The Little Ones

This morning I awoke at the crack of dawn in order to make my way down to the daily liturgy at the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery next to the Orthodox Academy of Crete. Back home it was just after 10pm, and here in Crete the night had cooled the air to a chilly 83 Fahrenheit. Comparatively, long sleeves felt appropriate! I arrived at the monastery just as things were beginning and sat pensively in the courtyard. It was filled with quiet men, all observing one another, but without any tension. Chanting from inside the chapel wafted over the scene, projected from a loudspeaker on top of the building. Monks and Bishops were scattered around, sitting contemplatively, or whispering to one another. Several security guards stood watch,  a little further from the Church, standing tall in black suits, with sunglasses and an ear piece. The third layer of people were the journalists, photographers decked out in equipment, held behind a careful line.

There was a decorative trench near the walls of the courtyard, filled with small pebbles. Sitting in that trench I saw the last thing you’d expect at a gathering of the world’s most powerful celibate greybeards: a little girl. She sat playing with the pebbles, pushing them around, making a fine mess. And when she finished, a Council staff member came over and dutifully swept it all up. I took her photograph, which is now the banner image for this article. I was struck by the simplicity of the scene. A little girl played while some men stood around and looked at each other. Somehow, our faith in Christ, the mysterious journey that we and the whole universe are on, brought us here. It was totally and utterly unremarkable, but at the same time fantastic- that a little girl would sit here and play with stones while these great men gathered for great work.  It reminds me of Christ; when confronted with a woman caught in adultery and asked to judge, Christ’s first response is to sit down and draw in the sand. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says “mysticism is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Immediately, the words of Christ came to mind, “let the little ones come to me.” It is these to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belong. I sat there by this ‘little one,’ while just a few meters away the Bishops were all gathering to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I went into the Church to pray the Liturgy, and was again struck by the simplicity of it. The monastery Church was beautiful, but small. There was a small entrance, and then the chapel was split into three sections for standing, before opening up to the altar. Overhead were several large chandeliers, all candlelit, and spun in circles with great joy by one of the monks. I’ve never imagined that I would stand in a small chapel with 10 primates of the Church, besides another several dozen bishops. And were I to imagine it, I would imagine it much grander than it was. The Bishops stood along the walls, just like simple parishioners.

It was touching how they cared for one another. There were many genuine smiles. When a Bishop would walk into the Church, another Bishop would jump out from his seat, kiss the new arrival, and give him the seat. It was like they were playing musical chairs. It was a very familial atmosphere. We all stood there, sweating, in several dozen in a room designed for twenty. The room was so packed that every bow risked knocking over someone behind you.

The Patriarchs entered the Church gradually and without fanfare. No bells were rung, no trumpets played. The Patriarchs simply ambled in, escorted by a small entourage of course. There was something pleasant about watching Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew walk into the service behind me, in the simple black robes of a monk. He walked in quickly through the opening in the Bishops, went to the side of the Church, and stood there, not demanding any attention or distracting anyone from the prayers. Again, it was completely unremarkable, a man walking through a Church, and what was so remarkable about it was its unremarkability.

Even more striking was the entrance of Metropolitan John Zizioulas. At some point during the service, he entered, looking around as if he were both lost and exactly where he was supposed to be. He had the face of a child, a little one, both content and filled with wonder. He walked around the back a bit, and turned towards me. I looked into his face and thought “I recognize this Bishop! Who is he?” He then continued forward, greeting his brother Bishops, when it occurred to me that it was the titular Metropolitan of Pergamon! His absolutely simple manner disguised his face, for I’ve only ever seen him vested elaborately or on  a stage, and here he was, wandering around! The situation turned comic as he went to the front, and three Bishops jumped up from their seats along the wall to seat him. He seemed caught off guard as he refused their seats- surprised and joyful, but unwilling to take the seat of another. As a compromise, they brought out a plain wooden chair for him and plopped it down right where he stood.

What delighted me about this situation was that it wasn’t limited to the Bishops. At one point an old man slowly walked in, bent over on his cane. Immediately, they opened up a space for him along the wall, where the Bishops were sitting, even though not every Bishop had a seat. Then when the little girl from the courtyard came in with her family, a kindly old Bishop came up to them, blessed them, and spoke very joyfully and freely with them. It was the image of Christ welcoming the children.

Taking all of this in filled me with a deep spiritual joy. God was present at this Liturgy, not just in the sacraments, but in the gathering of the assembly, of two or more in Christ’s name. Christ was present in the little ones. How struck I was, then, when it came time for the readings, and I discovered that the Gospel for today began, “Do not despise the little ones” and ended with “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

The Gospel chapter from which this reading is taken is a beautiful one. It begins by asking who is the greatest among the disciples (a question still on the minds of Christians today). Christ answers that it is those who are childlike. The passage then goes on to call for brothers to reconcile. What could be a more appropriate passage for this gathering!

After Liturgy, the first session of the Council began. But before the primates said anything, the Gospel was read. In particular, Mark’s counterpart to this morning’s Gospel was read. Two disciples were quarreling about which was the greatest. In response, Jesus reprimanded them, saying that we Christians do not wield power like those in the world do, lording it over them.

This peculiar Christian notion of power has long captivated me. He who is greatest is the servant. At a banquet (or during a Church service), Christians should be tripping over themselves to give up their seats and to find the lowest position. Power in Christianity is inverted. It is an ‘upside down Kingdom’ as the phrase goes. A kingdom which belongs not to the powerful men, but to the ‘little ones.’

Would the Council bear out this dynamic? The opening session was very calm and hopeful, all things considered. The Bishops all spoke of the conciliar identity of the Church, and expressed joy at being gathered together. The format was simple, first EP Bartholomew spoke for quite some time, then each patriarch in turn made a speech, to which His All Holiness responded. There wasn’t an overt power struggle at play, though there are always interpretable hints.

While mos of the speeches were fairly standard articulations of each Patriarch’s position, a ‘buzz’ was created when Archbishop Anastasios of Albania brought up the issue of consensus. Decisions at this Council are supposed to be made by consensus. Russia, among others, pushed prior to the Council for consensus to mean unanimity. This is controversial, however. For example, during the second session today, the use of the word ‘prosopon’ to describe man was discussed. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos led Greece in voting against the use of the term, while Met. Kallistos Ware and Met. John Zizioulas led Constantinople in voting for it. Since there was no unanimity, no change was made to the document, meaning the word stays in. This voting system creates an abusable power dynamic. Any change to the documents can be blocked by simple dissent. Though if that tack is taken to often, then a primate could veto the document altogether. The tools used in these negotiations are powerful, and it is tempting to ‘wield power over’ others, like those in the world do.

Now that Russia has backed out, will consensus be reinterpreted as majority vote, as it has been in past Councils? These questions immediately arose in everyone’s mind as the Archbishop spoke.

But what stood out to me in the Archbishop’s remarks were something else. Anastasios said that “War is not the opposite of peace, ego-centrism is.” He then said that ego-centrism can manifest at all levels, individually, locally, ecclessially, nationally, and internationally. In order to achieve peace, what we need to do is get over ourselves.

This resonated deeply with me. I thought again of the girl this morning. Why did Christ say his followers should be childlike? Aren’t children ignorant and greedy? Maybe they are. But there is also something innocent about children, something selfless. Children may at times be rather self-centered, but it is not in a sedimented way. Children are open to others. And most importantly, children are incapable of pretension. Children are never full of themselves, self-important, or pretentious. The Optina Fathers identified pride, the chief vice, with pretense. So when Christ says we should be the least, we should be like the little ones, he is saying we should not be pretentious. This draws a line from childlikeness in the Gospel reading, to brotherly love and reconciliation. One who has no pretenses will be much better equipped for reconciliation. On the other hand, if one’s position is only a pretense, then nothing can be done towards reconciliation.

There are elements in this Council which tend towards the more pretentious, away from unity. There are inner and outer forces pushing on this Council, trying to make it more that way. And there are the speculations. It only takes a few minutes in the press room at the Council to feel the pretense.

Today was the first press conference ever, and it was a stark contrast to this morning. While this morning I saw Bishops loving one another, at the press conference, I saw speculation, pretense, and confrontation. There is endless speculation right now about what’s going on and what’s going wrong. Is it true that Bulgaria only withdrew under pressure from Moscow, and that the faithful in Bulgaria are unhappy with the withdrawal? Was Moscow only pretending to be in favor of the Council, but really intended to drop out after all? Is that why they insisted that the Council happen ‘unless unforseen circumstances arise?’ Is it true that Constantinople has refused to respond to Antioch’s appeal for mediation? Will Bartholomew recognize the Kiev Patriarchate? What will Bartholomew do if the Council’s decisions are not accepted by those absent? Who decided that only the Primates should have voting rights, is this a new canonical function of Primates for wielding power? Why did the four Churches drop out at the last minute, after sending the full list of their delegation and booking hotel rooms? Was it a power play? Is Moscow trying to humiliate Constantinople? Is Constantinople trying to circumvent Moscow? Can this Council be called Pan-Orthodox now that some Churches are missing?

Politics, power, intrigue, competition. Its all very compelling stuff, but totally foreign to the Gospel. That’s not to say that none of this is true. There might be a power struggle in the Church. But if so, then it is still foreign to the Gospel. It felt like I was in a political press conference. Questions were inflammatory, and the answers were circumspect. There was a Russian war reporter there, who had covered military conflicts in the past. She was very combative with Bishop Job, confronting him openly, interrupting the moderator, and disregarding instructions. It would have been embarrassing if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen the routine, dozens of times before, only with politicians instead of Bishops. And what did Bishop Job say? Very little. He reiterated the talking points we already knew. He said the absence of the other primates is baffling to those in attendance. On some questions he said simply, I am not the media representative for that Patriarch and so cannot answer that for him. Were these reserved responses necessary for responding to a conflict crazy press? Or did they only provoke the press? The whole dynamic disturbed me.

I felt particularly bad for the priest who was translating everything between Greek and English. He was very good, fluent in both with no accent. Yet, he seemed like a fish out of water in that environment. He had a fumbling manner, the kind you would imagine in your sweet great-uncle. Simple and unassuming, but not particularly magnetic. He was visibly shaken by the whole experience, as in, his he was literally shaking. He translated everything kindly, and even when the reporters were speaking out of turn, he translated, as if out of some sincere desire to be of help to everyone. It was touching. He had a face of childlike innocence, of no pretension. It felt like worlds colliding. The dog-eat-dog world of politics and power, against these simple monks who love their Church and are trying to put it in order.

Of course, everyone believes that there is political maneuvering going on among the Bishops. Only, it depends on who you ask as to who is doing the maneuvering. Is it Bartholomew, trying to hellenize the Church? Is it Moscow, trying to create a sphere of greater influence for Russia? Is it Jerusalem, trying to expand its territory? Is it Antioch, pushing pan-Arab nationalism?

Dwelling on these accusations too long makes my stomach turn. And then I look again at the photo of the young girl, playing in the rocks in the middle of a Council.

Unity is not something that comes with dramatic events. Peace is not made overnight. It is a process that takes a long, ordinary road. Peace is made through a continuous overcoming of ego-centricism at every level, as Anastasios said. It is something that takes time and is as simple in its day to day expression as a girl playing with rocks. This Council will not settle anything this week. Nothing can be settled in so short of a time. This Council is just the beginning. And we should not despair over that. Moscow has said this is just a preparatory Council to a later Pan-Orthodox Council. Bartholomew has said that this is the first Council in an initiative to have regular, global synods of primates. Do these two visions really represent a power struggle? If there is no pretension in these statements, if we are as the little ones, then it need not be so. Moscow wants another Council after this, and so does Constantinople. Where’s the conflict? There will be another Council, and this meeting is just the beginning of the slow, and extraordinarily ordinary process of peacemaking.

The conflict only comes with pretension, with the attempt to wield power over others. But Christ had the opportunity to do that. He could rule all the nations. That’s what the Messiah was supposed to do after all. But he refused. Instead he became a servant. In the face of political power, he remained simple, and was killed for it. Yet somehow, that unwound the power of those who killed him. In the face of these political tensions, perhaps our Bishops, and we ourselves, should become as children. It is tempting to want to respond to power with power. But maybe, when faced with the power play of  religious leaders, we should imitate Christ in being as peaceful as a dove, and as cunning as a serpent. We should stoop down and draw in the sand, just like he did.

Or maybe just play in the pebbles.

Nicholas Sooy,

contributing editor, In Communion.