “debate” about sexual orientation is in places like Moldova, where an Orthodox priest reportedly was among those who attacked a bus carrying activists for gay causes and tried to set it afire. Then there was a case from South Africa, where Millicent Gaika was strangled, tortured and raped for five hours by a man trying to “cure” her of being a lesbian. Or Jamaica itself, where a co-founder of a community organization for gays was murdered with 70 machete wounds to his neck and face.

Theology: After much dialogue with various kinds of Christians, what still came as a shock to me are the truly negative feelings that surround the Eucharist in some churches. There are many who associate the “passion of Christ” principally with suffering and agony – and therefore with an ethic of voluntary submission to abuse at the hands of others – rather than emphasizing the triumph of God over death in the person of Jesus, in a saving outpouring of grace. Clearly for some the Cross is so large it hides the Resurrection. The Pascha-centeredness of the Orthodox Church is not to be taken for granted.

Peace building: It was instructive to have one of our speakers, an Orthodox priest from Eastern Europe, talk of peace building as “a preventive, therapeutic and developmental process.” This short phrase captured so well what is required of the peacemakers. We must act, whenever possible, in advance of disruptions or distortions of God’s beneficent plan. We must not just protect, but also help heal victims of violence. We cannot expect to accomplish much with a tidy plan, but must do as monks do: When we fall, get up and when we fall again, get up again.

During that week on a Caribbean island, I learned why I sit, often lonely, at my desk, reaching out to others whom I rarely see – people who are, like me, trying to “fight the good fight” – paradoxically, a fight which is no fight. Pushing the boulder up the hill again and again, but finding that we “run and are not weary” because we “wait on the Lord,” who strengthens us to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times. Seeking to serve, rather than to vanquish. This is the only struggle in which we can count on the support of Jesus himself. ❖

Alex Patico is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

The Muddle that is the Middle East

Friday, September 24th, 2010

by Alexander Patico

These days, we Christians have a reputation often based on our prejudices rather than our principles, our irritations with our neighbors rather than our love of neighbor. As the Orthodox columnist Terry Mattingly recently put it, Christians “are known best for what they are against.” We were once known for how well we loved one another. Not any more.

In his recent book, The Goodness of God’s Creation, Fr. Philip LeMasters says, about warfare, that we must not use the utilitarian criterion of Western culture in making life-and-death decisions. As Orthodox Christians, we must ask, “In the light of the human vocation for growth in holiness and communion with God, how should Christians respond to the prospect of warfare?” In any such cases, we must ask what the law of love commands – including in our response to the recent events in Gaza, and the ongoing conundrum of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The situation can, admittedly, be confusing. Labels often obfuscate: “Israeli” can be taken to mean citizens of the State of Israel (Jews, Arabs and others), or the government of Israel. Sometimes it is blurred to include supporters in other parts of the world. The term “Palestinians” can be used to mean “those who were born in Palestine” (whether in what is now Israel, on the West Bank, in Gaza, or wherever they now live); or it can mean “leaders of the Palestinian government” (including or excluding Hamas), or those who live in the occupied territories Muslim, Christian or something else).

The law of love leads us out of such briar patches of nomenclature. Whatever labels may be put on us, we are all brothers and sisters. While Paul was referring to the Church when he said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female,” whom can we place beyond the pale?

To heal the region, we must first put aside political divisions and historical Gordian knots, to recognize the basic human nature of the antagonists with all their needs and aspirations.

What is an Israeli Jew? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person with a rich tradition of searching and scholarship about how to treat fellow inhabitants of this earth. One with a special sense of connection to those who have been ostracized, oppressed or eliminated in many places and many times. A person who lives in some degree of fear.

What is a Palestinian? A person with ties of blood to this region. A person whose ancestors may have been among the first disciples of Christ, or among the early followers of Mohammad. A person with a sense of connection to those who have been displaced, made homeless or bombed. A person who lives in fear.

We Christians should be able to empathize with the anguish of Jews who never envisioned the State of Israel becoming an occupying force. After all, we went through the mixed blessing of having the Emperor Constantine embrace our faith, conflating temporal dominion with divine kingdom. We saw bloody crusades launched in the name of Christ, and the blasphemy of believers remaining quiet when their countrymen rounded up Jews, dissidents and the “defective.”
We can empathize with Palestinians excluded from their homes and homeland, stripped of human rights, punished as a people for the actions of a minority, with no power over their lives. We too have known, and still know, persecution (under the Ottomans, under Communism and in India today). We have picked up the rock – and the rocket – when we thought our lives depended on it.

There is no crime seen in this situation, of omission or commission, which has not been committed by those who called themselves Christians. So how, with our own blood-stained past, can we be helpful? We can – in just the way Our Lord specified – by showing our capacity to love.

We must remember the words of Dr. King, who said that the church “must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. … But if the church … will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of humankind and fire the souls of the people.”

Loving all the participants in this ghastly, perpetual drama of strike and counter-strike, intifada and walls, checkpoints and bus-bombings, means refusing to take sides. Refusing to sell armaments. Refusing to justify what cannot be justified, whether high-tech or low-tech, whether done out of desperation, preemption or revenge.

Positively, it means being willing to share our own experience, expertise and wealth, to reconcile the mortal enemies, and make the desert of Jewish and Arab hearts bloom. These are not easy things to do. But protesting the actions of others has always been easier than doing something constructive and redemptive ourselves.    ❖

Alexander Patico coordinates activities of OPF in North America. He has written previously for In Communion and authored a forthcoming book on U.S.-Iran relations.

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

More Than Just Justice

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

by Alexander Patico

When I was a kid, there was a comic book series called “The Justice League of America.” Its members included Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman plus some lesser-known superheroes. The outcome of each confrontation was that the innocents were saved and the “bad guys” got “what was coming to them.” In fact, this was the never-varying plot-line of Dragnet, Zorro, the Lone Ranger and indeed all the fantasy worlds kids inhabited in those days. Justice triumphed, evil-doers were punished.

We’re not kids anymore. Our worldview isn’t shaped by comic books. We’re old enough not to see mutual destruction or the triumph of the powerful as desirable outcomes in human conflicts. We tend to think in terms of peace and justice. But here lies a tension. Is peace the goal? Or is justice our priority? Or shall we glue them together into “just-peace” – a hybrid word that welds justice and peace together, like yin and yang, inseparable segments of a whole?

Looking back on my initiation into American superhero justice, I am reminded of one of the dialogues of Socrates with his young colleagues in Book One of Plato’s The Republic. Plato presents (in the words of editor Benjamin Jowett), “a refutation of popular and sophistical notions of justice” (such as doing good only to one’s friends, justice as the interest of the stronger, etc.). In the process, Socrates questions the definition of justice as “everyone getting his due” – pleasant rewards going to the virtuous and negative consequences being meted out to the evil. Sounds like what most people mean when they say “justice.”

For Plato, justice was “based on the idea of good, which is the harmony of the universe.” Now Christians believe that “The Good” equals God and that the harmony of the universe is the peace of Christ. Therefore, “giving to each man what is proper to him” might include a good deal more than what usual human standards have regarded as appropriate.

If we Christians believe that each person is a bearer of the image of God, and that our ultimate destination is to be with God in heaven, then the concept of “what is due” each of us expands considerably.

Looked at this way, God asks much more of us than the promotion of human justice. If we give each “his due” – thinking about this in the usual constricted and grudging sort of way, then we are in danger of being like the persons mentioned in Luke 6 about whom it was said “even sinners love those who love them.” That is, even a non-believer might be willing to say that everyone should get what is due him, if they mean only a juridical type of “due-ness.” We, however, are bound to make the definition of the word “justice” subsume all that our instruction in the faith would lead us to include in it, the fullness of justice, if you will.
St. Isaac the Syrian actually made this distinction between God’s grace and man’s justice when he counseled, “Never say that God is just. If He were just, you would be in hell. Rely only on His injustice which is mercy, love and forgiveness.” Surely this explains why “Lord have mercy” appears so often in the Liturgy. Indeed, we strive to become people of mercy, as our Father first extended mercy to us. “Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

Added to the Christian’s calling to manifest mercy is the goal to seek out occasions to show mercy, especially under adverse or uncomfortable circumstances, and to strive for more than just expedient answers. As Laurel Rae Matheson recently wrote in Sojourners, “Justice is not just a matter of fairness or equity [but of] creating sustainable solutions for conflict.” In other words, justice should be strongly conciliatory and constructive, rather than “restorative, distributive or punitive.” The end result we seek should be better than any ante bellum condition, hewing much more emphatically toward “the peaceable kingdom.”

As real “just peace” is achieved, we will know it not by the fact that oppressors have become captives or corpses in the cemetery, or that the poor have finally become rich – as satisfying as that kind of compensatory balance might be. Rather, the sword will have been beaten into plowshares.

The peaceable kingdom is described in these amazing words: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” This is a vision that would be laughed out of most negotiating rooms as naively idealistic, yet our faith bids us embrace it. Micah’s prophecy promises that “every one shall rest under his vine, and every one under his fig tree, and there shall be none to alarm them…. All nations shall walk every one in his own way and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah: 4:4-5)
Justice? We might not all call it that all the time. Peace? Surely. Hurry, Christ, bring us Your peace, that we might learn what Your justice truly is!

Alex Patico is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57

News Summer 2010

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

USA: First Episcopal Assembly Convened

The first Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Hierarchs in North America was convened on May 26 in New York City by Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. The Assembly, attended by most hierarchs of local Orthodox dioceses in North America, resulted from decisions made by the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference at its meeting in Switzerland in June 2009.

The main goal of the Assembly, said Demetrios, is to witness to Orthodox unity in a “new world” and to secure a more effective organization of mission, witness and cooperation of the local Orthodox Churches.

Demetrios chaired the gathering, with Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Archbishop Justinian of the Moscow Patriarchate as co-chairs. Bishop Basil of Wichita, of the Antiochian Archdiocese, was elected secretary.

“We strive for unity because the Lord asked of us to be one, but diversity and differentiation are not to be feared. They are gifts that are to be used for the glory of God,” said Demetrios, adding that “our unity cannot exist to destroy such differentiation; rather, our unity is meant to flourish as a result of our natural diversity, be it linguistic, cultural or ethnic. Is this not exactly the condition of our universal Orthodoxy today?”

“Of course,” he reminded his fellow bishops, “problems related to unity, or to differentiation, or to both, always existed in the Church, starting already in the time of the Apostles, as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles testifies.”

Demetrios explained that the nature of the assembly is temporary, a preparatory step intended to facilitate the creation of a council that will decide “the final form of the Church in a particular country.” At the end of the process, the Assembly anticipates becoming a Synod of Bishops enjoying autocephaly.

The Assembly took place behind closed doors, with the bishops in attendance reportedly having committed themselves not to speak to the media regarding the details of their discussions.

The Assembly decided that such projects as International Orthodox Christian Charities will now operate under the auspices of the Episcopal Assembly. Committees of bishops are being set up to address legal, pastoral and canonical issues.
It is likely that the Assembly will be comprised only of the parishes in the US, with Mexican parishes becoming part of a Latin American grouping and Canadian parishes constituting a third region.

One of the complications in arranging the meeting concerned Metropolitan Jonah, head of the Orthodox Church in America. Patriarch Bartholomew had asked Archbishop Demetrios not to invite him because OCA’s autocephaly is not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In the end a compromise was worked out – Jonah attended as an individual bishop rather than as the head of the OCA. Jonah accepted the compromise “with all humility.”

Tentative dates for the next meeting of the Assembly: May 25-27, 2011.
Similar Assemblies are to be convened around the world in regions where there is no single Orthodox jurisdictional presence. Participation in these meetings will be restricted to active canonical bishops who reside in the designated region. At each Assembly, the chairman will be the senior bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Meeting in Moscow:
Kirill and Bartholomew stress unity

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrated Pentecost in Moscow, giving sermons that stressed the importance of pan-Orthodox unity. The Pentecost Liturgy took place at the ancient Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery north of Moscow.

In his sermon and greeting to Bartholomew at the monastery, Kirill spoke of the close ties between the early Russian church and Byzantium, and thanked God for the opportunity to celebrate the service with Bartholomew.

At the Savior Cathedral in Moscow the following day, 24 May, they jointly celebrated the memory of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Greek-born brothers who, in the ninth century, created the Cyrillic alphabet and preached to Slavic peoples. Their feast day is now marked in Russia as a celebration of Slavic and Orthodox unity.

In stressing unity, Kirill and Bartholomew both alluded to the travails Russia endured in the 20th century, also noting the challenges posed by the secular world.

“In spite of the decades in which atheist ideology dominated, the majority of the people of the countries of the Russian world regard themselves as believers, as children of the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Kirill, referring to the faithful in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, countries of the former Soviet Union that are still predominantly Orthodox. “This is the triumph of Orthodoxy in our day. The heritage of Cyril and Methodius unites the Slavic peoples. It is also a bridge between the Slavic and Greek worlds. This celebration is especially complete from your presence among us, Your Holiness, primate of the Holy Church of Constantinople, the living bearer of the thousand-year-old Byzantine heritage. In communing with you, we perceive that we are all members of one, unbroken Church Tradition.”

After the service at the Savior Cathedral, Kirill and Bartholomew led a procession to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square where they addressed young people. Referring to Russian believers and decades of atheism, Bartholomew said, “You not only preserved but strengthened your amazing culture, at the heart of which is the Christian faith. You fought, endured, and became worthy of the calling you received from Constantinople.”

Speaking at St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg on the last day of Bartholomew’s eight-day visit, Kirill reported that “with each meeting we are becoming closer to one another…. The holiness and fullness of Orthodoxy overcomes all division.”
Kirill had visited Bartholomew in Istanbul in July. There the two patriarchs spoke of the need to cast differences aside and present a united Orthodox front against secular evils.

The visit by Bartholomew to Moscow comes after a mission to the Vatican by Metropolitan Hilarion, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations. [Sophia Kishkovsky/ENI]

Environmental Day message
from Patriarch Bartholomew

In a June letter written for World Environmental Day, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said that “the fundamental cause of the abuse and destruction of the world’s natural resources is greed and the constant tendency toward unrestrained wealth by citizens in so-called ‘developed’ nations.”

He stressed the words of St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” “As St. Basil the Great instructs us,” the Patriarch added, “everything beyond this borders on forbidden ostentation.”
Bartholomew’s brief letter ended with a classic story “from which everyone can reasonably deduce how uneducated yet faithful and respectful people perceived the natural environment and how it should be retained pure and prosperous.

“In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers on the Sinai, it is said about a monk known as the righteous George, that eight hungry Saracens once approached him for food, but he had nothing whatsoever to offer them because he survived solely on raw, wild capers, whose bitterness could kill even a camel. However, upon seeing them dying of extreme hunger, he said to one of them: ‘Take your bow and cross this mountain; there, you will find a herd of wild goats. Shoot one of them, whichever one you desire, but do not try to shoot another.’ The Saracen departed and, as the old man advised, shot and slaughtered one of the animals. But when he tried to shoot another, his bow immediately snapped. So he returned with the meat and related the story to his friends.”

Russian Orthodox and new WCC
leader discuss controversial issues

It is outside the scope of the World Council of Churches to put forward a view on the issue of same-sex marriage and female clergy, the WCC general secretary told journalists in Moscow after meetings with Patriarch Kirill and other leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Speaking at a press conference on 30 June, the new WCC general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, and Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Russian Orthodox leader responsible for ecumenical dialogue, dealt with challenges facing the WCC and inter-Christian dialogue in general.

Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran, has made contacts with Orthodox churches a priority since he assumed his position in January.
Responding to a journalist’s question about same-sex marriage and female clergy, Tveit said that the WCC cannot express a position until there is a consensus within the organization. “The WCC has 350 churches,” he said, “and they hold different positions on such issues. We work on establishing consensus. That means that the Council doesn’t have an opinion on issues that have not reached the level of consensus.”

Tveit noted that the WCC works to foster conversations and open space for discussing issues about which member churches have different viewpoints. “I don’t foresee that the World Council of Churches will have one point of view on either of these issues in the near future,” he stated.

Tveit praised the Russian Orthodox Church for fostering interfaith dialogue in Russia and thanked the Moscow Patriarchate for organizing meetings for him with government officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov and Konstantin Kosachev, chairperson of the Committee on International Affairs of the State Duma, Russia’s lower legislative chamber.
Regarding his meeting with Tveit two days earlier, 28 June, Patriarch Kirill spoke of the WCC’s potential in defending Christianity in the world and in dialogue with other civilizations. “We live in a world in which relations between different civilizations are becoming more and more significant,” said Kirill. “In these conditions it is important for all Christians to ensure the preservation of Christian civilization and to cooperate in building good relations with communities of other civilizations. The WCC can help in achieving these two goals by defending the Christian system of values and developing the dialogue of Christians with other religions and with non-religious world views.”

Violence against Copts
on the rise in Egypt

In late April, in the Egyptian coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, some 3,000 angry Muslims gathered after Friday prayers during which the mosque’s imam had exhorted them to cleanse the city of its “infidel” Christians. The enraged mob went on a rampage – 18 homes, 23 shops and 16 cars were destroyed. For ten hours, 400 Copts barricaded themselves in their church until the frenzy died out.

This was only the latest of more than a dozen such attacks during the past year, including in the village of Kafr El-Barbary on June 26 last year, the town of Farshout on November 21, and the village of Shousha on November 23. Then came Naga Hamadi, where passengers in a passing car fired at Christians leaving a Coptic Christmas service on January 6. Seven were killed and 26 were seriously wounded.

Although the Copts have long been the target of sporadic attacks, the violence of the last few years is more like a purge, as waves of mob assaults have forced hundreds, sometimes thousands of Christian citizens to flee their homes. In each incident the police, despite frantic appeals, invariably arrive after the violence is over. Later the injured are coerced by the special security police forces into accepting “reconciliation” with their attackers, in order to avoid the prosecution of the guilty. No Muslim to date has been convicted for any of these crimes.

Egypt’s Christian Copts, about 12 percent of the population, have long been subject to customary and official discrimination. No church, for example, can be built or even repaired without a presidential decree. Copts are excluded from the intelligence and security services because they are deemed a security risk.

This discrimination springs from a belief deeply grounded in the social psyche of the ruling elite and large sectors of the Muslim community that it is unreasonable in an Islamic society to expect strict equality between Muslims and the infidels.
“The dhimmi status of the Copts,” said Moheb Zaki, former managing director of the Ibn Khaldun Center, an organization that supports democracy and civil rights in Egypt and the Middle East, “will not be changed by persuasion. It will only change by persistent domestic struggle supported by vigorous international pressure. The Copts do not demand the tolerance of Muslims but equal rights with them.”

Moscow Patriarch appeals
for Orthodox unity in Ukraine

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, on an official visit to Ukraine, has appealed to Orthodox believers there who have broken with the Moscow Patriarchate to return to its jurisdiction.

“There are no barriers preventing the return to ecclesial communion,” declared a statement issued after a 26 July meeting in Kiev of the Russian Orthodox Church’s bishops’ synod, chaired by Kirill.

The Orthodox church in Ukraine divided after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are now several different Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including one that comes under the Moscow Patriarchate and another, the Kiev Patriarchate, that is not recognized by any of the world’s canonical Orthodox churches. The Moscow-linked church accounts for a significant part of the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine, once the center of a Slavic state, Kievan Rus, is seen as the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy because of the Baptism of Rus that occurred in Kiev in 988 following the conversion of Prince Vladimir.
At a 28 July service in Kiev commemorating the Baptism of Rus, Kirill spoke of the spiritual ties that bind Russia and Ukraine, separate countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“There were sinners, there were crimes, there were weaknesses in the lives of the people, but we carried through a thousand years, and continue to carry the great ideal of Holy Rus,” he said in his sermon at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves.
Responding to journalists’ questions, Kirill denied that the Moscow Patriarchate had plans to take away the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Kiev Patriarchate is led by Filaret Denisenko, a former metropolitan in the Moscow Patriarchate during the Soviet era. He reacted angrily to the appeal for reunification, saying that there is no schism, only jurisdictional division. [Sophia Kishkovsky/ ENI]

Christian peace gathering
in the American heartland

The closing days of July found nearly two hundred Christians of every stripe gathered on the campus of a Mennonite seminary in the American heartland. Their coming together was both the latest event in a centuries-long witness to the nonviolent way of Christ, and a preliminary to an event slated for next May, an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, to be the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence program of the World Council of Churches. The conference in Indiana, called Peace among the Peoples, was intended to take the pulse of the faith-based peacemaking community in North America in preparation for that 2011 gathering.

The Mennonites were best represented, but the other “historic peace churches” – Quakers and the Church of the Brethren – were also an active presence. Added to this core were delegates from the full spectrum of American Christianity, from Pentecostals to Presbyterians, Catholics to Unitarian-Universalists, and Baptists to Orthodox.

Speakers presented new ways of looking at old issues – topics such as conscientious objection in an era of terrorism and upholding family values within new definitions of “family.” They brought new passion to perennial concerns, such as Christian understandings of war or the impact of empire on faith. Conferees wrestled with the theological issues (atonement and costly grace), ecclesiological questions (parish priorities vs. nationalism and globalization), and practical matters (how to reach out to youth, ethnic minorities and those of other faith traditions).

Voices from the Eastern Church took the form of three talks by Orthodox Christians: “An Orthodox Approach to War” by Fr. Philip LeMasters of McMurray University,”The Eucharist and Peacemaking” by Alexander Patico of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and  “A Reflection on War,” a sermon by Fr. Bogdan Bucur, a Romanian now at Duquesne University.
Special initiatives that were carried forward during the conference included:

• Truth Commission on Conscience in War – giving respect to those who have chosen, on the basis of conscience, to withdraw from the current military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. [see: www.truthcommission.org]
• North American Ecumenical Peace Center – envisioned as “a visible expression of a common call by God to advance the non-violent way of Jesus Christ by providing resources, facilitating networking, furthering communication and being a catalyst for collaboration among existing and future communities dedicated to peace and witness.”
• Global Peace Network – a way to lace together the work being done around the world to promote peace among all of God’s children, using today’s technology in the service of a timeless and universal path of reconciliation.
• Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace – several drafts of this seven-page document have been done; it will be finalized as a part of next year’s meeting in Jamaica. To accompany it, the writing committee is compiling a 100-page supporting document, which goes into greater detail about specific actions that have been or might be taken, and theological grounding for peace-work. (A text on this theme was prepared at an Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Consultation held in Leros, Greece in September 2009. Fr. Philip LeMasters attended on behalf of OPF.)

– Alexander Patico

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57

OPF’s Vocation: Witnessing to the Peace of Christ

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Several meetings held as a part of the recent OPF-North American conference in Maryland focused on the road ahead. These notes grew out of those discussions.

Education: Taking education to mean both educating ourselves and helping to educate others, we have begun to develop a more active engagement. There is interest in providing formal and informal experiences for OPF members to advance their development as peacemakers, while also giving of our own knowledge and understanding of Holy Tradition to others within the larger community.

One way will be to promote learning from others who are further along on that particular journey, such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams, acknowledging that what matters most is how effectively we facilitate the growth of Christ’s peace among His people, rather than parochial concerns of jurisdiction.

OPF Conference: For the 2009 Conference, David Holden suggested focusing on health, including mental health, possibly doing it as a joint conference with the Orthodox Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Topics within this area in which members have evinced interest include: PTSD and suicide (as manifested by returning troops who must cope with what they have seen and done in war), schizophrenia and other maladies that require much of family and care-givers, counseling that recognizes and draws upon spirituality, and asceticism in the past, present and future of the Church. Two venues have been discussed for 2009: the Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and a location in the Minneapolis area. We hope to get back to the western part of the continent, if not in 2009, then 2010.

Collaboration: Educating others begins at home with Orthodox Christians. In higher education, we have begun a new collaboration with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to provide a way to bring an awareness of OPF and the search for peace to many more young people. An earlier OPF publication, For the Peace from Above, will be used, with editing and revision, in this new context.

Children’s curriculum: In elementary/secondary education, Renee Zitzloff suggested we develop a children’s curriculum on relevant topics; she has been joined in this project by Sally Eckert. Synaxis, an Orthodox publishing house, has offered to support us with low-cost publishing of texts we develop for these projects.

Adult education: In Communion articles and original writings by members can gain wider circulation via the web. We will also consider the possibility of an OPF blog using essays based on conference talks as a basis for discussion. The same sort of thing can be done through Ancient Faith Radio, using audio versions.

Making OPF better known: Mother Raphaela proposed a special mailing of In Communion to non-members who may be interested in joining. Elaine Patico suggested establishing an “OPF Sunday.” Participating parishes would be provided with a Presentation Kit from OPF, which might include an outline for a talk or discussion, back issues of In Communion, OPF brochures, the resource book we are developing for OCF, and OPF mini-posters with patristic texts on peace and reconciliation.

Web presence: Michael Markwick is preparing to open a new section of InCommunion.org that will serve as a North American sub-site, to cover events and developments in our region, and report on conferences and chapter happenings. We would like to see it be truly North American, with contributions from the US, Canada and Mexico. We will be soliciting contributions of event notices, articles or essays by members to populate this new sub-site.

Local groups: Renee Zitzloff and others started on OPF group in Minneapolis which she hopes to revitalize during the coming year. Members in Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles have expressed interest in starting local groups.

Extra-Orthodox contacts: Alex Patico has been working with the Decade to Overcome Violence, a World Council of Churches project, and Olive Branch Partnership, an interfaith group that sprang out of the Christian Witness against the War in Iraq.

Future contacts might include a project designed to aid and train clergy who work with returning veterans, which is being organized by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (Eastern Mennonite University); Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace – a meeting of the Atraditional peace churches” (Quaker, Mennonite and Brethren), which will take place in January in Philadelphia (OPF has been invited to participate); and Consistent Life, an “International Network for Peace, Justice and Life,” which emphasizes a consistent ethic opposing abortion, assisted suicide, capital punishment and war.

Peacemaking Services: It has been suggested that OPF develop a capability to assist parishes or Orthodox organizations in resolving intractable conflicts. This may seem an impossibly ambitious aim, but if a sufficient number of members were to make a serious commitment, it could be an important contribution to the life of the Church.

As the concept has taken shape thus far, OPF would assemble a team that would include persons with a background in conflict analysis, conflict resolution, relationship-building; would be based on high standards of confidentiality, professionalism, and Christ-centeredness; would be done at lowest-possible cost to the inviting group, but with minimum out-of-pocket expense for those taking part; would develop, over time, a body of knowledge that itself could prove useful to other groups confronting antagonism that threatens to undermine the peace and growth of parishes. One existing example of practical peacemaking that is changing lives and communities is Reconciliation Services, an Orthodox-oriented, Kansas-based community organization with a unique mission (www.rs3101.org).

Accountability: In order that members and supporters of OPF be able to know how their donations are being used, and to be able to influence the directions taken, we have resolved to send regular updates to the members of the Advisory Board of OPF, consult with active and experienced members regarding decisions, provide answers, in a timely fashion, to any member who has questions about our dealings, and distribute an annual report on finances that goes to the entire membership.

– Alex Patico, OPF-NA secretary

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51