Let Us Go Forth in Peace

Healing in the Parish, Local Church and in the World

Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / fifth lecture by Bishop Kallistos

Our theme is the liturgy after the Liturgy.

I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s story, called The Three Hermits. Do you know it?

Once upon a time there was a bishop traveling from Archangelsk to the Solovyetski Islands on the White Sea. And in the middle of the morning, the captain pointed out to him an apparently deserted island, and he said, “It’s very interesting. There are three hermits on that island.” “Let’s turn aside,” said the bishop, “and go and meet them.”

So the boat turned aside, and sure enough as they drew in towards the shore, they saw three old men standing hand in hand with long white beards. And so the bishop got down from the boat and landed on the shore and he bowed deep to the holy men and said, “Pray for me.” And the three hermits bowed deep and said, “Holy bishop, bless us.”

“How do you pray, holy men?” asked the bishop.

The hermits replied, “This is how we pray, ‘Three are we, three are ye, have mercy on us.'”

“Oh,” said the bishop, “that is not actually the right way to pray. Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?”

“No,” they said, “we’ve never heard of that prayer.”

“Alright,” said the bishop, “I’ll teach you the Lord’s Prayer.”

So he told them the Lord’s Prayer and he tried to get them to learn it by heart. The three old men were very anxious to learn it but they kept forgetting, and so he had to spend all the afternoon and evening teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. At last they thought they remembered it, so he got back on board the ship and continued his journey feeling he had done a good day’s pastoral work.

But it was such a strange experience, meeting the three old men hand in hand on the shore, he couldn’t go to sleep. He sat on deck thinking about the day. And what should he see? Following the boat moving rapidly across the water, a bright light! As it came closer he realized it was the three old men, all illumined with light skimming across the waters, their white beards flying in the wind. They caught up with the boat and greeted the bishop, “Holy bishop, bless us!” And he bowed low, “And pray for me.” Then the three old men said, “We have forgotten the prayer. Teach us again.” And the bishop said, “Holy men, pray to God in your own way. Your prayer will reach him.” So they bowed low and skimmed across the waters back to their island. But long after they disappeared from view, there was still on the horizon a bright light.

I felt a bit like the three hermits earlier this evening when I couldn’t remember the Dutch words for “Christ is Risen!” That’s why I told you that story. Only this time, it wasn’t the holy men, but the bishop, who couldn’t remember.

I want to continue with some reflections on the Liturgy. Last night I talked about the use of the word “peace” in the Divine Liturgy: In peace let us pray to the Lord, for the peace from above, for the peace of the whole world. Then we reflected also on the meaning of the celebrant’s greeting, “Peace be with you all.” We saw how the priest is not just transmitting his own peace, but he is transmitting to them the peace of Christ. And peace, we said, is a gift from God.

Now, there is one phrase from the Liturgy in which the word peace figures prominently which I didn’t mention last night. I expected one of you in the discussion to say, “Why didn’t you mention that?” But none of you did say that.

The phrase that I didn’t mention last night that I want us to look at now is the one that comes after Holy Communion shortly before the final dismissal: “Let us go forth in peace.”

There are many commandments in the Liturgy, many things that we are told to do such as “Lift up your hearts,” “Give thanks to the Lord.”

“Let us go forth in peace” is the last commandment of the Liturgy. What does it mean? It means, surely, that the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy is not an end but a beginning. Those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” are not a comforting epilogue, they are a call to serve and bear witness. In effect, those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” mean the Liturgy is over, the liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin.

This, then, is the aim of the Liturgy: that we should return to the world with the doors of our perceptions cleansed. We should return to the world after the Liturgy, seeing Christ in every human person, especially in those who suffer. In the words of Father Alexander Schmemann, the Christian is the one who wherever he or she looks, sees everywhere Christ and rejoices in him. We are to go out, then, from the Liturgy and see Christ everywhere.

“I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I was in prison.” Of every one who is in need, Christ says, “I.” Christ is looking at us through the eyes of all the people whom we meet, and especially those who are in distress and who are suffering. So, we go out from the Liturgy, seeing Christ everywhere. But we are to return to the world not just with our eyes open but with our hands strengthened. There is a hymn I remember as an Anglican that we used to sing at the end of the Eucharist, “Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken.” It was said in the hymn book that this was from the Syrian liturgy. So, we are not only to see Christ in all human persons, but we are to serve Christ, to minister to him, in all human persons.

Let us reflect on what happened at the Last Supper. First there was the Eucharistic meal, where Christ blessed bread and gave it to the disciples, “This is my body,” and he blessed the cup, “This is my blood.” Then, after the Eucharistic meal, Christ kneels and washes the feet of his disciples. The Eucharistic meal and the foot washing are a single mystery. So, we have to apply that to ourselves. We go out from the Liturgy to wash the feet of our fellow humans, literally and symbolically. That is how I understand the words at the end of the Liturgy, “Let us go forth in peace.” Peace is to be something dynamic within this broken world. It’s not just a quality that we experience within the church walls.

Let’s remind ourselves of the way in which St. John Chrysostom envisages this liturgy after the Liturgy. There are, he says, two altars. There is, in the first place, the altar in church, and towards this altar we show deep reverence. We bow in front of it. We decorate it with silver and gold. We cover it with precious hangings. But, continues St. John, there is another altar, an altar that we encounter every day, on which we can offer sacrifice at any moment. And yet towards this second altar, an altar which God himself has made, we show no reverence at all. We treat it with contempt. We ignore it. And what is this second altar? It is, says St. John Chrysostom, the poor, the suffering, those in need, the homeless, all who are in distress. At any moment, he says, when you go out from the church, there you will see an altar on which you can offer sacrifice, a living altar made by Christ.

Developing the meaning of the command, “Let us go forth in peace,” let us think of the Liturgy as a journey. This is Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s key image for the Liturgy. We may discern in the Liturgy a movement of ascent and of return. That kind of movement actually happens very frequently. We can see it in the lives of the saints — such saints as Antony of Egypt or Seraphim of Sarov. First, in the movement of ascent, if you like, or flight from the world, they go out into the desert, into the wilderness, into solitude, to be alone with God. But then there is a moment of return. They open their doors to the world, they receive all who come, they minister and they heal.

There is a similar movement of ascent within the Liturgy. We go to church. It’s pleasant to walk there, though some people have to use cars. I like to walk from my home to church before the Divine Liturgy, to walk alone if I can. It’s only about ten minutes for me, but it’s quite important, I find, to have that movement, a sense of going to church, a sense, if you like, of a separation from the world and starting on a journey. I walk to church, I enter the church building, I enter within sacred space and sacred time. This is the beginning of the movement of ascent. We go to the church. Then, continuing the movement of ascent, we bring to the altar gifts of bread and wine, and we offer them to Christ. The movement of ascent is completed when Christ accepts this offering, consecrates it, makes the bread and wine to be his body and his blood.

After the ascent comes the return. The bread and wine that we offered to Christ, he then gives back to us in Holy Communion as his body and blood.

But the movement of return doesn’t stop there. Having received Christ in the Holy Gifts, we then go out from the church, going back to the world to share Christ with all those around us.

Let’s develop this idea a little. Receiving Christ’s body, we become what he is. We become the body of Christ. But gifts are for sharing. So we become Christ’s body, not for ourselves, but for others. We become Christ’s body in the world and for the world. So the Eucharist impels believers to specific action in society, an action that will be challenging and prophetic. The Eucharist is the start of cosmic transfiguration, and each communicant shares in this transfiguring work.

Now this afternoon’s talk has a very ambitious title — I can’t possibly deal with all the things suggested by it. That’s the great danger — you think of the titles before you think of what you’re actually going to say. So I just want now, in the light of what I’ve said about “Let us go forth in peace,” to pose a few questions about the different levels of Eucharistic healing and transfiguration in the world.

First a question about our parish life. Perhaps this is not true of Vézelay, but it’s true of some parishes that I’ve known elsewhere. I’ve often wondered why our parish council meetings, and more particularly the annual general meetings of parishes, are such a disappointment? To me it’s very surprising that often there’s a rather dark spirit at work in the annual general meetings of parishes. The picture given of our parish life is actually deeply misleading. All the good things seem to be hidden — perhaps that’s as it should be — but we get a very distorted picture. There seems often to be an atmosphere of tension and hostility at annual general meetings in parishes.

I’ve often wondered why that is. How to bring a truly Eucharistic spirit into such gatherings? How can we bring the peace of the Divine Liturgy into the other aspects of our parish life? I don’t have a easy answer, but I think behind this first question there lurks another question. How can we make the Divine Liturgy more manifestly a shared and corporate action? In my own experience, the parish where I am, we began worshiping just in a room, and at that time it was not difficult to have a very strong feeling of the Liturgy as a unified action in which everybody was sharing because we were all so close to one another, and were only a few of us.

Some of the most moving Liturgies I’ve ever attended have not been in churches with great marble floors and huge candelabra but in small house chapels in a room or even in a garage. Now, gradually our community has grown. Twenty-five years ago, we built ourselves a church, and now that church is too small and we’re working towards enlarging the church in order to be able to have room for all the worshipers. Now that is, in a sense, encouraging, but there is a real struggle here. As a parish grows larger and as it acquires a larger building, it becomes much harder to preserve the corporate spirit, the sense of a single family, the sense of all of us doing something together. It becomes much harder to preserve that.

I haven’t got any easy answers here, but that is one level on which I ask, “How can we bring peace and healing into a community that’s growing larger all the time, and therefore that is bound to lose its sense of close coherence, unless we struggle to preserve it?”

There is another level of healing that occurs to me quite frequently at the Divine Liturgy. We often have present non-Orthodox Christians and we are not able to give them Holy Communion by the rules of our Church. Now, I’m sure you’ve all of you reflected on the reasons why the Orthodox Church takes this straight line over inter-communion. The act of Communion, we say, involves our total acceptance of the faith. It involves our total life in the Church. Therefore we cannot share in Communion with other Christians who, however much we may love them, we recognize as holding a different understanding of the Christian faith, and who are divided from us.

This is, we know, the argument why we cannot have inter-communion. But I think we should constantly ask ourselves if we are right to take this position? In fact I think we are, but I would say go on asking yourself in your heart if it’s the right thing to do. We Orthodox are becoming increasingly isolated on this issue. In my young days, most Anglicans would have taken the same view, and would have said they could not have Communion with Protestants. That’s certainly not the case now in the Anglican Church. Also, Roman Catholics held this view very strictly, but since Vatican II, whatever the official regulations may be, in the practice of the Roman Catholic Church there is widespread inter-communion. But we Orthodox continue as we were. Are we right? And if we do continue to uphold a strict line on inter-communion, in what spirit are we doing this? Is it in a spirit of peace and healing?

I remember at the beginning of my time as priest, the first occasion, and I still feel the wound inwardly, when persons came up for Communion whom I knew were not Orthodox. I felt that it was my duty as priest not to give them Communion. I was really interested in the reaction of two different parishioners. One said to me, “You did quite right! We cannot give Communion to these heretics. The Orthodox Church is the one true church.” He saw that in triumphalist terms. That made me feel even worse. But then another parishioner came up, and he said, in a very different tone of voice, “Yes, you were right, but how tragic, how sad, that we had to do this.” Then I thought, yes, we do have to do this, but we should never do it in an aggressive spirit of superiority but always with a sense of deep sorrow in our hearts. We should mind very much that we cannot yet have Communion together. Incidentally, both of those two parishioners are now Orthodox priests themselves. I think the first one, over the years, has grown a little less triumphalist. I hope we all do, but I’m not sure whether that always happens.

Then I’d like to reflect on a third level of healing. Let me take as my basis here the words said just before the Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, at the heart of the Liturgy. The deacon lifts the Holy Gifts, and the celebrant says, “Thine own from thine own, we offer thee.” And in usual translation, it continues, “in all and for all.” But that translation could be misleading. It could be understood as meaning “for all human persons, for everyone.” In fact in Greek, it is not masculine, it is neuter — “for in all things, and for all things.” At that moment, we do not just speak about human persons, we speak about all created things. A more literal translation would be, “In all things and for all things.”

This shows us that the liturgy after the Liturgy involves service not just for all persons, but ministry to the whole creation, to all created things. The Eucharist, that is to say, commits us to an ecological healing. That is underlined in the words I used from Fr. Lev last night: “Peace of the whole world.” It means, says Fr. Lev, peace not just for humans, but all creatures — for animals and vegetables, stars, for all nature. Cosmic piety and cosmic healing. Ecology has become mildly fashionable now. It often has quite strong political associations. We Orthodox, along with other Christians, must involve ourselves fully in the movement on behalf of the environment, but we must do so in the name of the Divine Liturgy. We must put our ecological witness in the context of Holy Communion.

I’m very much encouraged by the initiatives taken recently by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Some ten years ago, the then Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios issued a Christmas encyclical saying that when we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ, his taking of a human body, we should also see that as God’s blessing upon the whole creation. We should understand the incarnation in cosmic terms. He goes on in his encyclical to call all of us to show, and I quote, “towards the creation an ascetic and Eucharistic spirit.” An ascetic spirit helps us distinguish between wants and needs. The real point is not what I want.

The real point is what do I need? I want a great many things that I don’t in fact need. The first step towards cosmic healing is for me to make a distinction between the two, and as far as possible, to stick just to what I need. People want more and more. That’s going to bring disaster on ourselves if we go on selfishly increasing our demands. But we don’t in fact need more and more to be truly human. That’s what I understand to define an ascetic spirit. Fasting indeed can help us to distinguish between what we want and what we need. Good to do without things, because then we realize that, yes, we can use them, but we can also forego them, we are not dependent on material things. We have freedom.

If we have a Eucharistic spirit, we realize all is a gift to be offered back in thanksgiving to God the Giver. Developing this theme, the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, followed by his successor, the present Patriarch Bartholomew, have dedicated the first of September, the New Year in the Orthodox calendar, as a day of creation, when we give thanks to God for his gifts, when we ask forgiveness for the way we have misused those gifts, and when we pray that we may be guided for the right use of them in the future. There’s a phrase that often comes to my mind from the special service ‘When in danger of earthquake.’ “The earth, though without words, yet cries aloud, ‘Why, all peoples, do you inflict upon me such evil?'” And we are inflicting great evil on the earth. Interesting to see earthquakes as the earth groaning because of what we do to it.

Finally I ask you to think for a moment about this morning’s Gospel. What happens when the risen Christ on the first Easter Sunday appears to his disciples? Christ says first to the disciples, “Peace be unto you.” The first thing that Christ speaks after rising from the dead is peace. Then what does he do? He shows them his hands and his side. Why does he do that? For recognition. Yes, to show that here he is, the one whom they saw three days before crucified, here he is, risen from the dead in the same body in which he suffered and died. But there’s surely more to it than that. What he is doing is to show that, though he is risen from the dead, yet he still bears upon him the marks of his suffering. In the heart of the risen and glorified Christ, there is still a place for our human suffering. When Christ rises from the dead and ascends into heaven, he does not disengage himself from this broken world. On the contrary, he still carries on his body the marks of his suffering and he carries in his heart all our burdens. When he says before his ascension, “See I am with you, even to the end of the world,” surely he means, “I am with you in your distress and in your suffering.” Glorified, he is still with us. He has not rejected our suffering, nor disassociated himself from us.

We see from today’s Gospel how peace goes with cross bearing. Having given peace to his disciples, the risen Christ immediately shows them the marks of the Cross. As I said in my first talk, peace means healing and wholeness, but we have to add, peace also means vulnerability. Peace, we might say, doesn’t mean the absence of struggle or temptation or suffering. As long as we are in this world, we are to expect temptation and suffering. As St. Antony of Egypt said, “Take away temptation and nobody will be saved.” So peace doesn’t mean the absence of struggle, but peace means commitment, firmness of purpose, clarity of vision, an undivided heart, and a willingness to bear the burdens of others. When Paul says, “See, I bear in my body the marks, the stigmata, of Christ crucified,” he is describing his state of peace.

Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. His lecture may not be reproduced without his permission. The transcription was made by Peter Brubacher. Our thanks to him.

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A peaceful ending to our life

Bodily death as an experience of healing

Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / final lecture by Bishop Kallistos

Our theme during these days together has been to explore peace understood in terms of healing, of wholeness. So we looked at the wholeness of the human person in my first two talks, and the third we began to speak of the sacraments, and of confession as a sacrament of healing. My fourth and fifth talks were related to the Liturgy, the theme of peace of the Liturgy and now, in the last of my addresses, let us look together at death and let us ask how can death be an experience of healing. What is the connection between death and peace?

Now, if we take as our guide Orthodox prayers, we see that there is a connection. Often death and peace are mentioned together. Take for example from our evening prayers, the prayer divided into 24 short sections, that is attributed to St. John Chrysostom. One of the short prayers runs: “O Lord, grant me tears, mindfulness of death, and a sense of peace.” Surely, the context here is significant. Death is mentioned between “tears” and “a sense of peace.” Now, in the Orthodox understanding of tears, they may indeed signify repentance for sin, but tears can also mean tears of joy at the love of God. We weep in our personal human relations when we suddenly discover that someone else loves us very much, and so we weep also when we recognize how much we are loved by Christ. So tears involve joy, and we notice how mindfulness of death is linked with the sense of peace as well as with tears. Death is not to be a subject of anxiety and fear. It is linked with wholeness and hope. “Grant me tears, mindfulness of death and a sense of peace.”

The same connection between death and peace comes in the petition from the litany used at the Divine Liturgy, and at Orthros, and at Vespers. We pray for “a Christian end to our life, painless, unashamed and peaceful, a good answer before the dread judgement seat of Christ.” So once more there is a connection here between death and peace.

We notice the same connection in a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian, which could be taken as expressing in classic terms the Orthodox attitude to death. “Prepare your heart for your departure,” says St. Isaac. “If you are wise you will expect it every hour. Every day say to yourself: ‘See, the messenger who comes to fetch me is already at the door. Why am I sitting idle, I must depart for ever, I cannot come back again.’ Go to sleep with these thoughts every night and reflect on them throughout the day, and when the time of departure comes, go joyfully to meet the messenger and say: ‘Come in peace, I knew you would come, and I have not detected anything that could help me on the journey.’ Now what strikes me in that passage is a sense of sobriety and of gentle realism, and a sense of peacefulness. Prepare your heart for your departure. There is no way of avoiding death, unless the second coming happens in our lifetime — which it may, but that we do not know. But what strikes me particularly about St. Isaac is that death for him is not something that we should think about with revulsion and horror but has note of quiet eagerness. “When the time for departure comes, go joyfully to meet him.”

“Come in peace” — that is what we have to say to the angel of death when he appears to us. “I knew you would come, I knew I had to go on this journey, so I have got my little suitcase ready and we can set out now.” That is the spirit in which we are to think about our coming death.

There all kinds of preparations we can make, unless we are monastics living by strict poverty, which I am not. We should all of us make a will -as it causes great inconvenience to our friends and relatives if we don’t make a will. We should sort out our papers and correspondence. My house is full of thousands of sheets of paper and I dread to think what would happen if I died suddenly, which I may, so I ought to sort them out as otherwise I leave a difficult burden for other people. But there is something far more important that we should do to prepare for death, and that is mutual forgiveness. We should seek to be reconciled with all those from whom we are estranged. We should ask pardon and accept it, and we should take care not to leave this for the last moment for we don’t know when the last moment will come.

We live in a culture where it is bad taste to talk about death. Televisions, newspapers and modern novels are filled with violence and death, but it is bad taste to make it personal, to say, “I shall die and so will you.” President Mitterand shortly before his death, when he knew he was going to die, made some very interesting statements. “How to die?” he asked. “We live in a world which is frightened by such a question, a world which avoids even answering it.” And he said we must resist the modern deficient relationship with death in this hurried existence. In fact there is a conspiracy of silence about death, but the true Orthodox Christian approach is that we should be mindful of our death, exactly as St. Isaac says.

Now tonight I would like to explore two aspects of death understood in terms of personal healing. First let us take note how death and birth go together and let us note that in this context how death is far closer to us than we commonly imagine. Before our great death, the end of our life, we pass through many other deaths, and in each stage in our life death goes with growth. So perhaps we should see death as the final stage in our growth as persons. That is my first theme.

My second theme is to ask: “How should we regard death — as an enemy or as a friendly companion — or perhaps as both? Is our death to be seen as a tragedy, or as healing, or perhaps both?”

First then, birth and death. Let me start with three quotations. My first is from T.S. Eliott because the poets are often the best theologians. This is from his poem “The Dry Salvages” in The Four Quartets: “The time of death is every moment.” My second quotation is from the writer, Victorian author of the 19th century George McDonald. In his letters he says: “Death is only the outward form of birth.” And finally, I have a phrase from the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil to which we have been listening and praying during the Great Fast and Holy Week. In the anaphora it says, concerning Christ: “When He was about to go forth to His voluntary, awesome and life-creating death.” Let us hold fast to that phrase “life-creating death.”

Death is far closer than we imagine. “The time of death is every moment.” It is not just a distant event at the conclusion of our earthly existence. It is a present reality going on all the time around us and within us. All living is a kind of dying, we are dying all the time. But in this daily experience of dying, each death is followed by a new birth. All dying is also a kind of living. Life and death are not opposites, mutually exclusive, but they are intertwined. Our whole existence is a mixture of mortality and resurrection. As Paul says: “Dying and behold we live.” The whole of life is a constant passover, passing over through death into new life. We should never think of death alone, we should always think of death and resurrection.

Now let’s think about our life cycle and here I am drawing on a talk which impressed me very much when I read it some years ago by a Scottish Roman-Catholic priest, Fr. (?). Whoever thought that your bed is a very dangerous place because 95 percent of people die in their beds. And yet as I get older, I find going to bed and falling asleep is something that I look forward to. Falling asleep each night is in fact a foretaste of death, but is not a frightening experience. Because this foretaste of death is followed each morning by a foretaste of resurrection. When we awake the next morning, it is as if the world has been created anew. I like the Hebrew benediction, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who createst Thy world every morning afresh.” So falling asleep at night, waking up the next morning, is in its way a passing over through death into new life. Might not our eventual death be like that? A falling asleep followed by an awakening. We are not afraid to drop off to sleep each night, because we feel confident we are going to wake up once more next morning. But perhaps we won’t. Can we not with Christ’s help feel something of the same trust about our final falling asleep in death? May we not expect to wake up again in eternity?

I remember talking with my own father before his death. He had been a regular soldier. He had fought in both World Wars. He had had a great deal of experience of being in danger of death — certainly he had seen a great deal of death around him in those two wars. He confided in me shortly before he died that he was afraid of death, and I said to him: “Well, may it not be like falling asleep?” And in fact that was exactly how it was in his case. He fell asleep and he died in his sleep. He knew he was likely to die quite soon, and he had made his preparations. Well, that is one example of the way death and resurrection are intertwined into our daily life.

Then let’s think about growing up. Each time we pass from one stage of life into another, something dies in us so that something else can come alive. The transition — say, from being a child to becoming an adolescent — can often actually be quite painful and stormy. There is a death — the child has to die in us so that the growing adult may come alive. Perhaps there is another inner death when we pass from adolescence to being a mature adult.

These transitions are often painful and crisis-ridden. I read an account some time ago of Jesus at age twelve in the Temple. At first I was a little offended. Should we think of Christ in those terms? And then I thought, well, He was truly human, therefore He was a real human child and he went through all the processes of growth that we went through. The author commenting on the incident of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple and said — and I think that is true — that Mary and Joseph recognized they had a crisis on their hands when Jesus began to show independence as teenager. This is one way of looking at it, and perhaps not such an irrelevant way.

So all through our life, if we are to grow, we have got to be willing to let something die in us. If we refuse death, if we draw back from making the transition, we can’t become real persons. And here I would quote George McDonald again, this time from his novel Lillith: “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die.” We have to yield things, to give them up, if we are to receive new gifts. But in growing up each crisis of growth is also a lesson in love. Let me quote a poem by Cecil Day Lewis called “Walking away” where he is talking of leaving his young son for the firs time at school. “It is 18 years ago, almost to the day, a sunny day with the leaves just turning, since I watched you play your first game of football, then, like a satellite wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away behind a scatter of boys. I could see you walking away from me towards the school, with the pathos of a half fledged thing set free into a wilderness, the gait of one who finds no path where a path should be. That hesitant figure away like some winged seed loosened from its parents hold has something I never quite grasped, to convey about nature’s give and take. The small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay. I have had worst partings, but none that so gnaws of my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly saying what God alone could perfectly show, how selfhood begins with a walking away and love is proved in the letting go.”

Another form of death is of course parting from friends and places, yet such partings are a necessary element in our growth. Unless we have sometimes the courage to leave familiar surroundings, to part with existing friends and to forge new links, we don’t realize our potential as persons. By hanging on to the old, we refuse the invitation to discover the new. As Cecil Day Lewis said: “Selfhood begins with a walking away and love is proved with the letting go.” That is a lesson we have to learn and relearn throughout our lives.

Rejection is another form of death that we have to face, all of us, at some point in our lives. As you probably know, my work is to teach in university, and I have seen — particularly in the last ten years, with the unemployment in Britain — how very difficult it is even for those who get quite a good degree in university then to find a job. They have to write not ten but perhaps a hundred times, applying for jobs, before they find one. Each time you apply for a job you’re offering yourself. Here am I with all my qualities — won’t you find a place for me? Each time you get a letter saying no, you undergo a certain death, a very hard death, as you face that disappointment, and yet perhaps that is what we have to learn if we are to become real persons.

Another kind of rejection, of course, and more profound, is rejection in love — when we love someone else and we find that our love isn’t returned. As children, if we come from happy homes, we often take love for granted. We assume that our parents will love and care for us. But then when we grow up we find we can’t assume that from other people — they are free and they may feel, yes, we are nice enough people, but they don’t love us in the way that we love them. Perhaps for many of us in our young years, the experience of being disappointed in love is the moment when we really begin to grow up, because bereavement is a form of death, not just for the one who dies but also for the one who remains alive. Yet bereavement faced inwardly and accepted through prayer, for that time is needed, makes us more authentically alive than we were before.

Another kind of death is the death of faith. Our Christian life surely has to be a journey, an exploration. We may at different times in our lives lose apparently our root certainties, or what we thought were certainties, about God and His existence. Nebukadnezzar gave a symbolic interpretation to the ten commandments and said that, when it is said in the ten commandments that you are to have no idols, that means also mental idols: conceptual and intellectual idols. All through our lives we have to be willing to shatter our idols about God, the ideas that we had, in order to come closer to the living God. To be fully alive, our faith has repeatedly to die.

Of course, long before we actually die, growing old is an experience of death. As we get older we have to be willing to yield the central place in the lime light to others, to let them shine. We have to apply to ourselves to what John the Baptist says: “He must increase and I must decrease.” As a teacher I think sometimes of the Jewish saying: “Blessed is the teacher who has pupils who are more clever then he.” Teachers don’t usually like it that pupils are more clever, but that is something we have to accept, especially as we get older, that they are going to be more brilliant, more up-to-date and more fashionable than we are.

Surely the secret of true life is to accept each state as it comes. To die the death and to live the new life, not to cling to the past but to live with total integrity in the present. Now in all these cases out of dying there comes resurrection. Not loss but enrichment, not decay but growth. Something dies means something comes alive. May not the death that comes right at the end of our life, fit into that pattern? May not our bodily death be the final stage in our growth? The last and greatest in the long series of deaths and resurrections, that we have been experiencing ever since the day we were born. If the small deaths each lead beyond death to resurrection, may this not be true of the great death that awaits us when we finally leave this world? May this not be the greatest passover? Then we should enlarge our vision, we should look beyond our own life stories to the Christ story. We should relate the death and resurrection pattern within our own life to the death and resurrection of Jesus our Saviour that we have just been celebrating. Our story makes sense in the light of His story. Our small deaths and resurrections are joined across history through His definitive death and resurrection. What did we hear at Paschal midnight? “Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. Christ is risen and death reigns in fear. Christ is risen and there is none dead in the tomb.”

Now, when people change their tapes over I know that means I have been talking quite a long time, so I’ll try and speed things up. That was my first theme. In Eliott’s words “A time of death is every moment,” that death is not closer than we think but death goes with growth and resurrection.

Now I want to look at the second question: “Is death enemy or friendly companion?” My answer here is that our attitude toward death should not be blind terror but awe and wonder.

What is death? Let me offer you two definitions. The first is from St. Clement of Alexandria, in the early third century. “Death,” he says, “is the separation from the soul and the body.” My second definition is from St. Maximus the Confessor, who writes: “Death in the true sense is the separation from God.” Now I think both definitions are true, but the second comes closer to the heart of the matter. St. Clement speaks of physical death, the separation of soul and body — the heart stops beating, the breathing ceases, the body grows cold, the person dissolves. But St. Maximus goes further. He speaks about spiritual death. Death, in the deep sense, is the separation of the total person, soul and body together from God. Life is communion with God, losing that communion we die. Now the corollary of this is many people die before their deaths. Outwardly and physically they are still alive, but inwardly and spiritually they are already dead. Their souls have died before their bodies. Animated corpses walk about in our midst and we meet them every day.

Now spiritual death, as separation from God, means a state of sinfulness. In Scripture death and sin are very closely related. Death is an aspect of our fallen condition. In the Genesis story, disobedience to God’s command brings death. God says “On the day you eat from the tree which you are told not to eat from, you shall surely die.” So the real death is not physical but spiritual.

Now is death an enemy or a friend? From one point of view, it is an enemy. The true person, of the Christian understanding as I have already said in my opening talk, is a undivided unity of soul and body together. The body is not a prison or tomb. It is an integral part of our personhood. As C.G. Jung says: “Spirit is the living body seen from within and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit.” So death from this point of view is not natural. It is profoundly unnatural. It is an affront against the wholeness of our human nature. It is not what God intended for us. He didn’t create us for death but for life. Death in this sense is monstrous and tragic. It is, in Paul’s words, “an enemy to be destroyed” and hence Christ’s grief and tears at the grave of His friend Lazarus. Jesus wept. If He wept at the face of death, so may we. St. Paul tells us not to refrain altogether from sorrow, but he simply says we are not to sorrow as others do who have no hope (1 Th 4-13). So he doesn’t disapprove of all sorrow, only unbelieving, hopeless sorrow. I often think of that beautiful passage in The Brothers Karamazov where starets Zosima speaks with a woman who has lost her child and he doesn’t say to her stop weeping, he tells her that she should weep. And yet he says the time will come when, through your weeping, you will reach peace. Tears can have a healing effect, the bereaved need to be allowed to mourn and they have to have time for their mourning.

What I find impressive about the Orthodox funeral service is that people don’t feel ashamed to weep. I was brought up in a culture which thought that a funeral should be very tight lipped and restrained, dignified. If people broke down and showed grief, the others were embarrassed. But thank God, in the Orthodox Church, we are not embarrassed.

If Christ wept so may we. At Gethsemane, Christ felt real anguish in the face of death. He did feel a sense of horror at His own coming death. So death can be seen as an enemy, but it is also a friend. It may be monstrous but it can be full of beauty. Yes, we do feel grief at the death of those we love, but the sorrow can be a sorrow that leads to joy. Death is not part of God’s original purpose for us but is in a fallen world part of His loving providence. There is a Russian fable that Jim [Forest] probably knows better than I do. Once upon a time a peasant was walking the woods and he met death. Being quite an alert character, very quickly he put his sack over death’s head and tied him up inside the sack and took him back home all tied up. Death struggled and shouted but the person said “I am not going to let you out.” At first everybody said he was a marvelous man because he got rid of death. But then people just went on living. They got older and older and their rheumatism got worse and worse. They grew more and more tired, but there was no release. They just had to go on living. So after a time they came to the man and said: “For goodness sake, let death out again so we can have a way of escape.” I think that is true, in the fallen world, simply to live forever in this fallen world is not endurable. God in His mercy has given us a way of escape.

That is the way Jeremiah sees it when he uses the analogy of the potter. He goes down, in Jeremiah chapter 18 to the potter’s house and he sees how the pot has been spoiled on the wheel. The potter than shatters the clay and reworks it. So death is the shattering of the pot, so that it may be refashioned. It is also what we say in the funeral service: “Of old Thou has created me from nothing and honored me with Thy divine image, but when I disobey Thy commandment, Thou hast returned me to the earth whence I was taken. Lead me back again to Thy likeness, refashioning my ancient beauty.” So there death is seen as a way in which we are led back again to our true home, we are refashioned. So death is also a friend.

Just before supper I went into the Basilica and went round to the place where there is a statue of St. Francis. The Canticle of the Son is posted there. I read St. Francis’ words written just before his death “Praised be my Lord for our sister bodily death.” Death is the means of our return to God. It is an encounter with Christ. It could be transformed into an act of worship, into an experience of healing. It is a friend not an enemy. It is a beginning, not an end.

I think of the last words of the Russia thinker Prince Trubetskoy. As he was dying, he said: “The royal doors are open, the great Liturgy is about to begin.”

Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. His lecture may not be reproduced without his permission. The transcription was made by Maria Armstrong. Our thanks to her.

Return to Bishop Kallistos retreat main page

Vézelay Parish

The Orthodox Parish of St. Stephen and St. Germain of Auxerre

Dear friends,

At Vézelay, a center of Christian worship and pilgrimage since the eighth century, the Holy Liturgy of the Orthodox Church has been celebrated regularly for the past 20 years.

Taking part in eucharistic life in such a village, in which even the stones are pregnant with prayer, one is acutely aware of sharing in the liturgical cycle kept by generation after generation of those who worship one God in Three Persons.

The village is now preparing to sell the building in which for the past 12 years we have celebrated the Liturgy. Our heart insists that we make an effort to purchase that which in the past was only ours to rent. Thanks to many donations and one loan, we have collected the greater part of the FF 238,000 ($40,000) that the village asks.

It is because we have not found all the money needed that we ask for your help. With your assistance, Orthodox Christianity can remain a presence for future generations in the heart of Burgundy. (There is only one other Orthodox center in the Department of l’Yonne, the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God.)

If God so wills, you will come and pray with us in our chapel, which would give us great joy.

Thanking you in advance, with brotherly greetings in Christ,

Father Stephen Headley and the parishioners of St. Stephen and St. Germain of Auxerre, Vézelay

parish correspondence address:

Père Stephen Headley

67 rue St Pierre

89450 Vézelay


bank account: CCP No 462710 J Dijon (Paroisse St Etienne et St Germain); donations can also be sent care of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; make your check payable to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, indicating it is for “the Vézelay parish”.

A brief history of the parish of St. Germain of Auxerre in Vézelay

In 1978 three Orthodox families, French and Russian, gathered in Vézelay to pray. Soon joined by five other families, God blessed this initiative, which has now lasted more than 20years. Throughout these years, Fr. Stephen Headley, rector of the parish of Our Lady Joy of All the Sorrowful in Paris, came at least once every two months to celebrate the Eucharist. In1998, with his wife Anne, he took up definitive residence in Vézelay. Since then, in addition to other services, there has been daily Vespers.

During the first few years, Fr. Stephen being committed to his Parisian parish, communion was given to the parish by Deacon Nicholas and many Christmases were celebrated by Father Simeon, Father Ephrem, Father George and Father Alexander from Paris, to whom we are forever grateful.

From 1978 to 1986, the place of prayer was occasionally changed. First we met in the attic of the deacon of our parish, later in the house of one of the parishioners, and then in the chapel of the Franciscans Sisters in the building adjacent to our present building.

Finally in 1986 the village gave us a temporary lease to use the “Romanesque House,” the oldest private dwelling in Vézelay. It is situated along an alley running off the southwest corner of the square that faces the medieval Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene. The last owner and resident of the house, living there until the 1930s, made wooden shoes. Uninhabited, it gradually deteriorated. Much labor was required of the parish to make it suitable for renewed use. The upper room of the house, with its several romanesque windows, has been made into a chapel with an iconostasis, while the lower room and enclosed garden serve for parish social purposes and to house a small library. Because we do not yet own the building, the altar awaits solemn consecration. Though the house is modest in its dimensions, the chapel can hold as many as 60 people.

The need to attach the parish to one of the historical patriarchates was felt early on. The eucharistic community, wishing to become a parish, addressed an appeal to the Moscow Patriarchate. Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk, then head of the External Affairs Department, accepted our request in 1986.

In 1991 we were blessed in yet another way when the Roman Catholic archbishop of Auxerre gave the parish relics of St. Germain of Auxerre, a fifth century saint. Along with St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, St. Germain became patron of our parish. An icon was painted for us by Bernard Frinking and a Liturgy celebrated on the tomb of St. Germain in the crypt of the cathedral in Auxerre. Afterwards a large number of people carrying the icon and relics walked the 23 miles from Auxerre to Vézelay — a two-day journey.

Since our founding, four other families have joined us, a dozen children have been baptized, and a number of catechumens prepared to enter the Church. Our participation in local life, the friendships made there, the daily Vespers and life in the Vigil, have made Orthodoxy — and the cassock of Father Stephen — an integral part of Vézelay daily life.

It is by and large a serene rural life yet punctuated by events linking us to the larger world. We have held an annual seminar in icon painting every year since 1990, with Bernard Frinking as teacher. In collaboration with the Community of Jerusalem, since 1996, there has been an annual conference on Christian anthropology. In 1999, a conference on “Sacraments of Healing” was sponsored by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and led by Bishop Kallistos from Oxford. Another Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference is planned for the year 2000. We hope our parish can become more and more a center of Orthodox life and dialogue.

page updated September 3, 1999

Vezelay retreat photos

The Christ of Vézelay, a Romanesque carving over the main inner doors of the basilica.

Bishop Kallistos (right) and Fr. Stephen Headley.

Bishop Kallistos tells one of many funny stories. Mark Parson and Archbishop Joseph are on either side.

During the retreat, the relics of St. Mary Magdalene were placed on the chapel altar in the former chapter room adjacent to the basilica for a service of veneration conducted by Fr. Stephen Headley.

Liturgy in the parish of St. Germain d’Auxerre and St. Etienne.

Return to the Vézelay retreat page

Prayers for Peace

Nothing is more basic to Christian life than prayer. It is the foundation of all other response, not an alternative to response. Please find time each day to be aware of wars now going on in the world and to pray for peace.

Wars or near-war conflicts are currently occurring in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chechnya, Colombia, Congo, Egypt, India and Pakistan (over Kashmir), Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Mali, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. The list of countries at war regularly changes, but the reality of war is immediate and daily in the lives of millions of people.

Here is a short service of prayer which may be useful to you.

* * *

We thank You, Master and Lover of mankind, King of the ages and giver of all good things, for destroying the dividing wall of enmity and granting peace to those who seek your mercy. We appeal to You to awaken the longing for a peaceful life in all those who are filled with hatred for their neighbors, thinking especially of those at war or preparing for war. Grant peace to your servants. Implant in them the fear of You and confirm in them love one for another. Extinguish every dispute and banish all temptations to disagreement. For You are our peace and to You we ascribe glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

We pray, Lord our God, for all those who suffer from acts of war, [especially for the victims and all those in the struggle in ……………………….].

We pray for your peace and your mercy in the midst of the great suffering that people are now inflicting on each other. Accept the prayers of your Church, so that by your goodness peace may return to all peoples. Hear us and have mercy on us.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Lord our God, remember and have mercy on our brothers and sisters who are involved in every civil conflict. Remove from their midst all hostility, confusion and hatred. Lead everyone along the path of reconciliation and peace, we pray You, hear us and have mercy on us.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Let all believers turn aside from violence and do what makes for peace. By the strength of your mighty arm save your people and your Holy Church from all evil oppression; hear the supplications of all who call to You in sorrow and affliction, day and night. Merciful God, let their lives not be lost, we pray You, hear us and have mercy.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

But grant, O Lord, peace, love and speedy reconciliation to your people whom You have redeemed with your precious blood. Make your presence known to those who have turned away from You and do not seek You, so that none of them may be lost, but all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, so that everyone, in true love and harmony, O long-suffering Lord, may praise your all holy Name.


* * *

Prayer for the Pacification of Animosity

We thank you, O Master, Lover of Mankind, King of the ages and Bestower of good things, Who destroyed the dividing wall of enmity, and granted peace to the human race, and Who now has granted peace to Your servants. Instill in them the fear of You and confirm in them love one for the other. Extinguish every dispute and banish all temptation to disagreement. For You are our peace and to You we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

— from The Book of Needs, published by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania

* * *

During the war, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church directed that the following petitions be inserted into appropriate litanies at Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy:

Into the Great Litany:

For God’s mercy upon us, His unworthy servants, that we may all be protected from hatred and evil actions, that we may have instilled in us unselfish love by which all shall know that we are disciples of Christ and God’s people, as were our holy ancestors, so that we may always know to decide for the truth and righteousness of the Heavenly Kingdom, let us pray to the Lord.

For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans or spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even towards their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

At the Augmented Litany:

O Lord, how many are our foes who battle against us and say: there is no help for them from God or man. O Lord, stretch forth Thy hands that we may remain Thy people in both faith and works. If we must suffer, let it by in the ways of Thy justice and Thy truth — let it not be because of our injustice or hatred against anyone. Let us all fervently say: Lord have mercy.

Again let us pray to God, the Savior of all men, also for our enemies — that our people Lord who loves mankind will turn them away from attacks on our Orthodox people, that they not destroy our churches and cemeteries, that they not kill our children or persecute our people, but that they too may turn to the way of repentance, justice and salvation. Let us all fervently say: Lord have mercy.

Addition to the Litany of Fervent Supplication:

We also pray, O Lord our God, for all those who suffer from acts of war, especially for the victims and all those involved in the struggle in [insert country or region]. We pray for your peace and your mercy in the midst of the great suffering that people are now inflicting on each other. Vouchsafe to accept the prayers of your Church, so that by your goodness peace may return to all peoples, hear us and have mercy on us.

We also pray, O Lord our God, to remember and have mercy on our brothers and sisters in [insert country or region] who are involved in violent conflict. Remove from their midst all hostility, confusion and hatred. Lead everyone along the path of reconciliation and peace, we pray you, hear us and have mercy on us.

* * *

special prayer being used at the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam

Let all believers turn aside from violence and do what makes for peace. By the strength of your powerful arm save your people and your Holy Church from all evil oppression; hear the supplications of all who call to you in sorrow and affliction, day and night, O merciful God, let their lives not be lost, we pray you, hear us and have mercy on us.

But grant, O Lord, peace, love and speedy reconciliation to your people whom you have redeemed with your precious blood. Make your presence known to those who have turned away from you and do not seek you, so that none of them may be lost, but all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, so that everyone, in true harmony and love, O long-suffering Lord, may praise your all holy Name.

* * *

A prayer for enemies:

Lord Jesus, You commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us that we may be truly children of our Father in Heaven, Who causes the sun to rise on those who are evil and those who are good, and rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous: we beg You – fill our minds and hearts with Your Holy Spirit that we may forgive those who persecute and murder our brothers and sisters as You forgave those who crucified You. Help us to repay their evil with goodness that we might not be overcome by evil but conquer evil with good. Deliver us from anger and a desire for vengeance. As Your first martyr Stephen prayed to You for his murderers, so we pray for all those who fight in the name of ISIS: enlighten their minds and hearts that they might come to know You, the only true God, and Your love for all humankind made manifest in Your Cross. Lead them to repent of their many sins, having defiled themselves with the blood of their many innocent victims and having handed their own souls over to the darkness of the Evil One. Do not let them perish. Have mercy on them and forgive them, for they do not know You or the Father Who sent You, and know not what they do. For blessed is Your holy Name, O Christ our God, and to You do we offer glory, honor and worship, together with Your eternal Father and Your Holy Spirit, the one true and living God, always now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

sent to us in September 2014 by OPF member Fr Steve Tsichlis, pastor of St Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California

* * *

A Catholic Prayer for Peace

Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,
the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope.
Hear the cries of the people of [name country or countries];
bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
and comfort to those mourning the dead.
Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors
in their care and welcome for refugees.
Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms,
and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.
O God of hope and Father of mercy,
your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs.
Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence
and to seek reconciliation with enemies.
Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

from the web site of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/prayer-for-peace-in-syria.cfm

* * *

Confession: the Sacrament of Reconciliation

by Jim Forest

Without confession, love is destroyed.

It is impossible to imagine a vital marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If you have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, you confess what you’ve done, you apologize, and you promise not to do it again.

In the context of religious life, confession is what we do to safeguard and renew our relationship with God whenever it is damaged. Confession restores our communion with God.

The purpose of confession is not to have one’s sins dismissed as non-sins but to be forgiven and restored to communion. As the Evangelist John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) The apostle James wrote in a similar vein: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:16)

Confession is more than disclosure of sin. It also involves praise of God and profession of faith. Without the second and third elements, the first is pointless. To the extent we deny God, we reduce ourselves to accidental beings on a temporary planet in a random universe expanding into nowhere. To the extent we have a sense of the existence of God, we discover creation confessing God’s being and see all beauty as a confession of God. “The world will be saved by beauty,” Dostoevsky declared. We discover that faith is not so much something we have as something we experience — and we confess that experience much as glass confesses light. The Church calls certain saints “confessors” because they confessed their faith in periods of persecution even though they did not suffer martyrdom as a result. In dark, fear-ridden times, the faith shone through martyrs and confessors, giving courage to others.

In his autobiography, Confessions, Saint Augustine drew on all three senses of the word. He confessed certain sins, chiefly those that revealed the process that had brought him to baptism and made him a disciple of Christ and member of the Church. He confessed his faith. His book as a whole is a work of praise, a confession of God’s love.

But it is the word’s first meaning — confession of sins — that is usually the most difficult. It is never easy admitting to doing something you regret and are ashamed of, an act you attempted to keep secret or denied doing or tried to blame on someone else, perhaps arguing — to yourself as much as to others — that it wasn’t actually a sin at all, or wasn’t nearly as bad as some people might claim. In the hard labor of growing up, one of the most agonizing tasks is becoming capable of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Yet we are designed for confession. Secrets in general are hard to keep, but unconfessed sins not only never go away but have a way of becoming heavier as time passes — the greater the sin, the heavier the burden. Confession is the only solution.

To understand confession in its sacramental sense, one first has to grapple with a few basic questions: Why is the Church involved in forgiving sins? Is priest-witnessed confession really needed? Why confess at all to any human being? In fact, why bother confessing to God even without a human witness? If God is really all-knowing, then he knows everything about me already. My sins are known before it even crosses my mind to confess them. Why bother telling God what God already knows?

Yes, truly God knows. My confession can never be as complete or revealing as God’s knowledge of me and all that needs repairing in my life.

A related question we need to consider has to do with our basic design as social beings. Why am I so willing to connect with others in every other area of life, yet not in this? Why is it that I look so hard for excuses, even for theological rationales, not to confess? Why do I try so hard to explain away my sins until I’ve decided either they’re not so bad or might even be seen as acts of virtue? Why is it that I find it so easy to commit sins yet am so reluctant, in the presence of another, to admit to having done so?

We are social beings. The individual as autonomous unit is a delusion. The Marlboro Man — the person without community, parents, spouse, or children — exists only on billboards. The individual is someone who has lost a sense of connection to others or attempts to exist in opposition to others — while the person exists in communion with other persons. At a conference of Orthodox Christians in France not long ago, in a discussion of the problem of individualism, a theologian confessed, “When I am in my car, I am an individual, but when I get out, I am a person again.”

We are social beings. The language we speak connects us to those around us. The food I eat was grown by others. The skills passed on to me have slowly been developed in the course of hundreds of generations. The air I breathe and the water I drink is not for my exclusive use but has been in many bodies before mine. The place I live, the tools I use, and the paper I write on were made by many hands. I am not my own doctor or dentist or banker. To the extent I disconnect myself from others, I am in danger. Alone I die, and soon. To be in communion with others is life.

Because we are social beings, confession in church does not take the place of confession to those we have sinned against. An essential element of confession is doing all I can to set right what I did wrong. If I stole something, it must be returned or paid for. If I lied to anyone, I must tell that person the truth. If I was angry without good reason, I must apologize. I must seek forgiveness not only from God but from those whom I have wronged or harmed.

We are also verbal beings. Words provide not only a way of communicating with others but even with ourselves. The fact that confession is witnessed forces me to put into words all those ways, minor and major, in which I live as if there were no God and no commandment to love. A thought that is concealed has great power over us.

Confessing sins, or even temptations, makes us better able to resist. The underlying principle is described in one of the collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Gerontikon:

“If impure thoughts trouble you, do not hide them, but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. But an evil thought, when revealed, is immediately destroyed. If you hide things, they have great power over you, but if you could only speak of them before God, in the presence of another, then they will often wither away, and lose their power.”

Confessing to anyone, even a bartender, taxicab driver or stranger in an airport, renews rather than contracts my humanity, even if all I get in return for my confession is the well-worn remark, “Oh that’s not so bad. After all, you’re only human” — something like the New Yorker cartoon in which a psychologist reassures a Mafia contract killer stretched out on the couch, “Just because you do bad things doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

But if I can confess to anyone anywhere, why confess in church in the presence of a priest? It’s not a small question in societies in which the phrase “institutionalized religion” is so often used, the implicit message being that religious institutions necessarily impede or undermine religious life. Yet it’s not a term we seem inclined to adapt to other contexts. Few people would prefer we got rid of institutionalized health care or envision a world without institutionalized transportation. Whatever we do that involves more than a few people requires structures.

Confession is a Christian ritual with a communal character. Confession in the church differs from confession in your living room in the same way that getting married in church differs from simply living together. The communal aspect of the event tends to safeguard it, solidify it, and call everyone to account — those doing the ritual, and those witnessing it.

In the social structure of the Church, a huge network of local communities is held together in unity, each community helping the others and all sharing a common task while each provides a specific place to recognize and bless the main events in life from birth to burial. Confession is an essential part of that continuum. My confession is an act of reconnection with God and with all the people and creatures who depend on me and have been harmed by my failings and from whom I have distanced myself through acts of non-communion. The community is represented by the person hearing my confession, an ordained priest delegated to serve as Christ’s witness, who provides guidance and wisdom that helps each penitent overcome attitudes and habits that take us off course, who declares forgiveness and restores us to communion. In this way our repentance is brought into the community that has been damaged by our sins — a private event in a public context.

“It’s a fact,” writes Fr. Thomas Hopko, “that we cannot see the true ugliness and hideousness of our sins until we see them in the mind and heart of the other to whom we have confessed.”

This is an extract from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness (Orbis Books, 2002). Jim Forest’s earlier books include Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes as well as biographies of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Embracing the Orphans and Outcasts Among Us

by Renee Zitzloff

a lecture given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002

Although the dictionary defines orphan as “a child whose parents are dead,” I think of an orphan as anyone who either doesn’t have a family or someone to take care of him as a mother or father would. Many children have living parents who have been abandoned by them.

Lately I’ve come to realize that the word “orphan” can be used interchangeably with “outcast.” Outcast is a person excluded from a society or system. This certainly describes many orphaned children. For this reason I use these words interchangeably. Even though many orphans, or outcasts, have living parents or family, they have been left on their own, whether children or adults, and they come in many different shapes, sizes, ages, and races.

What I have learned about orphans and outcasts is partly thanks to experiences at an orphanage in Guatemala I’ve twice visited in the last 18 months. This small haven is in the worst part of Guatemala City, an area of bars, drug dealing and prostitution.

In the midst of this squalor is the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage, refuge at any given time to between 125 and 150 children. It was established by three intrepid Orthodox nuns.

Though I have been involved in pro-life activities for many years, I can say that I have never visited a place where the sacredness of human life shines forth more than this home for brown-eyed waifs in Guatemala.

Partly due to a long-running civil war, Guatemala is an impoverished country with many families in disarray. The “least of these,” the children, are the ones that suffer most. In Guatemala City alone it is estimated that there are 10,000 children on the streets. Sometimes they approach cars to sell sticks of gum or other items. (Any money you give them will be taken away by someone who is using them.) At the Hogar orphanage there are children under seven who have been used as prostitutes. I have been with the nuns when street children have approached our car. The nuns always ask if they would like to come to the orphanage to live, but they must be careful “ the authorities have told them if they take children to the orphanage, they can be charged with kidnaping. Nonetheless they do it from time to time.

Most of the children have been physically or sexually abused. Many have functioned as parents for their alcoholic parents or as parents to younger siblings. Some of the stories are terrifying.

The Hogar is run by three dauntless nuns who grew up in Catholic families but found their way to the Orthodox Church. Mother Ivonne and Mother Ines are native Guatemalan, and Mother Maria is from the Philippines. Their community is the only presence of Orthodoxy in that country.

The nuns intended not to found an orphanage but to live prayerfully in a quiet monastery on a hill with an orchard overlooking a lake. In fact they have such a monastery, but most of the time the nuns are not there. Instead is serves as a place of retreat which they use in turns.

In the guise of the government of Guatemala, Christ came knocking at the monastery door, asking Mother Ines to start an orphanage for a lot of dirty, noisy, most unprayerful little urchins. The nuns gave up their plans for a peaceful life of social withdrawal to experience instead God’s alternative plan: caring for homeless children. Like Mary, they said yes to something that couldn’t have been further from their plans.

The first children they cared for came from another orphanage and fortunately they came with some staff, nannies and cooks. They went to a building that the nuns were not completely done preparing. But, as Mother Ines said, “Once we saw the children, we couldn’t say no.”

What an experience it is to walk into the orphanage. The children know nothing about you, yet immediately they call you “mama” or “papa.” They immediately love you. You don’t deserve this love, but it’s given all the same, and what a gift it is. The moment you sit down, at least one of the children will try to snuggle into your lap. You will hear the murmur of Spanish lapping around you like the an ocean tide. If you are like me you won’t understand ninety percent of it, but you quickly discover that there are many ways to communicate that have nothing to do with words.

In The Ascetic of Love, a book about Mother Gavrilia of Greece, a nun who spent many years caring for lepers in India, it was helpful to learn her discovery that even when she didn’t know a local dialects, God had given her five languages: the languages of touch, laughter, song, love, and prayer. I took heart in knowing that I speak these five languages as well.

At the Hogar, volunteers like myself are told to choose one toddler and be with that child all week, attempting to form a bond and establish a level of intimacy. This is problematic for both you and the child, because you are going to leave the orphanage soon, but it is beneficial for the child, because it keeps his or her heart from becoming hard. Though all these children are loved, and most seem very attached both to their nannies and the nuns, they don’t get as much individual attention or affection as they need.

My eyes happened to fall on a little girl with downcast eyes who looked unhappy. Then she glanced up, saw me, and smiled one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. I was hooked. That was how Yasuri and I became a pair. By the end of the week we would be a quartet, because Yasuri has two older sisters. By the time we left, I was not only attached to two-year-old Yasuri, but also to her sisters, Ancy, about 3, and Madai about 8.

In some cases families or single mothers that cannot take care of their children will bring them to the nuns, but often the children are just abandoned. Many were living on the streets and scavenging for food. Sometimes someone will call the police and report that children are living in a shack by themselves. It’s up to the orphanage to search for any family that is willing and/or capable of taking care of the children. This takes about a year. If no family is found or turns up, Mother Ines will inform the court and the judge will issue abandonment papers. It is at this point that the children are available to be adopted. Few of these children stay in Guatemala. Families in the U.S. adopt most of them.

I am currently helping edit a book of stories of parents who have adopted children from the Hogar. These are love stories, and almost every one of them has one or two events that seem miraculous. I remember one mother saying that she felt that these children are there especially for Orthodox people to adopt. She said, “We are the ones these children are waiting for. Who else has this responsibility?” I agree with her. This is an Orthodox orphanage, and the children are all baptized Orthodox Christians by visiting Orthodox priests (as they have no resident priest). Most of the children participate in daily Orthodox services. They are not forced to go to church, yet most of them choose to be there even though the services are long.

One of my favorite memories was seeing several of the youngest children go down into prostrations, then not get up. They fell asleep, remaining on the floor in a permanent prostration. Although Mother Ines will allow adoptions of children to non-Orthodox Christian homes, she feels that once a child has begun to worship in the Orthodox way, that should not be taken away.

The toddler I had picked was Yasuri. The first couple of days when I was playing with Yasuri, another little girl would come over to Yasuri, hold her hand and kiss her. I soon discovered this was Ancy, Yasuri’s older sister. Ancy was a wild little thing with most of her baby teeth rotted out. (Many times mothers will give their children bottles of sugar water to keep them quiet and fill their stomachs when there is no food.)

One evening we had a singing time. As I was sitting there, a little girl about eight wiggled her way into my arms, and wanted me to hold her as we were singing. This was Madai. We became friends that evening. The next day I learned Madai is the older sister of Yasuri and Ancy. God had brought us all together.

By the end of our week, each of the visiting volunteers was firmly attached to at least one child. If we could have, we would have brought them home with us. Before leaving I expressed my attachment to Madai, Yasuri and Ancy to Mother Ines and asked if I could be their godmother when they were baptized. Two weeks after we left, a priest came for Pascha and my three little girls were baptized. I was not able to be there, but soon afterwards I received a letter telling me that I had become the godmother to the three by proxy. She then told me that they had each been given the name of a myrrh bearer: Mary, Salome and Joanna. What the nuns did not know at the time of the baptism is that my patron saint is the other myrrh bearer, Mary Magdalene!

My most recent visit to the orphanage was this past February. It was a hard week emotionally. I spent almost every waking moment with my three goddaughters and we became even more attached to each other. Yasuri was sick that week. Ancy, skipping her pre-school classes, wanted to be with me every moment. She would weep if we had to be separated for any reason. One day Madai, the eldest, asked me what my favorite color was. I said pink. The next day, every article of clothing she had on was pink! My husband and I and our children are praying about adopting these three little sisters, but they do not have abandonment papers yet, and there other hurdles in our way.

Here are some of the things I have learned when it comes to embracing those who need our help.

Be ready to change your plans for God’s plans. This is a hallmark of the Christian life, isn’t it? Control is a big issue for most of us. We feel that if we can be in control we can minimize pain, discomfort, and inconvenience for ourselves. I think we also believe that the more control we have in the present, the more control we have of the future. I think of the example of Mother Gavrilla of Greece who made it a practice that whenever anyone made a request of her, she would say yes, then wait to see if it was God’s will by what happened next. Sounds crazy? Perhaps we cannot say yes to every request for help, yet if we want to see God working in this world, sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zones. Sometimes I think we should allow God to give us more than we can handle, so we can see how he handles things.

We needn’t be perfectly prepared to reach out to others. When the orphans needed to be moved, Mother Ines’s building complex was not ready. She took them anyway, because of their great need. The nuns would have liked to have everything perfectly ship shape, with millions in the bank to assure future expenses. If the nuns had waited to be ready, probably the orphanage would never have opened. When we are ministering to orphans and the outcast, sometimes it’s best to think small. We don’t need homes with a separate bedroom for each person in the family to adopt a child. We don’t need to have a feast prepared to invite a homeless or elderly person to eat with us. A simple sandwich will do if that is all we have.

Don’t be afraid to fail. I recall Mother Ines telling us the story of a girl at the orphanage who had become a prostitute at a young age. She was one of the leading troublemakers in the orphanage. When a couple asked Mother Ines for permission to adopt her. Mother Ines said yes, but only if they fully understood her background and its continuing impact on her. She wrote them a letter and told them all about this girl, leaving no details out. The couple replied that they still wanted to adopt the girl. They said to Mother Ines, “We are willing to risk failure.” What courage!

Allow outcasts to be themselves. In one of the stories for the book I’m editing, an adoptive mother confesses how she created in her mind what the personality of the little girl they were adopting would be like and made an entire wardrobe for the little child she imagined. Guess what? The little girl turned out to bed quite different! She didn’t like the clothes and wouldn’t wear them. They had to be given away. Perhaps this mother was in part adopting a child to help meet her own needs. We all have mixed motives when ministering to others. We have to understand what our real motivation is. Orphans and outcasts are themselves, not our fantasies. We must respect that.

Be prepared to become attached and emotionally involved. When working with needy people, attachments easily form. Children do things that tug on your heartstrings. The day we left, I spent as much time as possible with the three sisters. Ancy was to have her ears checked, and I asked permission to go in with her. During the week, I had tried to impress my name upon Ancy and Yasuri, because I was planning to write them. I knew Madai was old enough to remember me, but with Ancy and Yasuri I played a game of pointing to them saying their name, then pointing to me and saying my name. We did this over and over again, “Yasuri-Renee, Ancy-Renee,” etc. When Ancy was having her ears checked, one of the nuns pointed to me and asked Ancy who I was. Without missing a beat, Ancy replied, “Mama.” I think my heart stopped.

Do not underestimate how much a seemingly small gesture may mean. I wonder why we sometimes have such a hard time getting into our heads how important small acts of kindness can be. Concentrating on what seems large and important, we may miss many life-saving opportunities. The children of the orphanage remind me of this. These children do not want money and possessions. They want someone to hold them. They want a kind word, someone to sing them a song or blow bubbles with them. They want someone to tuck them in at night. They want to feel loved and valued. They want to give love.

Don’t be afraid to seem foolish. Paul reminds us that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong. God has chosen what is low and despised, God has chosen the things that are not, that He might reduce to nothing the things that are.” (I Cor 1:27-28 )

Orphans and outcasts fall into this category. They are weak. Often they are powerless. Sometimes they have no homes. Some outcasts are the butt of our jokes and we don’t want to get near them. We think we are better than they are “ or we are afraid. Think of gay people. Think of people in prison, think of people who are not white, who have different religions and cultures than we do. Think of immigrants, legal or illegal. Think of mentally challenged and so called “handicapped” people. Think of the dirty alcoholic bum lying in the gutter. Think of Christ.

Often when there is tragedy or people are suffering, these questions will be asked: “Where is God? Why does he allow this to happen? Why doesn’t he take care of this problem?” I wonder; where are the human beings? Where are the Christians? Where are those who will take orphans off the streets and give them homes? Where are we when there are pregnant, unwed mothers that need care and attention so they can give their babies life? Where are we when it is the middle of January and there are homeless families living under bridges and the food shelves are barely being stocked because the Christmas season is over? I think the answer to the question of, “Where is God when it hurts?” is that he is present in the world through you and me.

Recently I was asked, “What face of God should the Orthodox Church show to this country?” I said we should show the face of the crucified Christ. Once again, I quote from Paul “ Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. . . . He took the form of a slave and emptied himself, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” (Phil 2:6-8) Christ shared our human reality so that we could share in God’s reality. He became a slave to us by bearing our burdens. St. Paul exhorts us to have this same attitude.

The glory of Christ never shone more than when he hung on the cross, lifted up for our healing and salvation just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness for healing and salvation of the Israelites. Are we Christians willing to be this face of Jesus Christ to the world? Are we willing to become slaves by bearing the burdens of all? Are we willing to share the reality of outcasts, orphans, and even our enemies so that they can share in our reality of being heirs with Christ in all things?

Each of us alone cannot do this. With Christ in our midst, together we can acquire the mind of Christ and become the body of Christ. We can be the face of Christ by joining him in his slavery. For it was for this suffering world that Christ gave his sacred gift of life.

Renee Zitzloff is a free-lance writer and educator as well as mother of six. She is an ardent member of the OPF and belongs to St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis.

The Witness of the Faithful and Peace in the Family

by Greg Cook

Let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble, and not be surprised when difficulties come; let us bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord…. When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them. This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment-seat?

— St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 6:1-4

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have accepted the family as a gift from God for the purposes of spousal love, mutual care, instruction and raising of children, and spiritual life. In Christ, the family becomes not merely an aggregation of related individuals, but a miniature church and icon of the body of Christ. As such, family members are called to bear one another’s burdens and to be at peace as persons and as a group of persons in communion. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church teaches that the family is central to the gospel; she teaches this truth through holy scripture, prayer and liturgy, the writings of the church fathers, and the lives of its saints.

One theme running through this teaching is the need for families to live at peace within themselves. This requires constant prayerfulness and repentance on the part of all involved. Living in the family, we are known in a unique way in a broad range of experience: emotions, habits, crises and stages of growth. As Frederica Mathewes-Green puts it, “Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life’s greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known.”

We are called to love one another and be at peace both because of and in spite of revelations about our flawed personhood, because we are created in the image and likeness of Our Lord. Quite simply, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us, not according to how we “feel.” This is the Gospel message of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The early Christians received numerous examples from scripture about keeping peace in the family, beginning with the bloody story of Cain and Abel, and including the strife in King David’s family. Indeed, although the scriptures include numerous injunctions about obedience, order and fruitful instruction within the family, they are also replete with examples of the effects of sin and the ravages of unchecked passions. We see that grace, repentance and forgiveness are the keys to peace in the family.

One example comes from the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s envious brothers sell him into slavery. They are upset because their father Jacob favors the young Joseph, who is also blessed with prophetic powers. Joseph endures humiliations and imprisonment, yet when he is in a position to exact revenge, he instead chooses to save his brothers. A second example comes from the book of Hosea. Although Hosea’s wife Gomer is unfaithful, he humbles himself to go purchase her and restore the family. In both examples, the aggrieved party would have been in the right under the laws of their time to either renounce the other family members or exact vengeance. They could also have continued to heap the transgressions of the offenders back on their heads, thus perpetuating the breach in the family. Both Joseph and Hosea serve as types of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile people to one another and to God.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches about peace and reconciliation in the family. Yet he acknowledges that strife may come. He speaks about the Gospel as potentially dividing relatives. Another example is found in what is perhaps the message par excellence about peace in the family, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal squanders his inheritance in a distant land. Finally he returns to his family, but with no expectation of enjoying any privileges as a son. The father welcomes him back, bestowing forgiveness and grace upon the repentant son. Jesus does not stop here, though. He also mentions a dutiful older son made envious of the prodigal’s warm welcome. Grace — precisely because it is undeserved — may stir up jealous feelings in the hearts of others. (Many parents can tell stories of how their children expect the strictest equality when it comes to bestowing and receiving favors or punishment.)

Our Lord’s own family is a good example of the struggle for peace. Joseph nearly divorced Mary when he learned of her pregnancy, before the angel told him of the divine nature of her child. The key to the Lord’s teaching is that God must be the family’s focus. In his epistles, St. Paul expands on the practical ways of loving God and one another: his key is mutual submission, along with the realization that the family is a mini-church or body of Christ.

Through the centuries, the church has expressed itself in worship through prayer. Since God is our focus and the sustainer of our lives, there are prayers for nearly any situation, and some of those prayers deal directly with family life. For instance, in the Pocket Prayer Book published by the Antiochian Archdiocese we find “A Prayer of Parents For Their Children and For Relatives and Friends,” “A Prayer of Married Persons,” and “A Prayer of a Child.” All these implore God to bring peace into troubled hearts and for peace among persons in the family. Likewise, the questions for self-examination before confession help us to see if we have fulfilled our responsibilities towards parents and others in the family.

The Fathers of the Church give us much practical advice on how to maintain peace in the family. St. John Chrysostom declares that parents should create peace in the family by preventive means: to lay a foundation for peace rather than wait for strife to break out and then address it.

“It is helpful for everyone to know Scriptural teachings,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “and this is especially true for children. Even at their age they are exposed to all sorts of folly and bad examples from popular entertainments. Our children need remedies for all these things! We are so concerned with our children’s schooling. If only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord! And then we wonder why we reap such bitter fruit when we have raised our children to be insolent, licentious, impious, and vulgar. May this never happen. Instead, let us take to heart Paul’s admonition to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Most of all, let us give them a pattern to imitate.”

Sometimes people come to belief in Christ later in life and so their children are not raised in a climate of faith; or, through disobedience of God and pursuit of worldly gain, children and parents may become embroiled in strife. Regardless, there are still God-centered ways of conduct which may help foster peace in the family. We see examples of this in the lives of many saints.

The Serbian Saint Sava experienced much pain and suffering due to power struggles and envy in his family, and yet — through God’s abundant grace — peace was restored. Although Sava’s parents were God-fearing and Orthodox, it was not until later in life that they truly dedicated themselves to God. Sava actually fled from his parents to enter the monastic life, but he was later reconciled to them. All three lived blessed ascetic lives in the monastic ranks; Sava’s two brothers, however, fought for control of the Serbian lands. Fr. Daniel Rogich, in The Serbian Patericon, writes that “The state of affairs in Serbia had been quite poor ever since Simeon’s [Serbian ruler and Sava’s father] departure in 1196: there was little religious leadership, and the brothers [sons of Simeon, brothers of Sava] Stephen and Vukan were locked in a terrible fratricidal struggle for political rule of the kingdom.” But the saint knew what he must do to save his family and people.

“When he returned,” the Patericon continues, “Sava brought with him the medicine to heal the entire situation: the relics of his father, [St.] Simeon . Sava invited his two brothers to a Memorial Service for their father. As the casket was opened, before their eyes the body of their father was found to be sweet-smelling, exuding a fragrant oil and myrrh, warm and aglow, looking very much alive, as if he were only restfully sleeping. This act of veneration of their father was the first step in healing the fraternal schism between Vukan and King Stephen. Shortly thereafter, the civil war was halted and a peace agreement was drawn up.”

This reliance on God and veneration of his father also helped heal a breach between Sava and the king over Stephen’s political flirtations with Rome. Stephen eventually returned to Orthodoxy and was even tonsured a monk shortly before his death. (Sadly, his sons also fought for control of the throne, and Sava was only partially successful in reconciling them.)

There is a temptation for believers and non-believers alike to sigh and say of stories about saints, “Fine, but what about me?” The implication is that saints are not really human, hence their achievements are unattainable by ordinary mortals. Fortunately we have other examples from both literature and “real life” about the possibilities of peace in the family.

As is the case with most aspects of life and the Orthodox faith, Dostoevsky gives us many splendid examples of efforts to bring peace to families. In The Brothers Karamazov, we are introduced to a family best described (using a common term from our own time) as dysfunctional. The brothers suffer from the death of both mothers, estrangement from their father and each other, the existence of a malevolent bastard child of their father’s, and haggling over money and inheritance. Despite these impediments, there are efforts within the family to create bonds of peace and to heal old wounds. Book II of the novel begins with a “peace conference” at the local monastery. The family hopes that the holy surroundings will help the peace process. Alas, the attempt at reconciliation founders on the pride of some of those involved and the buffoonery of the father. It is a fateful event because the family goes on to splinter for a time, culminating in the murder of the father. But then grace begins its work. The oldest son, Dimitri, accused of murdering his father, repents of his sins and begins the process of spiritual healing. Ivan, the intellectual, is torn away from his rebellion against God and dalliance with devils. Alyosha, the youngest, puts into practice the lessons learned from his starets Zosima and works to bring grace, hope and love to his family and others he knows. The brothers are reconciled in God, even though they must endure pain and suffering in the process.

Not everyone accepts literature as a valid guide for life, and so we must also look at real life examples of ways to bring peace to the family. Stories told about the hieromonk and starets Fr. Arseny provide us with examples of “ordinary” Christians persevering in the faith even under the most trying circumstances. One such example comes to us from the book Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses. The story concerns Yuri and Kyra, two of Fr. Arseny’s spiritual children. When they asked for his blessing for them to marry, the starets told them, “Carry each other’s burdens and in that way fulfill the law of Christ.” This is what they did over the course of many years. During World War II, Yuri served in the Ministry of Defense, and during that time Kyra became pregnant by another man. When he returned from the war, Yuri came back not only to his wife but her child from adultery. He relates in his story that his parents had not condemned her when she went to them, pregnant. She writes the same in her story. There were hard years for them of emotional turmoil, during which they raised the girl Katia and a boy they adopted. At one point the couple prayed before an icon of the Holy Theotokos, and Yuri’s heart melted within him.

“I knelt before her [Kyra] and said, ‘Forgive me! I have been in the wrong, there will be no more of this artificial separateness. You know that I love you. My behavior has been the result of pride. This is certainly not what Father Arseny taught us, I lifted her up, stood her in front of me, and kissed her. It was all resolved. We had our faith, our children who united us and our love, a gift from God. I had been wrong, and I was guilty before Kyra since I had forgotten the blessing of our spiritual father and forgotten the fact that she was my wife. I had made her suffer and had suffered myself. All that was over.”

Later, Fr. Arseny was released from a labor camp and helped fully restore them to each other as husband and wife. The process involved confession and ruthlessly facing their own sins. In this way peace and harmony was restored in their family. There are similar stories throughout this book and its predecessor involving people forgiving unfaithful spouses and ungrateful children by trusting in God and living in humility, setting aside their own self-centered agendas.

We must not underestimate the power of forgiveness and holy striving as the path to peace in the family. Consider the example of the hermit Abraham, who searched for years to find his niece, St. Mary the Harlot. He found her, forgave her, and brought her back to God’s fold.

Or ponder Alyosha Karamazov’s speech to some grieving children at a funeral, where he urges them, “Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other!”

Finally, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul, who implores believers: “Let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ … And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians, 5:33-6:2a, 4)

There are no guaranteed solutions in this world marred by sin, yet the words of the scriptures and examples from the lives of faithful people provide us with guidelines for building, promoting and restoring peace in the family.

Greg Cook is a writer who lives in the Puget Sound region of Washington State with his wife Mary and their two cats, Benedick and Beatrice. He is a member of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brier, Washington. He works in a library, and has been a teacher, dishwasher, newspaper reporter, cook in the U.S. Navy and a musician. His writing has appeared in a number of publications including Parabola. He has been an OPF member since 2001.

The image is from a Byzantine marriage belt made in Constantinople in the sixth or seventh century; from John Meyendorff’s book, Marriage (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press); the Greek inscription means, “From God, concord, grace and health.”

Living the Beatitudes

by Fr. John Chryssavgis


The root of the English word “beatitude” is “beau­ty.” The Greek term kalos implies attractiveness — literally, an attraction toward divine beauty.

In the first book of the Bible, beauty is central. We learn how God made the world as a “very good” creation (Gen. 1: 31) — a beautiful cosmos. And in the first Gospel, the protoevange­lion of the Christian scriptural canon, Matthew opens his very first verse by describing the message that he wishes to convey as “a book of genesis.” By so doing, Matthew is being faithful to Genesis as an archetype of God’s message or purpose for the world.

In his gospel account, Matthew is not offering a biography of Jesus, but a way of living for a new Israel, the Christian community, the church; he is presenting an ecclesiol­ogy, not a history. He is addressing a people in community, con­firm­ing a way of life. He is telling us that the beauty for which God created and intended the world must become part of our own life style and worldview.

Matthew is addressing a people in crisis. After the resurrection, an apocalyptic attitude sustained the Christian community. The early Christians believed Jesus would soon return. Yet Matthew believed and proclaimed other­wise: that the kingdom of heaven is already at hand, even now in our hands. God is already present in those who live a life of restoration and resurrection in Christ.

To help you appreciate how it is that Matthew could have an alternative vision, let me take an example from daily life. When we look at buildings, the untamed eye will observe bricks and mortar, wood and glass. An architect, however, will perceive beyond the surface appearance; an architect discerns harmony or pressure points. Yet another person will discern the beauty of the spiritual world, the presence or absence of God.

Matthew too is able to reveal a new understanding of our world, new — and at the same time ever deepening — perceptions of the presence of God in our lives. In the beginning, in the book and the event of Genesis, God saw chaos and darkness, and God cared enough about the world to place things in order, to render things beautiful. He created the cosmos. In Matthew’s Genesis, God once again cared for and loved the world. The phrase “in the beginning” — whether in the first book of the Old Testament or the first book of the New Testament — is a symbol for whenever, signifying always. The term “whenever” implies the phrase “in the beginning.” It also includes “every beginning.” This reality teaches us to respond accordingly. Whenever we see any form of deviation, any deformation in nature, in life, or in the world, we too must care enough to respond; we too must love sufficiently to restore, to heal.

How does Matthew propose that we achieve this? Instead of searching for God in empty places, Matthew asked his community to return to and re-examine its roots. He begins his Gospel with three periods, three series of fourteen generations, in order to show how God’s presence in this world, in history, has both roots and continuity. As Orthodox, we would adopt the term “tradition.”

In the genealogy that is offered, Matthew is in fact very radical, hardly traditional — he includes women, non-Jews and a foreigner. He could quite easily have included each of us.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

God’s kingdom is never reduced simply to a matter of rules and regulations. It is certainly not a reinforcement of worldly positions and secular institutions. God’s kingdom is a reversal of attitudes, a metanoia, a conversion and reordering of values and behavior. It means becoming more and more a person who shares in the holiness, the beauty, and the perfection of God. It implies coming under the authority of God, rather than under the authority of this world. Living the Beatitudes signifies our acceptance of this new authority.

Matthew often uses the word “perfect.” The Greek word for perfect (teleios) signifies reaching for a goal (telos). For Christians, this “end” is the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, Matthew is telling us that perfection is a process, a series of stages of progress. It is less a condition of perfection, than it is a potential or possibility. Think of the emphasis in St. Gregory of Nyssa on “never-ending perfection” (epektasis).

And in order to become perfect, Matthew tells us we must become poor. To become complete, he tells us we must surrender, we must be incomplete. If you want, “go sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”

There is a cost involved here. The question is: How much have we sold? How much have you sold? How much have I sold? And are we in fact willing to give up and to give up everything? Are we prepared to sacrifices our preconceptions, our prestige, our positions, our possessions, our power?

Matthew is not romanticizing poverty. Sharing in the kingdom in fact depends on our effort to alleviate the various forms of poverty in the world. Poverty is not good; it is not blessed; it is not a virtue. Poverty is miserable; poverty is a clear indication that the kingdom of God has not yet come.

However, poverty can be voluntary, as with monastics. Voluntary poverty becomes a way of sharing with the poor, a means of giving up whatever gives us security. Indeed, such poverty is more than merely giving up. It is a way of giving! But so long as we justify our ways and our behavior, we shall not appreciate the need to change. We will not understand that everyone has a right to enough of the earth’s resources: to sufficient water, energy, food, clothing, health, a safe environment, and peace.

If God’s purpose is for us to be more and more, then we must admit that to have more than enough is to be less than human. It is to bear a lighter “footprint” on the world that we inhabit. In the Beatitudes, we learn that we must choose our gods; we cannot serve two masters. Remember, where your treasure is, there your heart is also. And our world offers us numerous temptations to find security in consumer goods.

“Blessed, then, are the poor in spirit.” Blessed are those who submit to God, who put their trust in God, who have confidence in God, who are not controlled by their needs or by the demands of this world.

Blessed are those who

– know that they are poor in spirit:

– recognize the need for healing

– admit the wasting of goods

– work to remove conditions that contribute to world poverty

– are ready to change their lifestyles

– reflect on their ways and their attitudes

– work with others to overcome the fears and controls of society

– recognize they will not change (either themselves or the world) by themselves or indeed overnight

– trust that “our heavenly Father knows all that we need. Therefore, seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to [us] besides.”

Blessed are those who mourn: they shall be comforted

When we think of Jesus Christ, we imagine the healer, the one who overcomes brokenness and death, the Lord that assumed the scarred flesh and touched the shattered world. There is a softness of touch, almost a sense of joy, to this Beatitude. When Isaiah speaks of comfort, he says: “Give them oil of gladness in place of mourning” (61: 3). There is an entire literature and theology of tears in early ascetic writers.

Mourning and tears continually touch every level of our life. And Jesus brings healing to all levels of life. Yet comfort is not tantamount to relaxation; it is again a form of restoration. It is in fact a challenge.

How is healing brought to those who suffer, or comfort to those who mourn? First, Jesus notices the brokenness, cares for the broken, and responds to the broken. Second, all the healing miracles of Christ have to do with overcoming individualism, with breaking open the closedness within us and around us: the deaf person is shut off; the dumb person cannot communicate; the paralytic cannot step beyond himself; the leper is isolated, ostracized from the community; the demonized man is possessed, imprisoned.

And how does Jesus heal these people? To the deaf, he says: “effatha” (be opened). To the dumb person, he says: “speak.” To the paralytic, he says: “take up your bed, and walk.” To the leper, he says: “be cleaned.” To the demonized man, he says: “be healed, go to the rest of the community, and show yourself.”

These miracles offer us an insight into the healing and wholeness of the kingdom. Henceforth, if we wish to live by the Beatitudes, we can no longer remain deaf to the cry of those who suffer, or to an environment that groans.

And so we mourn. We mourn because we have betrayed our call to be faithful to God’s plan and authority. We grieve and admit our sins — sins of envy, greed, gluttony, jealousy and aggression — against our neighbor and against the earth. We recognize of course that such external “sins” are only symptoms of our inner disease. However, by recognizing our own brokenness, we are forgiven and comforted. Then, and only then, are we given the power to heal.

It is significant that Matthew’s Gospel shows that Christ’s disciples were given the power to heal as early as in chapter 10. It is not until much later, in the final chapter 28 — and in the very last verse of that chapter — that they were also given the power to teach! The message is simple: when we are in pain, we do not easily receive or give teaching. When our community or our environment is broken, mere words about the beauty of nature will not go a long way in restoring the suffering that we have inflicted upon it.

There is a further dimension to our mourning. Mourning is a condition, not just a singular event. Standing before society’s unwillingness to change, even Jesus is brought to tears. Sometimes even our wrongful ideologies, our mis­guided values are reinforced by established religion and the institutional church. One of the shortest and most powerful verses in the Bible is: “Jesus wept.” Yet this verse is also a symbol of comfort and sweetness to a broken people.

Finally, in relation to the natural environment, the Book of Hosea tells us that even “the land itself mourns, and everything that dwells in it languishes [i.e., sheds tears]” (Hos. 4: 1).

Matthew wrote of birds in the sky; today, oil slicks wash them ashore. Grass in the fields brought joy in the times of Christ’s disciples; today, toxic chemicals and warfare leave the land barren. Jesus assumed that foxes had homes; today, we cannot assume that foxes will survive. Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes; today, 800 million are severely undernourished.

Extending our care and concern to people and to inanimate creation brings good news to the whole world. One teardrop of mourning for our way of life can water the whole world.

Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the land

As the King of heaven and earth, Christ comes not with violence but in meekness. He will inherit the earth and all its power, all its positions, all its prestige. Matthew reassures us that God is found at the very center of the world, with us in all generations. And this King comes to assume authority over all of creation, to reorder all creation from chaos into cosmos — an allusion to the events recorded in the first Genesis.

The average Jew during the life of Christ, and the average Christian disciple of Christ, had one of two ways of responding to Jesus: either with meekness or violence; either through peace or indignation. The way in which we receive Christ is reflected in the way in which we regard the earth or the land.

God and land, divine Word and created world must be integrated. The spiritual life brings God, the land, and the people together in a balance and integrated order.

This means that the land or the earth must never become an end in itself. God is always the source of all worldly resources. Israel laid aside a weekly day of rest in order to remember this, to reflect on where our treasure is. Worshiping the created land, venerating any false god, is a form of idolatry. Yet on the other hand, Worshiping God without assuming responsibility for the land is a dangerous and misleading form of spiritualism.

We may, for instance, pray for the environment, imploring God to do something about the crisis that we confront, yet never changing our lifestyle, which may well be reinforcing the problem. Matthew’s Christ warns us: “None of those who cry out: ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom but only the one who does the will of my Father” (7: 21).

Or else we may be activists who leave little or no room for prayer. Our lamps should not go out because of our failure to wait for God (25:1-3) in silence. Prayer is not a pretext for the evasion of responsibility. Prayer and action are equal dimensions of spirituality. We must understand how Jesus was as authentic when He healed the sick, as when He withdrew to be alone with God.

Our society, however, promotes a mentality that exalts the acquisition of material possessions. Once we are in “the land,” it is difficult to “seek first the kingdom of God.” It is easy to forget that this earth is inherited — it is received; it is not taken, or snatched. It is never ours to own, but only God’s to give.

Therefore, the land and its wealth must be oriented to others in order to promote God’s kingdom, reordering the priorities of this world. Meekness is the blessed way of dealing justly with the land. The meek person reflects a reversal of attitudes toward power, possessions and positions. Other­wise, the land becomes a territory of violence, a domain of division, a realm of mistrust.

Meekness is a way of caring. It should touch every aspect of our lives. It should teach us that God is God, that we are God’s, and that the land is God’s. Thus, the land is ours only to use and share responsibly. Meekness is a blessed correction, a heavenly contrast to the violence which we have wrought upon the earth, a stark opposition to the desecration of God’s plan for creation.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [or justice]; they shall be filled

This Beatitude introduces the fundamental theme of justice in relation to the environment and the spiritual life. “The Lord is our justice,” says the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 23: 5-6). And when we thirst for justice, we know that we shall be filled. “As the earth brings forth its plants … so will the Lord God make justice” (Is. 61: 3-4, 10-11).

Hunger and thirst lead to dependence on God. And God promises that there will always be enough for all. That is justice; that is fairness; that is righteousness. However, like Israel in the Old Testament, we want more than enough, more than our share, more than what is just and fair. We lose our conviction and confidence that God will “give us our daily bread.” God responds to our need, and asks in return that we do not store up treasure on earth, that we do not live in excess, so that others too may have enough. We are to seek to have only just enough, in order to be more and more.

When Matthew speaks of the kingdom, he speaks of justice (dikaiosyne). Matthew uses this word seven times in his Gospel. The opposite of justice, for Matthew, is not injustice; it is hypocrisy. Justice creates community; hypocrisy destroys commonality. Justice creates cosmos (beauty); hypocrisy creates chaos. Justice means sharing; hypocrisy signifies concealing and keeping. The ultimate test of our justice is to ask ourselves whether we continue our acts of piety when no one is watching.

For the Jew and the early Christians, there were three practical ways of materializing justice:

  1. Almsgiving: Almsgiving is not simply a matter of feeling. Almsgiving means responsibility. And almsgiving is not an optional virtue. Giving all that is in excess is naturally expected of everyone.
  2. Prayer: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us that when we pray we must (a) not talk too much; and (b) learn to forgive. Yet when we look honestly at our life of prayer, we have to admit that we do tend to talk too much. Prayer must heal divisions, not harbor anger or resentment. “Forgive us … as we forgive others,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we are not striving to create heaven on earth, then perhaps we should stop praying the Lord’s Prayer. Our actions and our lifestyle will show whether we mean what we pray (“your kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven”), or whether we are merely talking too much.
  3. Fasting: We fast in order to remember the kingdom. We fast in order to commit ourselves to the priorities and the ways of the kingdom. We fast in order to practice offering our resources to the poor and sharing our possessions with our neighbor. Fasting helps shape a vision whereby we can view the world with God’s eyes. It clarifies the purpose and sharpens the focus, so that our view and our worldview is larger than ourselves.

“This is the fasting that I desire: releasing those bound unjustly … setting free the oppressed …. sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked … satisfying the afflicted …. Then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty …. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails …. ‘Repairer of the breach,’ they shall call you” (Isaiah 58: 6-12).

Fasting reminds us of the hunger in the world. The degree to which we resist fasting may reflect the degree to which we contribute to hunger.

Blessed are the merciful; they shall receive mercy

An essential aspect of justice and righteousness is mercy. Mercy is the personal experience and practical expression of God’s love. To be blessed by God is to show compassion, to have concern, to care for every living person and every living thing. We remember in this regard Abba Isaac the Syrian describing the merciful heart:

[The merciful heart] is a heart that burns out of compassion for birds, beasts, human beings, even demons. … Such a heart cannot bear to hear of the slightest pain suffered anywhere in creation.

Blessedness, then, means showing mercy. Indeed, the perfection of God and the kingdom of God are almost synonymous with the quality of mercy. Mercy is a sign of God’s kingdom. This is why we repeat “Lord, have mercy” in our liturgy. We are asking God to be who He is in spite of who we are. We may think here of the parable of the king who forgave the large debt. When the official refused to show a similar compassion to the servant, the forgiving king was angered. Sadly, while the mercy of the master changes the situation of the official, it does not convert his heart.

A Christian cannot win God’s mercy. But a Christian can lose God’s mercy by not extending it to others and to the environment.

At the same time, God’s mercy is also passionate, full of “pathos” (or pas­sion). If we do not show mercy, if we are a-pathetic, if we do not care, if we are indifferent to the cry of the earth, if we remain neutral in the face of injustice: then we do not reflect God’s image, we are not revealing God’s kingdom.

There are no excuses for our un-involvement. We have the information. Anyway, we are deeply — innately and inevitably — involved in one way or another. We must choose to care. Otherwise, we are not being fair; we are not acting in a just manner. Otherwise, we are being hypocritical, self-righteous, and certainly not righteous.

Let us consider one example of such mercy from the life of Christ. In the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes, the Lord encourages the disciples to act for their environment: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.” (Mt 14: 16) “Use your own resources” is what He is telling them. The disciples response reflects ours: “We have nothing here.”

What they are saying is that we have only limited resources. Yet it is the willingness to share that transforms what looks like very little in the eyes of the world into what is more than sufficient. We shall never give people enough to eat. But we must give them from our table.

How many people sit at our table? What kind of people do we invite to sit with us at our table? How many issues do we ignore at the table of our life? How significant — or just how subtle — is our attitude of prejudice?

Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God

Seeing God’s face depends on purity of heart, a purity requiring total commitment to God’s kingdom, an inner attitude of wholeheartedness. Our external actions indicate our internal priorities. “Where our treasure is, there our heart is also.”

Purity of heart is achieved through purification, through asceticism. By asceticism, I mean learning what really matters, not being controlled by the cares of this world, not remaining on the surface level of life, not seeking instant results, not avoiding painful struggle. Asceticism is learning what to care for, and when not to care; when to be involved, and when not to interfere; it is taking the time and making the space to be still in order to “hear” God. Then our heart becomes pure; then we become better disposed to “see” God.

So purity of heart implies a process of stripping the surface. It is an invitation to greater depth. It is making choices about things, about people, about God. Then we value and desire not what we want, but what we need; and gradually we come to value and desire only what God wants. We begin to understand what blocks our vision of God, what separates us from God. We learn to see the world with new eyes. We hear God’s silent words in creation. The very same things appear renewed, “a new heaven and a new earth.”

At this point, it is very much like being in a guest-room by ourselves only to sense that we are in another person’s presence. There, in our heart, we discover ourselves in relation to God; but there too we discover ourselves in communion with the entire world. Then we see Christ everywhere. And therefore — as Fr. Alexander Schmemann liked to say — we can only rejoice. For we have direct and intimate access to the face of God, to the ear of God, to the word of God.

And because we live — or at least strive, desire to live — in purity of heart, we can actually see God. And our prayer for purity becomes simply: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and on your world.

Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God

To understand how it is that we can work for peace in a way that God will call us His children, it may be helpful to remember what it means for Christ to be called God’s Son. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ is called “Son” twice, and the call comes from a voice from heaven. The first time was at His baptism; the second was on the mount of transfiguration. On both occasions it is said: “This is my beloved Son; in Him I am well pleas­ed.” (3: 17, and 17: 5)

Christ is the Son of God because He is in full communion with the nature of God; because He is fully committed to the will of God.

Full communion means sharing in all His resources. Full commitment to the Beatitudes signifies a reflection of God’s unity, of divine peace, life, and justice. Even though Christ’s communion and commitment lead Him to the cross and to death, nevertheless He remained surrendered to God’s purpose, irrespective of whether this meant standing in direct contrast, indeed in contradiction to the way society understood peace and justice.

So perhaps it is important to stop measuring progress or success in the way society regards these. The criterion for success cannot be defined in quantitative terms. For Christ, the end was the cross; for John the Baptist, the end was his beheading.

Now, the emphasis on becoming children underlines another point. Peace­making means building community; and community begins by realizing and respecting the dignity of each person. Each member of the community is precious in the eyes of God. Therefore, when Christ was asked about greatness, He called a young child over, stood it in the midst of those who were gathered, and said: “I assure you, unless you change [literally, repent] and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God” (18: 2-3).

This was a radical, not a sentimental gesture. At the time of Jesus, children were denied human rights. They had no access to necessary resources for basic survival. By their age, as well as by law, they were segregated from the rest of society. In order then to be a “peacemaker,” in order to be called a “child of God,” we are to give way — to defer — to others, out of reverence for the rights of others. We must recognize that all people require the resources of this world.

It is in this light that we are invited to become peacemakers. This also means that making peace is work. It is in fact very difficult work. Yet it is our only hope for the restoration of a broken world. By working for peace, by working to heal the environment, by removing obstacles for peace, by avoiding what harms the environment, we may — at least, this is what we are assured — hear a voice in our heart that says: “This is my beloved. In my beloved — and him, in her, in you — I am well pleased.” What greater joy, what richer blessing, what more abundant grace can there be than this?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice [or righteousness]; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you for great is your reward in heaven

Matthew wished to reassure his community about two things: first, if they lived by the Beatitudes, according to His name, then they should expect rejection; ­and second, if they were persecuted, this would be a sign that they were truly faithful.

This last Beatitude, like the first, is a reassurance that the kingdom of God can be immediately expected.

Christ did not come to spread peace, but the sword, that is division (10:34). Persecution must be expected. Some people will not under­stand the language about justice and healing the environment. Society will not understand; much less will society be “converted.” Even the Church may not understand. What Christ calls a “blessing” is for others a “scandal.” Living the Beatitudes means resisting, sometimes even reversing, the ways of the world. Society will reject both message and messenger, our theology and actions alike. People have too much at stake. As the Prophet Isaiah says: “They look, but they choose not to see; they listen, but they choose not to hear.” (Mt 13:13; Is 6: 9-10)

In response, the Christians become a “remnant” community, a small flock, the leaven. They can begin a new process of hope in a world unwilling to receive the kingdom. Yet they are not afraid; they are not alone. They may rejoice, for He has overcome the world. Fear gives way to faith in God’s promise: “the kingdom of God is theirs.” Indeed, it is ours.

Yet Matthew placed this Beatitude last in order to indicate something more powerful than this. This Beatitude is more than a mere conclusion. It is a clear commission, an explicit command for the disciples to enter the world of their day, to assume the problems of their time, to bring God’s care into the world — no matter what the cost, irrespective of the risk or the pain. That’s why the Lord continues the Beatitude by changing to the second person: “Blessed are those who are persecuted…. Bless­ed are you when … they persecute you …. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven.”

The Beatitude now becomes a direct invitation, a personal blessing, a definite assurance and promise. And Christ later continues: “You are the salt of the earth …. You are the light of the world” (5: 13-15).

We must persist in responding to the poor, in striving to share the resources of the world, in trying to heal our broken community and environment. This is the way in which we shall inherit the heavenly kingdom and this earth. In fact, this is the way that we shall understand how the kingdom relates to this earth. For by living the Beatitudes, we shall hear Christ’s voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you from the creation of the world.” (Mt 25: 34)

Matthew’s new Genesis returns to an echo of the creation story, closing with a reminder about the first Genesis when God created the world; “and behold it was good,” indeed “very good.”

Fr. John Chryssavgis studied theology in Athens and Oxford. He has been professor of theology at St. Andrew’s Theological College in Sydney and at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston. He serves as theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues. His recent books include Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and Cosmic Grace, Humble prayer: eco­logical initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholo­mew. His text on the Beatitudes was the keynote address at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in June.

Reprinted from In Communion, Quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring-Summer 2003 / issue 30. Copyright by the author.

Remembering Metropolitan Anthony

by Jim Forest

“We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

— Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

One of the significant events in the Orthodox Church this year was the death from cancer on August 4th of a remarkable, indeed saintly, bishop: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He was 89. For many years he headed the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain.

Though he was not a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Metropolitan Anthony’s letters and conversations with those responsible for OPF played an important role in the path the Fellowship has followed. He passionately believed that peacemaking required active, warrior-like combat with evil. He had a strong aversion to the word “pacifist,” not only because it sounded with “passive-ist” but because of unpleasant encounters with self-righteous people quick to denounce those who failed to share their ideology. He preferred the phase “a man — or woman — of peace” which meant, he explained, a person “ready to work for the reconciliation of those who have grown apart or turned away from one another in enmity.” He was unhesitating in declaring that hatred is incompatible with Christianity, but saw the use of violence against Nazism in the Second World War as a lesser evil.

He sometimes told the story of an encounter he had during a retreat for university students. “After my first address one of them asked me for permission to leave it because I was not a pacifist.” “Are you one?” Metropolitan Anthony replied. “Yes.” “What would you do,” he asked, “if you came into this room and found a man about to rape your girl friend?” “I would try to get him to desist from his intention!” the man replied. “And if he proceeded, before your own eyes, to rape her?” “I would pray to God to prevent it.” “And if God did not intervene, and the man raped your girl friend and walked out contentedly, what would you do?” “I would ask God who has brought light out of darkness to bring good out of evil.” Metropolitan Anthony responded: “If I was your girl friend I would look for another boy friend.”

Yet, while hating passivity in the face of evil, his own commitment to reconciliation had deep roots in his life. During the years the German army occupied France when he was a physician active in the Maquis, a section of the French resistance, he had occasion to use his medical skills to save the life of a German soldier. Condemned for this act of Christian mercy by colleagues in the resistance, it was an action which almost cost him his own life. He was nearly executed. It was in that crucible of expected death that he decided, should he survive the war, that he would become a monk.

On another occasion, the roles were reversed: it was a German who saved his life. He had been arrested by the occupation forces. During a long interrogation, he was asked what he thought of National Socialism. “I assumed that I was going to be carted off to a camp anyway,” he recalled, “so I decided to tell the truth. I told them that I hated their system, and it would soon be overthrown by their enemies.” After a long pause his interrogator replied: “Quickly, out through that door. It isn’t guarded.” Thus he escaped.

He faced life-threatening situations many times. When the war ended, he found himself among Charles de Gaulle’s bodyguards during de Gaulle’s triumphal entry into Paris. He remembered taking cover from snipers while the General ignored the bullets.

Metropolitan Anthony stood ramrod straight. To the end of his life one could easily imagine him as an military officer if only he changed from his monastic robes into an army uniform. No one could have imagined, when he was a youth, that monastic vows, ordination as a priest and consecration as a bishop lay ahead or that he might become one of the great Christian missionaries of his era.

He was born Andrei Borisovich Bloom on the 19th of June 1914 in Switzerland, where his father was serving as a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps. His mother was the sister of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Molotov, Stalin’s comrade, was also a relative. Shortly before the First World War, the family returned to Russia, but soon left again for a diplomatic assignment in Persia. His vivid memories of Persian shepherds, “minute against the hostile backcloth of the vast Persian plain” while protecting their flocks, made him a convincing preacher on the parable of the Good Shepherd.

After the Russian Revolution, the family set out through Kurdistan and Iraq. When they sailed for Britain in a leaking ship, he hoped to be shipwrecked — he was reading Robinson Crusoe at the time. Instead, he was put ashore at Gibraltar where the family’s luggage was mislaid. Some fourteen years later it was returned with a bill for £1.

In 1923, the family at last settled in Paris, adopted home to thousands of impoverished Russian refugees. Here his father became a laborer while his son went to a rough school. Andrei evinced an early suspicion of Roman Catholicism, which prompted him to turn down a place at an excellent school when the priest in charge hinted that he ought to convert.

After reading classics, he went on to study physics, chemistry and biology at the Sorbonne School of Science. In 1939 he was qualified as a physician.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he grew up with no belief in God and at times voiced fierce hostility to the Church. But when he was eleven, he was sent to a boys’ summer camp where he met a young priest. Impressed by the man’s unconditional love, he reckoned this as his first deep spiritual experience, though at the time it did nothing to shake his atheist convictions.

His opinions were undermined, however, a few years later by an experience of perfect happiness. This came to him when, after years of hardship and struggle, his family was settled under one roof for the first time since the Revolution. But it was aimless happiness, and he found it unbearable. He found himself driven to search for a meaning to life and decided that if his search indicated there was no meaning, he would commit suicide.

After several barren months, he reluctantly agreed to participate in a meeting of a Russian youth organization at which a priest had been invited to speak. He intended to pay no attention, but instead found himself listening with furious indignation to the priest’s vision of Christ and Christianity.

Returning home in a rage, he borrowed a Bible in order to check what the speaker had said. Unwilling to waste too much time on such an exercise, he decided to read the shortest Gospel, St. Mark’s. Here is his account of what happened:

While I was reading the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning-point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God.” It was in the light of the resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the resurrection was to me more certain than any other event of history. History I had to believe, the resurrection I knew for a fact. I did not discover, as you see, the Gospel beginning with its first message of the annunciation, and it did not unfold for me as a story which one can believe or disbelieve. It began as an event that left all problems of disbelief behind because it was a direct and personal experience.

During the Second World War, Metropolitan Anthony worked for much of the time as a surgeon in the French Army, but also, during the middle of the war, was a volunteer with the French resistance. In 1943, he was secretly tonsured as a monk, receiving the name Anthony. Since it was impractical for him to enter a monastery, the monk who was his spiritual father told to spend eight hours a day in prayer while continuing his medical work. When he asked about obedience, he was told to obey his mother. He continued to live a hidden monastic life after the war, when he became a general practitioner.

In 1948, when he was ordained priest, revealing then that he had been a monk for the previous five years. The following year he was invited to become Orthodox chaplain to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in England. The Fellowship had been founded in 1928 by a group of Russian Orthodox and Anglican Christians to enable them to meet each other and to work together for Christian unity. It was at St. Basil’s House in London, the Fellowship’s home in those years, that he began to meet Christians in Britain and to exert a growing influence in ever-widening circles. Shortly afterwards Father Vladimir Theokritoff, the priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Parish in London died suddenly. Father Anthony was the obvious choice to succeed him.

In 1953 he was appointed hegoumen, in 1956 archimandrite, then in 1962 archbishop of the newly created Diocese of Sourozh, encompassing Britain and Ireland. (The name Sourozh comes from the ancient name of a city in the Crimea.) In 1963 he was named acting Exarch of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in Western Europe. By the time of his death, the Sourozh diocese had grown to twenty parishes.

Services in the London parish, which ultimately moved to the church which became All Saints Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens, not only met the spiritual needs of Russians living in or near London but attracted many people eager to experience Orthodox worship or seeking guidance in their own search for God. Many people who had no Russians in their family tree became Orthodox Christians thanks to his sermons, broadcasts and writings.

During the long years of Soviet rule, Metropolitan Anthony played an important part in keeping the faith alive in Russia through countless BBC World Service broadcasts. Perhaps still more important were the annual BBC broadcasts of the All-Night Paschal Vigil service at the London Cathedral. As Matins began, Metropolitan Anthony would emerge from behind the iconostasis to encourage the congregation, as they stood waiting in the dark, to speak up with their responses as this would be the only Paschal service that many in the Soviet Union would hear.

Beginning in the sixties, he was able to make occasional visits to Soviet Russia, where he not only preached in churches but spoke informally to hundreds of people who gathered in private apartments to meet him and engage in dialogue. Books based on his sermons were circulated in samizdat among Russian intellectuals until they could be openly published in the 1990s.

During the past decade, his declining health ruled out trips to Russia but he corresponded with many church members, stated his opinion on controversial issues of church life in letters to the Patriarch and the Councils of Bishops, and continued to preach his message of Christian love and freedom — not always welcome in the post-Communist Russian Church — through books and tapes.

One of the stories he sometimes told late in his life was about a letter he received from a monk in Russia who wrote there were “three great heretics” living in the west whose books were being read in Russia — Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Anthony Bloom. The letter writer asked the assistance of Metropolitan Anthony in finding out more about “this Anthony Bloom.”

For years Metropolitan Anthony was a familiar voice on British radio. The BBC had grave doubts when it was first proposed that he do English-language broadcasts. It was feared that the combination of his Russian-French accent and his refusal to use a script would lead to problems. But his transparent spiritual qualities and ability to speak fluently for a set number of minutes made him an instant success. At the height of his fame, Gerald Priestland, the renowned BBC religious correspondent, called him “the single most powerful Christian voice in the land.”

One of his most memorable broadcasts was a discussion with the atheist Marghanita Laski in which he said that her use of the word “belief” was misleading. “It gives an impression of something optional, which is within our power to choose or not … I know that God exists, and I’m puzzled to know how you can manage not to know.” (The transcript of their exchange is included in The Essence of Prayer.)

Outspoken on many issues, at times his plain speech landed him in hot water with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1974 he was deprived of the position of Exarch for having written to The Times, in his name and that of the clergy and believers of the Sourozh Diocese, disowning criticism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn made by a senior hierarch in Moscow. Nevertheless, he remained head of his diocese. No attempt was made to prevent him continuing his visits to Russia.

His several books were widely read. Living Prayer, a best seller, has been translated into ten languages. It was later reprinted as a section of The Essence of Prayer.

In great demand as a speaker, Metropolitan Anthony spent much of his time preaching in non-Orthodox churches, leading retreats, giving talks and hearing confessions. He regularly spoke in hospitals, particularly about death, drawing on his experience as a cancer specialist. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and from the Moscow Theological Academy.

After the liberation of the Church in Russia, some priests and bishops proposed nominating him when elections for patriarch were held in 1990. But Metropolitan Anthony declined, citing his age. “If this had only happened ten years earlier, I might have agreed,” a relative quoted him as saying.

Earlier this year, Patriarch Alexy II, in an open letter, appointed Metropolitan Anthony to be in charge of a new Metropolia which, it was hoped, would embrace all Orthodox Christians of Russian tradition in Western Europe, and might eventually become the foundation for a Local Orthodox Church.

Citing age and poor health, Metropolitan Anthony had several times offered his resignation as head of the Sourozh Diocese but each time it was declined by the Moscow Patriarchate. Only five days before his death did the Holy Synod finally relieve him of his official duties, handing over to Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo the direction of the diocese.

Few bishops were more accessible to their flock, but this sometimes had comical results. When one parishioner rang to say that “Peter” had died and asked for prayers, Metropolitan Anthony immediately complied, then asked when the funeral would be. “Oh, there won’t be one,” he was told. “We flushed Peter down the loo.” Peter turned out to be a parakeet.

He was attentive to the person to whom he was listening, no matter who it was, to an astonishing degree. “In my life no one else had ever looked at me with such absolute attention,” people would often comment.

He loved going to children’s camps, allowing himself to be drilled and taking part in playlets, usually as a surgeon, dressed always in his monastic garb. “I always wear black when I operate,” he would say with a chuckle.

He would sometimes remark that he was quite prepared to be told he was a crackpot, but added, “Even if I am a crackpot, I’m a lot steadier and more normal than some people you might call normal. I’ve been a doctor and a priest without showing much sign of mental derangement.”

His faded and frayed black robe seemed nearly as old and worn as he was. Once, while visiting Russia, he was lectured by another monk who had no idea that this was the famous Metropolitan Anthony and was angry to see him awaiting their special guest from London in such tattered clothing. Metropolitan Anthony accepted the criticism meekly.

“He always seemed to me an actual witness of Christ’s resurrection,” said a regular participant in the annual Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, “not someone who believed it because he heard a report from a trustworthy source or read about it in a book, but someone who had seen the risen Christ with his own eyes. In meeting Metropolitan Anthony, I can understand why in the Church certain saints are given the title ‘Equal of the Apostles’.”

This text is drawn from various articles and obituaries published since the death of Metropolitan Anthony. Many of his sermons are posted on the web site of the Sourozh Diocese: www.sourozh.org.

from the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion (issue 31)