by Irina von Schlippe
[caption: Three of the works of mercy (giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked) as depicted in a large Romanesque icon of the Last Judgment. It was painted in the second half of the 12th century for the oratory of St. Gregory Nazianzen near Santa Maria in Campo Marzio. It is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museums. Double-click on the image to enlarge.]
There cannot be a Liturgy after the Liturgy without a Liturgy coming first. That is: we cannot go out into the world and serve God without first joining other people in the Eucharist. But can there be a Liturgy without committed service to God preceding it? Surely we must praise God in our work and our life, before we can presume to come and be partakers in his glory at the Liturgy. Unless we engage the Holy Spirit in our work, then whatever we do, however virtuous and useful, will not go beyond professionalism and be, at best, philanthropy. It will still be very useful and welcome to its beneficiaries, but it will not bring us into communion with God.
At the end of the Liturgy, before the final blessing, the priest says the words “Let us go forth in peace,” with the congregation answering, “In the Name of the Lord.” Then comes a final prayer, summing up all our wishes and re-affirming our faith, establishing the bridge between the Liturgy at the altar and the Liturgy in the world, where we are all celebrants. When there are two or more priests serving, this prayer is offered by “the junior priest,” the priest with the most recent ordination, the one who has most recently left the crowd of lay believers to become one of those who serve at the altar and may bring the Lord in Communion to the people. He is best suited for this, as he remembers our lay condition more vividly.
The word “dismissal,” applied to this part of the service, seems to me inadequate. Yes, we are all dismissed from our joint prayer around the altar, but these words are also an instruction, a command, to go out into the world in peace and go about our lives in the name of the Lord rather than following our own whims and desires.
Since the 1950s, I have been instructed to bring together my church life with my everyday life, to “church” my life, and to “church” the bit of the world immediately around me. This expression – “the churching of life” – seems to have been first used by Fr. Sergei Bulgakov and is still the banner of the Russian Christian Movement in France. Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom] talked about the need for it incessantly.
I often talked with Metropolitan Anthony about this, about ways of living as a Christian in an environment which was entirely secular, ways to bring one’s life into the church at all times, ways to bring the church into one’s life outside the times of worship. His words about transforming every breath into a prayer are forever vivid, if difficult to apply. I am not good at all at praying and the emphasis of our conversations concentrated more and more on a practical level. May I call it applied religion? This resulted in a great variety of practical applications, way beyond my personal outreach.
While working at the BBC Russian Service in the 1960s and 70s, I had the opportunity to organize Metropolitan Anthony’s broadcasts to Russia when he seemed to be the only representative of the Moscow Patriarchate who was able to make straight-forward statements to the people in the Soviet Union. This was done using an interview format. I would ask a question and he then would speak for 25 or 30 minutes.
In preparing these broadcasts, there was a genuine conversation and he would talk in practical terms about tangible, immediate events and attitudes. For broadcasting purposes, however, he would give advice on a more general level, advice applicable to all times and all societies – but the very timing and slant of this advice were invariably of immediate value to the listener in Russia, as well as to anybody who was worried about current affairs – as we all were during the Cold War, most acutely during the Cuban crisis, the persecution of dissidents, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Metropolitan Anthony refused to exercise his significant authority by making any political condemnations in his official statements, but he made his position clear at all times, including during these landmark events, about our own personal responsibility for the state of the world.
When Solzhenitsyn wrote his open letter to the then Moscow Patriarch, demanding that he defend his own clergy, his own people and his own country, I was asked by the BBC to beg Metropolitan Anthony to make a statement on this, since the Patriarch himself would obviously be unable to respond. We knew that, in Metropolitan Anthony’s view, Solzhenitsyn was justified. Certainly Solzhenitsyn had suffered enough to have a right to speak out. But Metropolitan Anthony saw that any statement of his own would only make matters worse. He chose another path: he talked about the duty of the Church as an organization and the duty of each member of the Church, the duty, in fact of every single person.
He said that the Church has the duty of ensuring communication of man with God and of God with man and is obliged to ensure that this function is carried out to the full at all times and in all places. This is a most difficult task, and nothing can be allowed to interfere with the full commitment to this task by the Church and by the people who represent her on earth – the task of commitment to prayer, to ensuring that the sacraments are accessible to the people, the task to keep open the channels of communication between God and Man. The Church is not allowed to be distracted from this unique and exclusive duty by any other considerations – even to defend the lives of people, even to engage in charitable works, not to speak of politics. The Church brings the sacraments to people. Its hierarchs are answerable before God for the continuity of Eternal Life among the people, for the spiritual life of God’s people. Therefore no one has the right to make statements in the name of the Church, including political statements, that might curtail the church’s most fundamental activity.
I was appalled to hear this – how could he possibly preach appeasement and silence? Metropolitan Anthony responded:
“All this applies to the Church as a specific organization, living in the world. This does not in any way apply to her living members. It does not apply to a Christian as a person. On the contrary, when a person becomes a Christian, he has duties in addition to what could be called conventional Christian activities: prayer, keeping the fasts, leading a devout and virtuous life. As he is receiving the Eucharist, he is also given the duty to grow into the full measure of the talent which he has been given on earth. This concerns not only his personal and spiritual qualities, but also his professional life and his activity within society. Whatever your occupation on earth, you as a Christian have the duty to develop it to the highest possible degree, to achieve the highest professional qualification and the highest position in society at which you are capable to function efficiently – you have this duty in order to show by your entire life (and first of all by your professional life) how you are working to improve yourself to the glory of God.
“This is the first compulsory step. The next one is the behavior of a Christian in the life of society as a whole. This includes politics, social work, protection of the environment, teaching – any area of human activity in which each Christian must participate in addition to his church and professional life.
“Moreover, a Christian has the duty to be active in society, to move forward and up to the full measure of his strength and to live according to his convictions with such an intensity that other people, who are strangers to these convictions, can get to know them, to share in them, to come alive in their turn.
“Each Christian has the duty to be fully responsible for the condition of the world which surrounds him and has the duty to demand – if only of himself – an active and effective participation in the life of his society, in the husbandry of our environment.”
Metropolitan Anthony was truly passionate in his defense of this exceptional function of the Three of the works of mercy (giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked) as depicted in a large Romanesque icon of the Last Judgment. It was painted in the second half of the 12th century for the oratory of St. Gregory Nazianzen near Santa Maria in Campo Marzio. It is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museums.
Church as an organization for all times and outside time, and he was also passionate about the function of the people, who at any given time are the Church, constitute the Church in its temporary, current, physical existence on earth.
This was Metropolitan Anthony at his most demanding – stressing that God had faith in Man, and that Man had to justify this faith; that Man, that is, every single person, had to accept this trust and justify it.
This broadcast gave rise to a series about God’s faith in Man, and also about some of the practicalities faced by believers in the Soviet Union. This was based on ever-recurring questions received from our listeners, such as: What does one do if a priest cannot be trusted? How does one choose between one’s career and one’s commitment to God?
But after having made this statement on the function of the Church as an organization and of every believer as a member of the Church, once the recording was over and we were out of the studio, he proceeded to criticize me for not having taken part in a protest demonstration outside the Soviet Embassy the night before!
I pointed out that he had talked about the pointlessness of such actions, so why should I have gone? He said that I had missed a chance to put my convictions in action, and therefore had failed to do my best. I was calling to others to take risks while myself remaining in the shadow. (He relented when he heard that I was caring for the children while my husband attended the demonstration.)
There is a Russian saying: “Every initiative will be punished immediately.” One meaning is that you will have to do yourself whatever you propose. If you commit yourself, you must be true to this commitment to the limit of your ability.
In his writings, Metropolitan Anthony’s main topic was prayer. In his several books on prayer, he addressed the world as a whole – every sort of Christian and indeed those who were of others religions or no religion. But his emphasis was different when he spoke to those attending the Liturgy. In his sermons he spoke mostly about the work of the Lord, of the love which the Lord showed towards the world by serving it, and of our obligation to show our love for God by showing love to our neighbor.
In the way he lived and in what he said, he demonstrated that the life of our Savior, and particularly the miracles of Jesus Christ, not only show his compassion, his mercy, his all-conquering, unlimited power, but also show us ways in which we can follow Him actively, physically, not only in word and prayer, but also in deed and action.
All through the Gospel we read Christ’s injunction to us – be active in your love for your neighbor. In Matthew 25, he even seems to show the limits of his patience. We see the Last Judgement as a time when there is no redress, when we have to face our sins and failures, the time when we cannot put anything right any more. We shudder on hearing this chapter.
In our everyday life, however, unless we remember at every step that we are going about our business in the name of the Lord, we tend to forget Matthew 25 and all the other reminders of our duty as followers of Christ.
We may pray, and we may pray fervently, meditating on the wonderful, inspired words of the Gospel or of the innumerable prayers in which innumerable saints have condensed their faith and their love for God – but all too often we limit our prayer to the effort of praying in words and meditation. We do not pray in action. We neglect our duty to bring relief through all the mundane actions available to us when we commit ourselves to our neighbor.
Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is the person who is actually next to us in life, the person whom we have met, the person we come upon by chance, the person who has sought us out, the person we can ignore, destroy or support.
Our Savior gives specific examples in Matthew 25: the hungry, the thirsty, the wanderers, refugees or homeless, the naked, the sick, those in prison. We may shrug and say that these examples are far from our own life. We may say also that we make generous donations to various charities in the expectation that professionals will do a much better job and on a much wider scale than we could ever hope to do.
I am the last person to criticize those who make such donations. But personal participation is all-important as well – all-important to the giver – but, from my own observations, also immensely comforting to the receiver who knows that he has been noticed as a person.
As an example of our own activity in the St. Gregory’s Foundation, let me cite the example of an elderly English lady whose only income is her state pension. Even so, she has been donating ten pounds a month – truly a widow’s mite – to help a young Russian man train as a priest. She agreed to give this support to a choirmaster in the deepest provinces. Her widow’s mite – given over ten years – has taken him through an intensive course in the tipica and other “technical” church matters, also through a degree in teaching music. Thanks to her support, he now has two professional qualifications. He remains a rock on which the choir at the parish’s services stands, and he has grown immensely in spiritual stature, thanks to this exceptionally generous and loving support. He can also earn his living.
As an example at the opposite end of the scale, consider the Russian royal family in late 19th and early 20th century. They not only financed hospitals and orphanages – and the sums involved were staggeringly high – but the women in the royal family trained as nurses and systematically carried out physical nursing duties at these very hospitals. One of the late tsar’s daughters was a most capable surgical sister.
This personal involvement, this physical involvement is essential. It is not enough to pray for the world, you must experience the effort needed to make any change at all. It is wonderfully useful to sign a cheque to benefit a charity, (and without strong financing and strong administration large-scale charitable activity is impossible), and I am forever grateful to those who support us in this way, particularly those who come and see the results of their generosity for themselves. But it is equally useful for one’s soul – as different from one’s social conscience – to do something practical with one’s own hands to help one’s own neighbor.
The Liturgy after the Liturgy means that we bring our faith and the joy of our faith to every action of our lives. It is a great effort, much greater than engaging in long, formal prayers, but only repeated effort makes one stronger and healthier.
Our Lord told us again and again that prayer and obedience to God’s laws are essential, but personal commitment and active love towards our neighbor are the greater proof of our love for God. In my work for St. Gregory’s Foundation, I see the immense difference between the people who treat their charity as a profession and those who treat it as a service to God, or perhaps to a greater good, if they have not yet found God. It is the combination of personal empathy, non-sentimental love, the ability to be joyful together, the natural, organic way in which the charitable person discovers the need of others, which is the hallmark of those who serve God by serving their neighbor.
It is a wonderful way to live.
Let us go in peace in the name of the Lord and in the love of our neighbor.
Irina von Schlippe, a longtime member of the BBC Russian Service staff in London, is the founder of St. Gregory’s Foundation, a charity that provides resources and support to local people who help each other in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
See the foundation’s web site: www.stgregorysfoundation.org.uk. This is an abbreviated version of a talk given at the 2008 conference of the Vicariate of Great Britain and Ireland of the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe.
The complete text is at: www.exarchate-uk.org/Archive/Conference2008/Ivsch.html.
Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50